Photography by Danh Vō
To attempt to define Haegue Yang’s place in the art world is something of an exercise in futility. Yet that’s exactly the exercise that curators had to deal with recently, as the Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst am Museum Ludwig bestowed on Yang the Wolfgang Hahn Prize and prepared the artist’s first-ever survey exhibition, ETA, which runs until August 12 in Cologne.
Impossible to pigeonhole, the South Korean artist’s work is often abstract or conceptual and usually quite tactile – but not always. She has a fondness for ready-made everyday objects and is known for working with Venetian blinds, lightbulbs and bells – but many of her best-known works take other forms, or no form at all. The pieces can range from highly crafted, organically beautiful kinetic installations to “sonic sculptures” to performance readings to bizarre interactive experiences that question where the concept of art begins and ends.
“A lot of people ask, ‘So what’s the topic of this exhibition?,’” says Yang on a recent visit to Hong Kong, “and I have to say, hmm, Haegue Yang is the topic. ‘How to articulate Haegue Yang’ is the subject matter of the show. And how odd is that, for me to objectify myself?” She admits the exercise is a difficult one, given the span of her oeuvre both in style and intention, but, she asks, what is it with society’s continuing need to define, to compartmentalise, to solicit a nice, round Hollywood fairytale?
“I keep saying, give it up! I think we’ve come so far that all these so-called didactics in culture – even kids know, someone just kind of squeezed that didactic out of that piece. Filled in the textbook to fit into that format. I’m maybe someone to say maybe we don’t need that.
“I’m not saying it’s forbidden. I’m saying it’s OK not to have it. My role [in putting together this survey show] has been quite a troublemaker,” she says. As she puts it, because of its linear format, the show is scholarly driven, rather than artistically, making her role explanatory rather than curatorial.
“The dialogue with the institution is very crucial. They’re the ones who do the primary reading through their research of the whole oeuvre and kind of try to articulate, categorise – in media, in period, extracting the so-called major works, which period or category needs particular curatorship. The chronology rebuilds how I grew up, my upbringing, but it also sows the exhibition list with life events: when I’m happy, what kind of trip I made, what kind of material I discovered and reworked, and when.
“The survey show itself contains more than 120 works, starting from ’94 – which is the first semester of my second study in Germany – until now. So it’s my work and somehow my life. I’m feeding them with storytelling about life and work; they digest, they chew and start to articulate. I’m kind of advising them and also learning from them.”
These are learnings that she says she will apply to the assembly of her next retrospective, which takes place in 2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and travels to other cities in the US before ending in Canada. But Yang is what you’d call forever a student. She moved to Germany from Korea after her first degree for the “banal and simple” reason that she didn’t know what else to do, so she decided to study some more. In the early 1990s, she found German schools offered more economically viable tuition fees, with institutions that prized practical studio time and eschewed the grading system.
“Little by little, things happened, no spectacular events or turning points, rather gradual, a little slow at the beginning. It took a while after graduation before I was on track with my career. I had a lot to catch up. In the ’90s still, people were very unaware of Asia in Europe. When I answered I’m from Korea … ‘Like, where?’
“The basic understanding of Asia was just not there in society. They didn’t know if Korea was divided North-South or West-East. I always said, ‘I’m from central Korea, you know?’ They believed Korea was a tropical country with parrots. And it was therefore very tough, but at the same time, I felt free. There was no prejudice. It’s pure ignorance, but no prejudice, because they just don’t know. And I just had to be on my own, so there was freedom, but also difficulty.”
Difficulty has been Yang’s secret weapon. If we were trying to tell a round story about Haegue Yang, this is where we’d bring up Storage Piece, one of the artist’s most known works, created around 10 years into Yang’s exhibition career in 2004 in answer to two specific quandaries: the first, that she had been invited to stage an exhibition; the second, that she had another exhibition ending, with pieces returning home that she had no space to store. She packed up all the returning boxes, which contained 13 of her unsold works, and forwarded the crates to the gallery for display on storage pallets as one work.
What could be viewed as an emperor-has-no-clothes moment became one of the most significant episodes in Yang’s career. Storage Piece sold, and she empowered its new owner to show the work’s various component pieces thereafter as he wished, extending the life of the work but also altering its identity. In 2007, it was shown as Unpacking Storage Piece, a performance act that involved literally unpacking the works stored, which included photographs, paintings and a smattering of sculptures created from objects such as electric fans and plastic stools. In the ensuing years, it has been displayed in various states of undress, adapting to the desires of the owner and exhibitor.
Although this is often identified as a turning point in her career, Yang thinks that her eureka moment came later. “I was bankrupt, so I had to quit and just earn money to pay back the debt. I had a year-and-a-half break, and when I made my comeback I started to work with devices.”
During that break, she worked as a book-fair coordinator and, she says, a successful one at that. With her artist’s work ethic, she was no stranger to 12-hour days. She was focused, practical and functional. And how adept she was at this empowered her in her practice.
“[It would’ve] felt miserable if you’re not good at it and you just stick to it because of the money, but it gave me such an independence that after that I had nothing to lose. I can always go work a bit and then come back. But before the break, I always went to the [exhibition] openings to hang out, and maybe network. [In 2006], after the book fair, I radically stopped doing networking. I just did my job and didn’t care about the scene and being seen. And I think it was very important that I went through this crisis, because I got such an independent feeling out of it, I was a different person.
“Working with sensorial materials was a pure experiment. It doesn’t have a body like a painting or sculpture. I had an exhibition space, and I just installed devices. Fans, dehumidifiers, infrared heaters … scent emitters were dangling down. It was like, what the fuck? But I was able to do it because I was finally able to do what I’m curious about, and without worrying. If it doesn’t work, it’s also OK. But one thing I didn’t want to do is not try. And it was a real breakthrough, a liberation from material and form-based language.”
