Jihae Hwang (황지해) is a leading environmental artist and garden designer from Korea who has been working for more than 25 years making gardens, installations and events around the world. Her most recognized work in the UK until now was her 2012 President's Award 'DMZ Garden' at Chelsea Flower Show – a poignant and moving expression of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
This year, she is back at Chelsea after 10 years with her Gold-winning landscape garden 'A Letter from a Million Years Past' (백만년전에 날아온 편지), which was inspired by Jirisan, a famous mountain in South Korea also known there as the 'Mother Mountain'. The garden focuses on the role of medicinal plants and aims to convey the meaning of biodiversity and the preservation of species through the growth of medicinal plants in a primitive environment. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs until 27 May this year.
KBCE was delighted to meet Jihae Hwang for an interview inside her garden's mountain hut/traditional medicine drying tower at the Chelsea Flower Show on May 25, 2023 where we were served some delicious wild ginseng tea.
Interviewer: How long did it take you to build the whole garden for this flower show?
Jihae Hwang: Three weeks. Just three weeks. And one year to plan it.
I: Wow. That's not a lot of time. And did you ship all the materials over from Korea?
JH: Actually I was looking for some supplier in England. And one Welshman actually imported Korean seeds and grew plants for 30 years and he supplied them for us. Almost 60% of it.
I: And what about the other 40%?
JH: The rest came from Scotland...some huge rocks. And two large trees are from Belgium. The other plants came from a nursery in England.
I: So it's a Korean garden that uses non-Korean materials. It's a kind of fusion, isn't it?
JH: That's a very good question. Here is England, but how can I make a Korean garden? It's very difficult. But I think nature is essentially the same all over the world. We have similar species of plants. I can find them everywhere in England. But we also have some special plants and endangered plants. For example, the Kirengeshoma Koreana is a very important plant. They need protection and the Korean government has done that.
I: It's very interesting because when I came here, I felt like I was in Korea. But you made everything using non-Korean materials.
JH: Yes, you know, almost everyone who visits here stays for just around 10 minutes. But I prepared for a whole year. And we worked on the site for 3 weeks.
I: And I heard you won the Gold prize for this garden, right?
JH: That was brilliant! But...but, I wanted to win the Best Show Garden prize! Because our garden is very special. I have a very strong team. All the other gardens here are flat, but ours is like a mountain. A lot of money went into it. And many people. And a lot of effort. Some of the stones are so heavy. And this drying tower was built by Alex Gibbons from Cumbria, who has also worked with King Charles.
I: You previously participated in the Chelsea Flower Show two times already. How does this garden differ from the others you did?
JH: Well, you know, my planting style is natural gardening style. So they are all similar, but different as well. To me, the mountain is like a god. And I wanted to move a Korean mountain to here. And I think we succeeded. The connection between people and mountains is very important. And for pharmacies and traditional medicine, we rely on the mountain. It has been like that for a very long time. So I love mountains and I think we need primitive landscapes for the environment and for our health. Every plant can potentially be used as medicine. We have to respect nature.
I: This garden is based on the landscape of Mt. Jiri (지리산). Why did you choose that mountain in particular?
JH: Because it is like our 'first land'. It is the oldest mountain in Korea. And the last remaining primitive land.
I: And I heard you met King Charles, and he gave you a hug, which is quite unusual and became a hot topic in the news. Did you ask to hug him?
JH: Yes, actually I didn't know the proper etiquette [when meeting royalty]. And I don't speak English well. But he stayed here for seven minutes. And he talked about many things, but I couldn't really understand him. Anyway, the royals do not usually come inside the gardens here due to security concerns, but the King came into my garden, so I was very grateful. But I was not allowed to give him any gifts, so I thought the only thing I could give him would be a hug. Everyone around me said 'nooo', and I was panicking, but thankfully he said, 'of course', so I was relieved. And then the BBC told me that was a very special moment because it doesn't often happen.
I: So, can I get a hug from you too? [laughs]
JH: Of course! I love hugging. [laughs]
I: What's next for you? Any special plans? And what will happen to this garden after the show is over?
JH: Yes, I have a big plan. But it's a secret for now so you will have to wait and find out what it is. As for this garden, it will be moved to Surrey. It was bought by a private buyer, and the money will go to charity.
I: Thank you for all your hard work. We certainly look forward to your future projects!
-Interview and transcription by Timothy Holm (firstname.lastname@example.org), with interpretation and photos by Justina Jang.
The hands of a hard worker (photo by Timothy Holm)