Haegue Yang’s labour of loneliness
ART NEWS NEW ZEALAND MAGAZINE
Autumn 2019, pp.72-74
“They do not know the loneliness hidden behind what looks easy.”
In an empty gallery space, a somnambulant voice utters a cryptic phrase. The voice is part of a sound work by Haegue Yang, The Story of a Bear-Lady in a Sand Cave (2009/2011) – one of 10 works that comprise her current survey exhibition Triple Vita Nestings curated by Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh, outgoing directors of the IMA in Brisbane and incoming directors at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/ Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth.
Despite Yang’s extensive international resumé, spanning more than 20 years and including a comprehensive list of prominent biennales and museums, this is the first time her work has been exhibited in Aotearoa New Zealand. Rather than attempting to force an arbitrary consistency – as can sometimes be the temptation in assembling survey exhibitions – the curation of Triple Vita Nestings faithfully represents Yang’s wide-ranging use of different artistic modes and media. The resulting exhibition features a mixture of multimedia/ multisensory installations, woven sculptures, wall works, conceptual instruction pieces and large-scale digital imagery.
The Story of a Bear-Lady in a Sand Cave is one of the more mysterious and non-material additions to the show; it makes an interesting starting point from which to unravel Yang’s enigmatic oeuvre. The narrator, a hybrid bear-human character, describes being trapped in a cave with a tiger companion who tirelessly assists her to create waves made of sand. “I and Tiger take much care to create a look that is as beautiful as waves of water,” the Bear-Lady tells us. “Those who are privy to the beauty of the wave sometimes speak ill of us, saying that we have it easy. They do not know the loneliness hidden behind what looks easy.”
The story is an amalgam of a Korean creation myth and a 1960s novel by the writer Ko ̄bo ̄ Abe that Yang has merged to form an allegory for the routine-based reality of domestic life. Another reading might liken the esoteric creation of sand waves to the solitary creation of art under the judgement of critics, curators, gallerists, collectors and the public. If the production of art is a misunderstood labour of loneliness, it is only amplified by the incessant international travel required of artists today.
Over the past couple of decades Yang has lived this challenging itinerant condition. Based in Seoul and Berlin, she has exhibited work in no fewer than 20 countries. While her ease of mobility is a privilege, being continually in a state of transit also demands resilience. The artist must constantly switch languages, adjust to time zones and become attuned to the vernaculars of different places – not to mention being continually reminded of one’s foreignness and plagued by that unshakable yearning for the familiarity of home. A number of diaristic video works grapple with these tensions of the global art nomad and their effects on the human psyche.
In the video Doubles and Halves – Events with Nameless Neighbors (2009), footage of labyrinthine alleyways in Seoul is intermingled with meandering shots exploring the off- season vestiges of Venice Biennale pavilions. Accompanying this video a pensive English voice discusses notions of appearance and disappearance in relation to gentrification and sense of place. Other videos feature more speculative monologues: free-range philosophical musings, confessional testimonies of strained relationships, self-conscious anxieties, judgements on fellow travellers and even the witnessing of a man being beaten. These monologues are set against unrelated imagery of everyday urban curiosities, the sort that grab your attention when travelling and make you feel like you have stumbled into a parallel reality. Paving stones, or park benches, or mass-produced objects seem banal at home but now, subtly different, appear new and uncanny in a foreign place.
This sensitivity to place and the potential of certain commonplace materials and objects to reveal a type of magical realism has been recurrent in Yang’s practice – in the use of venetian blinds in large-scale installations, for example. One such installation, Lethal Love (2008/2018), has a prominent placement in Triple Vita Nestings. In this work, numerous suspended grey blinds are permeated by slowly panning rays of cool white light and the momentary flare of a concentrated golden beam. Filtered through the blinds, spectrums of light and their correlating striated shadows produce an otherworldly in-between space, perhaps reminiscent of sleepless nights in moonlit hotel rooms while struggling with jet lag.
Two fragrances emanating from small sensor-activated scent machines also pervade the space – one a floral aroma, and the other an unpleasant gunpowder scent that could also be interpreted as stale cigarette smoke. These fragrances reference the killing of German activist Petra Kelly, who was alledgedly shot in her sleep by her partner in 1992, but Lethal Love defies easy narrative interpretation and evades allusion to any specific context. Instead, its melancholic spatial qualities seem to encourage a meditation on perception and on the layers of emotive and sensory information that inform even the simplest of experiences. As one of the video narrators claims, “it doesn’t give the air a justice simply to call it ‘air’”. No, instead it is “an odd mixture of fine dust particles, polluted atmosphere, noise and visuals in bad taste... a jumble of all these elements create certain feelings and... its influence seeps deeply into my subconscious as my routine takes shape.”
Exploring the complicated mixture of psychic, sensory and material experiences that makes our reality has most recently led Yang to head in an even more surreal direction.Umbra Creatures by Rockhole (2017–18), for example, consists of a number of bulbous figures and suspended forms, set here against Multiple Mourning Room (2012), an expansive wallpaper work depicting a fantastical inverted cityscape. Among the sculptural forms is a tasselled tentacular creature that stretches and drapes overhead; a rotund, hairy, three- legged being; a wide-eyed woven figure; and a fetish-like object adorned in brass bells, black turbine vents and fake ivy vines. Vaguely reminiscent of traditionally crafted objects, these sculptural components resist alluding to specific cultural practices and remain aloof in their hybridity.
As a whole Umbra Creatures by Rockhole seems to suggest a gathering of individuals governed by some alien social hierarchy – an idea also found in Yang’s instructional pieceVIP’s Union (2001/2018). To stage VIP’s Union the exhibiting gallery must obtain chairs or tables from people they consider important figures in their community. Thus furnished with an eclectic assortment of items, the entire ground-floor gallery of the Govett-Brewster resembles a humble community centre or second-hand store, not at all like the high-end design showroom the work resembled when it was exhibited in cities such as Berlin, Antwerp, Cologne and Seoul.
The Govett-Brewster’s list of donors includes nationally significant local artists, a TV personality, patrons, prominent business people and iwi leaders but also organisations as diverse as the Taranaki Rugby Football Union and the Taranaki Women’s Refuge. While literally displaying formal artefacts related to the social networks and power dynamics of a particular institution, the work also invites vulnerability – on the part of the lenders, who are sharing a portion of their private lives, and by the public, who may find commonality with those in positions of influence. Though it offers all this, it would be easy to overlook – as in the story of the Bear-Lady – the artist’s lonesome labour in establishing the work’s exchanges. If so, an opportunity to gain insight into another’s reality, and to further appreciate the poetics of Haegue Yang’s work, would be lost in the flow of space and time.