Poetry, politics, and human emotion inform Haegue Yang’s practice—and its relationship to the everyday. Over the past few years, working with nontraditional materials such as customized venetian blinds and electrical devices, the Berlin/Seoul–based artist has created a series of carefully orchestrated installations that operate as microcosms of sensory experiences and are the results of her ongoing engagement with certain historical figures of interest. __Yearning Melancholy Red (2008), the centerpiece of this exhibition, arose from the artist’s exploration of the life of Marguerite Duras, the late French writer and filmmaker. The exhibition, which surveys the artist’s practice from the past few years, also includes smaller-scale pieces that illuminate the larger installation.
Here, exhibition curator Doryun Chong tells how he first encountered Yang’s work, how her relationship with the Walker has developed over the years, and why this artist—who represents Korea this year at the prestigious Venice Biennale—is returning to the Walker for a second, deeper engagement.
I first fell under the spell of Haegue Yang’s work while visiting Korea three years ago. It was late summer, and I was on a research trip preparing for the Walker’s 2007 exhibition Brave New Worlds, which I co-curated with Yasmil Raymond. A fellow traveler had received an announcement of Yang’s solo exhibition in the port city of Incheon, about an hour from Seoul by commuter train. It was an unusual location for a contemporary art exhibition, given the concentration of most of the country’s art and cultural institutions in Seoul. Yet our interest had been piqued, and despite our tight schedule, we decided to devote half a day to make the trek.
A taxi ride followed the train journey, and then we found ourselves in a sparsely inhabited residential area near the harbor. A simple map on the announcement card directed us down narrow alleyways to an old house that clearly had been long unoccupied. There was no reception desk, no attendant guarding the “exhibition.” In the courtyard stood a rusty but working refrigerator, whose door displayed a message of welcome, inviting visitors to look around, have a beverage, and rest. Inside the house, my companions and I first saw a series of modestly scaled rooms cloaked in peeling, moldy wallpaper. The floor had collapsed in places, and in one room, the ceiling had caved in. We began to notice a presence—not people, not ghosts, but objects that seemed to go about their own business in this hideout. In a corner a cluster of candy-colored origami constructions was illuminated by a low-hanging lightbulb, while elsewhere a spotlight highlighted another silvery, solitary origami piece. A clothesdrying rack was spread open as if doing a jumping jack, covered in a powder-blue cloth, and tangles of tiny LED lights were gathered in front of a mirror, as if gazing at their own reflection. . . .
Yang called this exhibition/installation simply Sadong 30—the address of the house. I later learned the building once belonged to her late maternal grandmother, and that after living in Germany for 15 years, Yang knew intuitively that her first “solo exhibition” in her home country needed to be in this house. But even without that knowledge (much less any deeper sense of Yang’s family history) at that point, I sensed that this peculiar form of art-making was an act of bravery—albeit one hidden beneath the physical vulnerability of the site and the materials Yang used, as well as the emotional vulnerability evoked by the work as a whole.
Yang had recently created Series of Vulnerable Arrangements—Blind Room in quite a different setting, the expansive international exhibition, How to Live Together, of the São Paulo Bienal. With a series of “chambers” formed by black venetian blinds suspended from the ceiling—their slats angled just enough to create a hint of mystery when the viewer looks in, and a sense of modesty and concealment when looking out—the installation was also a meticulously choreographed series of perceptual experiences, including a breath of cold air from an air conditioner and the warmth radiating from a space heater. A mystifying yet lyrical coterie of origami polyhedrons and Christmas lights was laid out on a table, and in the innermost chamber, three videos showed banal yet strangely beguiling images (puddles, streetlights, grass growing through pavement cracks) with narrations about the artist’s wanderlust, constantly feeling lost and vulnerable in the world.
Standing within Yang’s musty, abandoned ancestral home, far away from anything remotely related to contemporary art, I began to realize that one thing that characterized her practice was her highly abstracted way of allowing the personal life of emotions and narratives to find their way into a public discourse as art. It was in this sense that I understood Blind Room as a translation of the site and time-specific presentation of Sadong 30, a reflection of memory and melancholy as well as the question of how the private can be transformed into a public space without revealing its contents. I eventually decided to include the São Paulo Blind Room in Brave New Worlds, even though it was not preserved after the Bienal. Yang re-created the installation from scratch at the Walker, and while we never discussed this explicitly, for me this endeavor represented the travel of a work of art—an idea and its continuing story—from a distant corner of a Korean city to the heart of the American Midwest via a Brazilian metropolis.
The Walker became the first U.S. museum to show Yang’s work and also to acquire one of her pieces when Blind Room entered its collection. Since then, the artist’s itinerary has become more hectic and her life even more peripatetic. In London, Frankfurt, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Bilbao, and other cities, she has produced and presented a dizzying sequence of increasingly complex installations using venetian blinds and electric devices. It’s as if she wishes to make the viewer’s perceptual experience—initially fleeting, almost shy— increasingly more involved and participatory. In one of her most recent installations, Yearning Melancholy Red, included in this exhibition, the blinds (here, white and a natural wood) radiate from central structures like fans or flowers. The drama is heightened by roving theater lights throughout the space whose movements are connected, via a control board, to a drum set that visitors are invited to play.
It is often assumed that a curator understands completely an artist’s work and the way his or her mind operates. Though I often hope that is the case, my sense of Yang’s practice has been something akin to blind conviction mixed with faith and a constant self-questioning. Do I really understand her art and her mind? At the very least, can I claim enough knowledge to act as the proper interpreter for the public?
But then, an exhibition doesn’t have to provide all the answers. It can do better, perhaps, by inviting viewers that have their own experience, with the hope that they might embark on a separate journey—just as I did when I boarded the train in Seoul, bound for that little abandoned house.