Later that year, she mounted an exhibition called Sadong 30 held outside Seoul in a set of dilapidated houses forgotten by time and digitalisation. She placed works in the houses but decided that the venue was more integral to the experience than the items they housed.
“You open the door by yourself, you enter it and there’s no guard, there’s no entrance. It’s not a guarded exhibition or institutional space. All this initiation you do as an audience is so different as a ritual than what you usually do in order to go to gallery or museum. There’s so much structure these days, it’s hard as an audience to empower your own act. What you also see there is not the piece, it’s an activation of a place that resisted conventional time and ageing. It felt a bit existential – it was about to collapse, it was dusty, the spiders’ webs were all over.
“You see what was installed, but what I also considered I installed was reconnecting the electricity, registering the house again because the address was lost. When I started to ask for reconnection of water they said, ‘I cannot find the address in our system.’ And you feel it when you’re there [at the exhibition], because you had the initiative to go there without so much assistance from an art institution or the sort of user-friendly devices you find in an art enterprise today. After what I’ve gone through as a young artist, these kinds of exhibitions really assure you that, OK, I can do it. You know how much you can take.”
It’s been a decade and change since Sadong 30, and Yang is now in a very different place in her career, having shown at various international museums and biennials and gained representation from reputed galleries such as Kukje Gallery in Seoul. In the ensuing years, besides finding her critical footing, she’s achieved financial stability. Is that a factor that could stunt the development of her practice?
She points to a Rolex watch on her right, dominant wrist. “The vulnerability I would like to keep and cultivate is not deleted by material security. But I’m still very aware that it also plays a role, so this Rolex was a conceptual purchase; in fact, it shows the wrong time. I’m right handed and it’s very uncomfortable, it always scratches.
“I usually don’t buy expensive stuff to own, but this, I bought it as a reminder of where I am, [and] all the danger that can come along, including that I might want to go back to being a bohemian artist, but I can’t. I bought this through the inspiration of my colleague’s art piece, [in which] Rolex was the symbol of the dream of immigrants. And I found this story very compelling, this old immigrant mindset. That’s another identity I do believe I have in me, this immigrant artist.”
Empathising strongly with the immigrant artist, Yang is also very seduced by America, which is where her next retrospective will be. “[Museum] Ludwig is meaningful in the sense that it’s in Germany, I know the society and speak the language fluently, and I have a very delicate relationship with Germany so it’s really exciting. And for a different reason, placing a survey show in North America is interesting because I have more distance.
“But North America for me has always been much more positive, because I feel more free, because I don’t need to fight so much like [I do] in Europe. Asia and Europe were like my main battlefields. I’ve had to fight against prejudice or [resist] pressure to narrow me down. In North America, I was always more relaxed – it was a generous place to me, I could unfold differently, and also it’s a society made of immigrants.
“I’ve been prolific enough that it’s possible to make a totally different version [of a retrospective]. And I think having these two next to each other, and going through [them] intensively, it could be a different turning point. Maybe I will be a different artist after these two shows. Maybe it will mature me.”
For now, she’s still enamoured of the Venetian blinds, the artificial straw and the small bells that have been her favoured tropes for so many years. “If I could, I would love to work more with [found] wood carvings. Maybe I should go to Alibaba. It’s funny that the first wood carving I used, I found the piece in South Korea, but soon after, I realised that it had completely disappeared. It’s very difficult to source any more. The item was in vogue in the ’80s, such an interesting material because it’s such an ugly aesthetic. It’s regarded as kind of bad taste. I’m interested in that kind of B-class hobby. It’s classified as an aesthetic exercise, but it’s considered in low or bad taste.
“It’s like fashion, you need fabric, you need artisans who do patterns and sewing and embroidery. You need that infrastructure around you, and that type of manual manufacturing is getting very difficult [to find] all over the world. As an artist I really appreciate craftsmanship that is very much in disappearance. Sometimes I also like the kind of rough craftsmanship – it’s not high end, it’s the best of your neighbourhood.” The bells she uses, for example, are made by a medium-sized family business in Germany which have not diverged from its business product in four generations.
“It’s not vintage, it’s not antique, It’s an industrialised bell. But [the family] are proud, they have ethics, they have not done anything else. This good-enough level is what I’m deeply, genuinely interested in, even in craftsmanship. I honour this level, and that level is even more in danger. Because who can survive is the national treasure. The same way I prefer to work with cheap, strange industrial materials or ready-mades. If I use craftsmanship, I don’t want to go high end. But I don’t know what to call this quality that they deliver.”
It’s not something she feels compelled to define, just as, in the end, Museum Ludwig also decided to avoid pigeonholing Yang’s practice, choosing instead to state simply, “With her diverse oeuvre, Yang adeptly avoids clear attributions.”
This isn’t the age for sweeping statements and superlatives, and Yang is insistent that we shouldn’t try to read the world through her lens. It’s enough, she thinks, that when newcomers approach her work, they get that they don’t get it. “I do believe that artists are more than just exhibition makers. But I don’t want to be authoritative. Some artists do, I understand it, but I’m not attracted to it because it’s so bold. It’s about water, air and earth … I’m not touched by it any more, this grand narrative, this boldness of rendering the world by one genius mind. It’s not attractive to me.
“It’s not about superimposing my artistic creative ideas on the world. I think that era is over. It’s more about sensitivities we can bring, and being responsive. Of course, you have to be insightful – but it’s not a superimposition of your insight.”