Bioart Ethics And The Weird History Of Korea’s Mutant Cacti

Credit: Soyo Lee

South Korea isn’t exactly known for its balmy climate, but one of the tiny peninsula’s major exports is cacti, specifically moon cacti, a common houseplant that looks like a single shaft of green cactus with a brightly colored bulb precariously growing from the top. While these colorful plants are a common decoration on American desks and European windowsills, they’re not all that common in Korea itself. So when Korean artist Soyo Lee first came across a slew of them in a flower market in Amsterdam three years ago, she was shocked to learn about their origin, and became curious about how this presumably desert plant came from her small, less-than-tropical country. “That was the first time I came across them, just at a tourist spot being sold as souvenirs,” Lee explains in an interview with The Establishment. “And then, as soon as they told me they were from Korea, I wanted to find out more.”

Since that trip, Lee has been fascinated with moon cacti, even visiting the factory and greenhouse where these hybrids are raised for export. “I wanted to bring light to the history of this plant, why it came to be cultivated in this part of the world,” she says.

Turns out, everything about these plants is unnatural, and her ongoing project “Ornamental Cactus Design,” currently on display at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, teases their unique history out. The main feature of the exhibition is a small garden on the floor that spells out “The World’s Best Cactus” in potted cacti, a real slogan the government uses to promote this product, and the library-like exhibit highlights the decidedly weird and lengthy backstory of these seemingly mundane plants.

Working in the realm of bioart, Lee uses living organisms — like these Korean moon cacti — to examine questions of globalization, bioethics, and beauty. I sat down with Lee to talk about the history of these mutant cacti, the ethics of grafting organisms together, and why modern science needs contemporary art more than ever.

Maxine Builder: How did a desert plant end up being a major export from Korea?

Soyo Lee: It goes back to the 1940s. That’s during the Japanese era. At the time, in Japan and Korea, there were cactus hobbyists who were collecting exotic plants from all over the world. One of the cultivators in Japan brought maybe 10 million seedlings of this one particular cactus from Germany, and he found several mutants that had red spots. So he started cross-breeding them to create something that is completely red. And because the plant itself is circular and red, it kind of symbolized Japan, the rising red sun. He wanted to export this kind of plant to the Netherlands, because a lot of Europeans were enchanted by Japanese aesthetics.

But then, as the people who were actually doing the breeding and the grafting work itself were Korean farmers, even after this industry kind of diminished in Japan it continued in Korea. [Korean farmers] discovered ways to do mass production using different species of cacti and to develop more colors. It all became more popular in the late 1990s.

Builder_Worlds Best Cactus
Lee’s museum exhibition

Maxine: What kind of social engagement has gone around with the ornamental cactus project, with the farmers or even scientists involved in its creation?

Soyo: It’s a little bit complicated to explain, but the original wild-type plant comes from Paraguay [and] it has a scientific name. But then, when it went to Japan, it received another cultivar name, besides its original scientific name, to accentuate the person and the intent of why he made this red plant. Then, when it came to Korea, it started becoming mass-produced, and it’s a totally different ecology than the wild-type or the one that was produced in Japan. Now, we don’t really have a name to justly identify this kind of plant. So I wanted to speak with the people who were doing the breeding work itself to maybe convince them that this is a different type of plant than the one that it’s derived from, and that it deserves a different name that could explain its identity better, instead of using the Japanese name or the name from Paraguay.

It’s a little bit hard to convince scientists because they are very proud of the plants that they’ve produced, the various colors, the shapes. They’re very immersed and attached to the things that they produce, and even just a little bit of criticism would offend them . . . So having a critical discussion about why identification — new identification — of this plant is important is a long procedure.

Maxine: How do you try to convince them?

Soyo: People are confused about what it actually is. So [these cacti] do have commercial names, like brand names, but . . . there’s no way of explaining what it technically is. [Farmers] are more interested in how to make this name catchy so consumers will buy the cacti, but they’re not interested in what they essentially are, historically or biologically. So this is the part I think people should understand more, in order to appreciate why [these cacti] look like that.

