A flower in plain sight: Connections between Hae Won Sohn’s “Wallflower (orchid)” and the Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim of Singapore

Unspoken Volumes from August 29th to October 8th, 2022, at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Written by James Cho

Resting on the floor of the Gallery sits Wallflower (orchid), a mixed-media sculpture by Hae Won Sohn, among the other wondrous pieces of the Unspoken Volumes exhibition. One of three artworks titled “Wallflower” in the gallery, (orchid) was born from Sohn’s desire to create artwork that stands by itself without a pedestal or wall, while the other two sculptures, Wallflower (thatch village) and Wallflower (King Moth) occupy wall space. Moreover, though it may not seem like it, Wallflower (orchid) is made of cardboard collected from boxes of shipments to Sohn’s studio that she folded repeatedly, as well as tape, pushpins, acrylic, and plaster painted over with a coat of light purple. Like a real orchid, visitors can distinguish the smaller petals flanking the mouth of the orchid and the third, larger petal behind the mouth of the flower. But if you kneel down and take a closer look at Wallflower (orchid), you can see how this blur of materials comes together to create not just the general form of an orchid, but also the organic folds and even the veins of the flower. This speaks volumes about the unity Sohn is able to achieve in juxtaposing both geometric and organic forms through materials of unique origins.

Hae Won Sohn, Wallflower (orchid), 2022. Cardboard, tape, pushpins, acrylic, plaster.

It also speaks to the very essence of what orchids represent in places like Singapore, where I grew up. Notably, the national flower of Singapore is the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid, hybridized by the orchid’s namesake Agnes Joaquim in 1893, itself underwent a rebirth recently. The recategorization under the Papilionanthe genus acts as an apt development in the context of the “blurriness” concept that Sohn expresses in all her artwork in the Gallery. For reasons besides this name change, the Miss Joaquim orchid was chosen as the national flower because: 

“As the flower most associated with hybrids, the orchid is also a symbol of our multicultural heritage. It is representative of the harmony among our ethnic communities, as well as with our many foreign visitors.”

A bouquet of Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim orchids, originally bred in 1983 by Agnes Joaquim.

Mr. Mah Bow Tan, Minister for National Development, at the Singapore Orchid Show, 2006

Through this symbolism, Wallflower (orchid) serves as a manifestation of Mr. Tan’s belief in the harmony of the Singaporean people, in the very same manner in which the mix of cardboard, plaster, and other materials come together in Wallflower (orchid) today. Like Singapore, the artwork as a whole blurs the lines between its materials to become a single being. Just like how the hybridized shape and color of the Miss Joaquim orchid carry this message of cultural unity, Wallflower (orchid) carries the stories of its individual parts that have blurred together into this new design. 

The choice of giving the title of “wallflower” to this piece is quite puzzling, though, when compared to the other two works in the gallery that bear the same title. The formal definitions for a wallflower is that of a European flower that is either yellow, orange, or brown in nature, or when describing a person characterized as being shy or awkward. But unlike Wallflower (King Moth) and Wallflower (thatch village), which are both situated on walls facing away from the gallery’s windows and in indirect light as their name implies, Wallflower (orchid) does not live up to the definition of a wallflower. Instead, it basks in the direct light of two overhanging spotlights on the open floor of the Gallery. Because of this stylistic choice in (orchid)’s presentation that contradicts the concept of a wallflower, visitors may wonder as to why Sohn chose to do so, especially since the other two Wallflower artworks are of similar proportions to Wallflower (orchid).

Regardless, both Wallflower (orchid) and the Miss Joaquim orchids illustrate how a simple yet beautiful design composed of materials with differing origins together represent the many “unspoken volumes” of their past and future. Whether that be the materials of the Wallflower (orchid), or Miss Agnes Joaquim’s hybridization of orchids into the Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim, both capture the essence of harmony and unity in their current form. 

Hae Won Sohn’s work is included in Unspoken Volumes at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from August 29th to October 8th, 2022. For more information on Hae Won Sohn, visit https://haewonsohn.com/. For more information on Unspoken Volumes and related events, visit https://stamp.umd.edu/centers/stamp_gallery.


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