Cologne’s Museum Ludwig presents “ETA 1994 – 2018” in celebration of Haegue Yang winning the 2018 Wolfgang Hahn Prize.
The Korean artist assembles found objects into anthropomorphic sculptures and performative installations in an ironic criticism of sameness.
Her website lists two names: Haegue Yang and Heike Jung, though only one owns the page. The Korean artist, known internationally as Haegue Yang, adopted the double-domain and the pseudonym “Heike Jung”, implying an ironic criticism of the fact that, in much of the West, many people struggle to pronounce her name. This is not a continuation of the long-standing tradition of the pseudonym in art or literature; rather, the two names recall a history of adaptation, an acclimatisation in the transition from one linguistic, cultural or artistic realm to another.
But this comparison is imperfect, simply because one name is not exchanged for another, but instead, both names coexist. They refer to the same person, the same practice, and although they are not identical, they are equivalent (at least online). This “difference in the same” presents the driving force in Yang’s ongoing solo “ETA 1994-2018” at Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst am Museum Ludwig.
In celebration of Yang winning the 2018 Wolfgang Hahn Prize, the Cologne-based museum and curator Yilmaz Dziewior showcase the artist’s remarkable versatility in her first-ever survey exhibition. Over 120 works, ranging from performative objects to lacquer paintings, photographs, works on paper, video essays, anthropomorphic sculptures and large-scale installations, will be on view until 12 August 2018.
Christina Végh, Director of the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover and guest juror for this year’s prize, formulates in the press release:
Yang is always interested in transitions, in a modus vivendi in the transitive, between yesterday and today, between East and West, between modernity and the archaic, industry and folklore, concepts of masculinity and femininity, abstraction, figuration, and narrative. She crafts her sculptural ensembles from her own experiences and paths. Yang’s eclectic composition celebrates the diversity and contradictions of the globalised world. Yang does not fear collisions of opposites; on the contrary, she seeks, forces, and welcomes the inevitability and co-existence of the contradictory.
Contradiction is key
When first entering the exhibition hall, viewers encounter one of Yang’s trademark venetian blind installations. Entitled Mountains of Encounter, the large-scale apparatus is an immersive and sensorial experience, unfolding from a composition of various materials and sensorial add-ons – music, scents, heat, light and air flow from the museum foyer’s open window. Within this arrangement, video essays document the artist’s travels around the world, pondering the emotions associated with diaspora, isolation and what it means to find home. Yilmaz Dziewior, Director of the Museum Ludwig and curator of “ETA”, comments:
The red blinds, which hang at varying heights from the ceiling, are installed expansively in a darkened space. They are illuminated by spotlights moving in a particular rhythm – depending on the light situation, different parts of the installation are highlighted or move into the background, allowing other aspects of the work to light up. The installation refers to the relationship between two historical figures, the Korean anarchist Kim San and the American journalist Nym Wales. It’s about memory, forgetting, resistance and history.
Under the changing light revealed by the slats, an opening and closing takes place, which is intensified by the viewer’s own movement in the space. But this is to be less visually than perceptually experienced; Mountains of Encounter does not refer to a condition but rather to a process. Identity, history, architecture, atmosphere and spatial recognition are in constant flux and reconfiguration.
Here, Yang’s examination of Western art history from Duchamp to Fluxus is revealed. Functional and industrially-manufactured objects, particularly household items, are employed throughout her oeuvre. Yang rose to fame for her drying racks, blinds, cables, brushes, light bulbs and paper envelopes – all of which are, what she calls, “service providers”, things whose entire purpose is to serve. As much as these objects are abundant in everyday life, and as simple as the needs are that they serve, they are largely overlooked. Yang writes them into a new role, translating them into material assemblages and spatial constellations that are process-oriented and undoubtedly performative.
Haegue Yang’s “savage mind”
Walking through “ETA” requires a layered consideration: What is the nature of her objects’ materiality and sensory arrangements? Are they static or moveable? Do they operate of their own agency? Do they emit sound? From where do they come and to what do they refer? Végh notes that Yang approaches mundane materials with a “savage mind”. Her approach corresponds to that of a “bricoleur”, as described by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his seminal book, The Savage Mind. As such, Végh suggests:
Things and materials are misused and adapted to their own sensory contexts, while parts of the original referentiality always remain.
Yang’s “savage mind” is best represented in her well-known anthropomorphic light sculptures and her 2010 series Medicine Men. These consist of a variety of materials: functional and industrially manufactured everyday objects such as clothing racks, light bulbs, electric cables and party wigs. Yang herself refers to these sculptures as “shamans” or “transvestites”, thus pointing to the ambiguous gender and social roles that medicine men take on in histories and religions. The pieces also prompt questions of exoticism and its implementation in cultural identities.
Each eclectic composition celebrates both the diversity and contradiction present in a globalised world. The artist, who participated in dOCUMENTA (13) and is a two-time exhibitioner at the Venice Biennale, does not fear a “collision of opposites”; rather, she welcomes the “simultaneity of the contradictory”. Constellations of figures and sensations emerge from her collection of everyday objects, many of which are taken from a production chain of consumer products, performing for viewers as totems, spiritual costumes or sacred relics.
Necessity and performance
Another central part of the exhibition is Yang’s 2004 Storage Piece. Created out of acute financial need and lacking display space, the ‘sculpture’ is a piled series of Euro pallets, canvases, plastic wrap and packing tape, and was realised during an artist residency at Delfina Studio in London. Yang elaborates on this necessity-based practice:
As a young artist, you reach your limit very easily. I had doubt about the breadth of the piece and the environment of the ‘arts enterprise’. You make a work in one time and place, but then its packed away and shipped to other institutions. And for young artists, it’s nothing but a burden. I reached my limit of logical ability… and when all of the opportunity came, I had to be innovative so as not to limit myself or overreach my ability to produce.
The piece has since been exhibited in several different configurations, a reflection of Yang’s consideration of transitory states. Museum Ludwig, thus, changes the arrangement at regular intervals, providing a striking commentary on a rapidly changing art market and the increasing commodification of art objects.
Yang’s work is riddled with performative elements: “it rolls or can be pushed, it folds up, it hangs, floats, dangles, or swings, it rustles, makes sound, or smells.” In it, nothing is static; everything suggests movement and an unfurling, momentous display of contradiction and transformation. The succinct objectivity and sensorial play that resonates in the construction and materiality of the artist’s work evolves into an immense and even more resonant space.
“ETA” – ‘estimated time of arrival’ – unfurls its title on two levels: it speaks to the time when something arrives, when it finds itself in a static, finished state of emergence. It also speaks to estimation, to an efficacy and mutability that are never exact and always susceptible to change. Yang’s German survey show is conceived so that through sensation, form and interactive construction, audiences move almost imperceptibly and thus engage in an experience where “difference in sameness and contradiction despite dissonance are celebrated”.
“ETA 1994-2018” by Haegue Yang is on view from 18 April to 12 August 2018 at Museum Ludwig, Heinrich-Böll-Platz, 50667, Cologne, Germany.
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