Maxine: Right. Like, I have one of these plants at home in New York . . .

Soyo: Yeah, they sell them at Home Depot and stuff.

Maxine: Yeah! And I had no idea it was two different species grafted together. I just always assumed that, I don’t know, it was some weird outgrowth.

Soyo: [It’s important] to identify in their scientific name that there are two different species grafted together and also that the red part is an artificial hybrid. I think it should be mentioned in the name, and that’s what they did with other plants.

A worker grafting together the two parts of a moon cactus at a factory in South Korea's Gyeonggi Province, where Lee conducted interviews as part of "Ornamental Cactus Design." (Photo by Soyo Lee)
A factory worker grafting together the two parts of a moon cactus (Credit: Soyo Lee)

Maxine: What has the response been to the museum piece, to your work?

Soyo: This is my first museum show in Korea. It was a good promotion of the type of work that I do, so I was doing more lectures around universities and different places . . . There are not that many people who are doing work in bioart or bringing the discourse into the Korean art scene.

Maxine: It does seem like bioart is a very, very small part of contemporary Korean art. How does it fit into the larger trends of what’s happening here?

Soyo: Most art that is being circulated or being appreciated here is something that’s more material — a painting or a sculpture or a video piece. Still, there is that kind of boundary that people expect in each artwork, but bioart is more performative and the things being created are not permanent. They dwindle, they die. It’s hard to keep them in a museum . . . I think people just don’t know how to accept that as a part of the conventional art that they’re used to.

Builder_ Patricia Piccinini
A scuplture by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini

There are also not a lot of technical or ethical guidelines on how to put these pieces in the museum setting. So, for instance, my piece at the [National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art] right now is being installed with the Patricia Piccinini pieces and other sculptures. And people were very concerned that some bacteria in the soil, where I planted the cacti, might contaminate these pieces, and then they’re going back to Australia and it might not get through a quarantine. So after I installed them, there were these discussions of how we’re going to deal with that, if we should put pesticide on my plants or fumigate them.

Maxine: What was the conclusion of that?

Soyo: Just to let them be. But it’s funny because Patricia’s pieces, it’s about interaction with foreign organisms and living together. So it’s funny that they can conceptually touch each other, they can be displayed next to each other, but they cannot materially touch each other.

Lee's museum exhibit
Lee’s museum exhibit

Maxine: It was really great to have those pieces, two mutants, next to each other.

Soyo: One is even fictional, you know? They’re not real, and they’re not living, but I think people find it more visceral. Whereas cacti, they don’t realize they’re really strange mutants.

Maxine: So what makes one thing creepy and weird, and the other more comfortable in some way?

Soyo: Plant grafting is either practical or ornamental. They can be accepted as something very positive. Whereas animal grafting . . . just because they are moving and have blood and warmth, closer to humans, creates a “yuck” factor. Because essentially, grafting plants and animals, or even grafting human parts for transportation and medical purposes, is the same kind of technique. It’s contextualized differently, people have different ethical standards, and I wanted to point that out — it’s the same technique, cutting and pasting organisms for the purpose of particular groups of people.

In the 1940s, people in Russia tried to graft two dogs together. It was for medical purposes. For today’s standards, that’s grotesque and it seems unethical, but at the time, it was the quintessential medical achievement. So even throughout time, these kinds of standards change, and different parts of the world have different standards. It’s not an absolute.

Maxine: Do you think it should be an absolute?

Soyo: I think it’s all a case-by-case. It really depends on the situation.

cactus 2
An ornamental hybrid cactus

Maxine: That’s an exciting place to be as an artist, to be on the cutting edge of these conversations that are increasingly relevant.

Soyo: The scientific community, the purpose of the community itself is to be able to do whatever they want to do, wherever their imagination takes them, using living organisms. So they have a huge discourse, and the infrastructure set up for them to be able to do this. So nobody criticizes [them] but nobody really looks into what is happening, how they were able to establish this kind of realm. But I think artists questioning them and bringing these ideas into the public, it makes people think more.

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