In 1987, Chai immigrated to New York City from South Korea as a teenager without knowing English. Looking back, she has described that experience as feeling untethered to any internal compass that she could use to navigate her place in a new country with a new language. She visually explains these experiences to us by reinterpreting the Korean language’s characters in photographs that enable us to see the contradictions of visual and verbal communication. Her images rest in the space between intellect and intuition. Chai’s curiosity about the interior space of her tool—the large format camera, comparable to the interior space of a mouth—leads to the idea of the camera obscura, a darkened room with a small opening to the world.
Chai uses optics (focal length, perspective, perception, and magnification) to pin down the marks, rubbings, and paintings on her studio walls. The overall effect is a collage of ideas, with an efficient yet complicated economy of picture making with intentional gaps. These gaps can describe the moment right before the sound of a word comes out of the interior space of the mouth. One’s mouth may understand and sound out words, but one’s conscious knowledge of their meaning may not be fully there yet. This liminal space is the punctuated strength and slippery ambiguity of her photographs. Chai is an artist who remains open and disciplined, committing to the mindset of the child at odds with that of the adult. The photographs born from this are restrained but not withholding.
Sophia Chai was born in Busan, South Korea. She received her BA in chemistry from the University of Chicago and earned her MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Chai has presented her work widely at sites including the A.I.R. Gallery, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Knockdown Center, Marinaro Gallery and Tiger Strikes Asteroid. Sole exhibitions include 106 Green Gallery in New York City (2016), Rochester Art Center in Minnesota (2020), and Hair+Nails Gallery in Minneapolis (2020, 2023). Chai has received financial support from the Jerome Foundations (2019-2020), Minnesota Stare Arts Board (2020, 2022, and 2023), and Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council (2019). The City of Rochester and Destinations Medical Center have commissioned her first permanent public outdoor art project, which will be completed in early 2024. Chai is presented by Hair+Nails Gallery. She lives and works in Rochester, MN.