Hubert Burda Media

Pin-up Girl

Artist RAN HWANG explores complex notions of confinement, freedom and the temporal nature of human existence

To mixed media artist Ran Hwang, art is more than just a mere outlet for creativity — it is a form of solace. “When I was at a low point in my life, it offered me support,” says the Korean-born American through an interpreter. “And through that experience, I realised that art [has the ability to] heal. It is a cure,” she adds.
That ordeal — which she will only describe vaguely as a “tough situation involving people and relationships” — marked a turning point for Hwang. Not only did it change her view of art in general, it also ignited her desire to create pieces that could bring comfort, encouragement and happiness to people. “I really want my art to help others, like how it helped me,” says the Brooklyn-based artist. “It’s about giving and taking. That way, we come full circle.”
It is with this philosophical approach that Hwang creates her intricate masterpieces, which are often made from materials more akin to the fashion industry — a takeaway from a former stint at a New York City embroidery firm.
Take, for example, Becoming Again, her ongoing exhibition at Third Floor — Hermès, in which she has chosen the humble button as a medium to symbolise the ordinariness of human existence. Her key installation features over 100,000 custom-made paper buttons hammered (on pins) onto 21 floor-to-ceiling Plexiglas panels. The result is an ethereal landscape of plum blossoms entangled in spider webs.
Highly metaphysical in nature, it juxtaposes the notion of transience and permanence by way of an accompanying video projection that brings colour, motion and storytelling to an otherwise static display. Beginning as a winter scene, snowflakes turn into plum blossoms and as time passes, the ephemeral blossoms bloom and fade, then fall to the ground. As the scene slowly shifts in front of us, a phoenix rises from the ground and takes flight.
“It alludes to the splendour of life,” she says of the mythical creature known for its ability to be reborn. “Overall, [the installation] explores the meaning of human existence, the cyclical nature of life and the transient nature of the present.”
Standing within the enclosed exhibition space and watching the segment play out, it is hard not to get lost in Hwang’s world. It almost serves as an escape from reality; a calming respite from the hustle and bustle of city life, I observe. “When I see people so happy being here, I am happy too,” she responds with a wide smile. “Happiness is very contagious.”
It is precisely because of these happy endorphins that Hwang thinks nothing of working 20 hours a day every day (or essentially the combined office hours of both Seoul and New York, the two cities she concurrently exhibits in). “Four hours of sleep is enough for me, because I am happiest when I am working — everything fades away; nothing else is important.”
Perhaps it is poetic, then, that she describes the overarching theme across all her works as the freedom and confinement of human existence. “Everyone will always be restricted in one way or another — it could be work, responsibilities at home or our parents,” says Hwang, who grew up under the watchful but artistic eye of her father, a writer by profession who painted as a hobby. “But you can still find freedom. There is a space for it, albeit a small one,” she adds. This notion is alluded to through her use of buttons and pins. She points out that once the pins are put through the button holes and hammered into Plexiglas, they are fixed. However, upon closer inspection, one will notice that the buttons can still wiggle slightly. “So yes, there is still some space for movement,” she says with a chuckle.
Though primarily known for her button art, Hwang reveals she is open to experimenting with other materials and mediums, but fashion-related supplies will always remain at the core of her practice. “I have always been interested in fashion,” Hwang explains. “When I was young, I used to play with paper dolls and even made clothing for them.” It comes as no surprise then that her next exhibition — at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in June — will see her revisit one of her earlier concepts, which makes use of only pins and thread. “[But] I will continue to evolve,” she promises with a grin, hinting at more fascinating developments to come.