Haegue Yang

The South Korean artist discusses her work with her friend and fellow artist, Heman Chong

By Heman Chong

The Intermediate – Triple Sphere on Pyramid Totem, 2015, artificial straw, steel stand, powder coating, casters, Indian bells, artificial plants, plastic twine, cord, metal rings, metal bells, 280 × 120 × 120 cm. Photo: Kim Hyunsoo. Courtesy the artist Haegue Yang, Shooting the Elephant 象 Thinking the Elephant, 2015 (installation view, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul). Photo: Kim Hyunsoo. Courtesy the artist SONIC HALF MOON TYPE IV–MEDIUM LIGHT #19, 2014, steel frame, metalgrid, powder coating, brass plated bells, nickel plated bells, metal rings, steel wire, 173 x 54 x 54 cm. Photo: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano. Courtesy of Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Haegue Yang is based between Seoul and Berlin and represented South Korea at the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009). Her work has been included in the Sao Paulo Bienal (2006), Documenta 13 (2012) and been the subject of numerous museum shows. On the occasion of her solo show at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, she discusses her recent work with artist Heman Chong.

Heman Chong: Your exhibition has a curious title…

Haegue Yang:

Shooting the Elephant 象 Thinking the Elephant contains a Chinese character, 象, which is a hieroglyph in itself. I found it fascinating to imagine the origin of this character, since the elephant doesn’t inhabit any region in which Chinese was or is used. The same goes for another metaphor of the exhibition, which is a Lion Dance, a folk dance that’s widespread across the whole of Asia, a region that’s not inhabited by lions. You won’t find an elephant or a lion in the show either. They served as a metaphor of living – a living that was only imagined, yet which was territorialised as a part of folk culture so that it could be even claimed as ‘ours’ and understood as something ‘familiar.’

Another reference in the title comes from literature, George Orwell’s short story ‘Shooting an Elephant’ [1936, about a British police officer in Burma who feels forced to shoot an elephant] and Romain Gary’s novel The Roots of Heaven [1956, about an environmentalist in French Equatorial Africa who sets out to preserve elephants from extinction]. In the first, the elephant appears as an unpredictable, yet innocent animal (or cipher for nature), killed by the irrelevant human-centric power system of colonialism. Orwell (who is recounting his experience as a police officer in colonial Burma) was pressured by that system and eventually had to shoot the elephant when he was surrounded by thousands of Burmese expecting to witness the violence of their coloniser. In the other work, the elephant shows its power as well as weakness: on the one hand it provides a most unlikely source of hope to Morel (the main protagonist of Gary’s novel) who subsequently wishes to preserve the African elephant from extinction; on the other hand, the elephant is nothing but a helpless and vulnerable species, which can’t be saved despite Morel’s complete devotion and eventual sacrifice.

Besides that, there are two general aspects of the show that are worth mentioning at the beginning: one is the lighting, the other is the wall treatment. The lights on the ceiling of the Ground Gallery at Leeum are all pointed in one direction, not so as to illuminate the work, but so as to act autonomously. This is done to liberate the lights from their functional existence in this completely open space.

Three right-angle-triangle-shaped built-in walls, hung upside down from the ceiling, have been treated so that each side is distinctly different from the other: the outer surface has an ordinary finish while the inner side is rough and grainy like sandpaper. Also I’ve allowed the grid of the panels on this inner side to be revealed. Over the course of the exhibition, there will be some stains from people touching this side of the walls: this contact and the sensation of texture, as well as collective trace of visitors, will be significant.

HC: Let’s talk about Storage Piece [2004]. It is a work that has been discussed greatly within the context of your practice. Why did you choose to exhibit it now, among the other works in the show?

HY: Storage Piece is located in the middle of the exhibition, it’s a work originally made for a show while I was on a Delfina Foundation residency in London. It is often said that Storage Piece marks an important turning point in my practice. The background to it was that there was an offer of a commercial gallery space for an exhibition but I had no ability to make the show, either financially or physically. And parallel to this offer, there were numerous requests that I should pick up works, returning from other exhibitions for which I couldn’t afford any storage space. So I proposed to use the exhibition budget to bring all those works – which remained packed on palettes – together in an exhibition. There were about 13 pieces in all, some are complete, some of the works only survived in parts. There are also early pieces included in Storage Piece, for instance from 1994, which had never been exhibited, but which I was asked to remove from my flat in Frankfurt, where I was no longer living.

This type of personal circumstance hadn’t been a part of my practice at that time; indeed it had seemed inevitable not to assert this kind of circumstance, but it came to a point, through Storage Piece, where I did, and this helped me break this conceptual boundary. Within the tendency to cling to both the physicality and the fetish of conceptualism inherent in Storage Piece, there is a kind of concern and doubt that remains and that is contained within it. Personally, I’m very pleased to have Storage Piece on view here, a work that a lot of people have heard about many times, yet not so many people have encountered; it is important that people face the work in person.

Storage Piece is always accompanied by a speech that will be given at the opening of the exhibition by someone other than myself. The script for this speech has been modified slightly each time it has been delivered, reflecting the changed circumstances and the ways in which my own reaction to the work cumulatively changes over time. The crisis born out of a simple, poor circumstance disappears, while new challenges around the piece emerge, so the modification is necessary. The speech describes a couple of pieces found within the work that people cannot see, because everything is wrapped up. Very much a monologue, which fluctuates from being super confident on the one hand – suggesting that this is a great solution, even a brilliant one, given the challenge of the circumstances – but at the same time being filled with doubt, based on a belief in concept and idea – that one should not hold on to the physicality of the work. Overall, this oscillation itself reinforces the potential and the ecology behind the work. It reflects a kind of timid negation of the ‘either/or’ dichotomy of an object. When Storage Piece was sold, I handed over the conceptual authority over the work, thus the collector could unfold the piece according to his own desires and situation.

HC: So he could have unpacked the work?

HY: Indeed. In 2007 the collector Axel Haubrok proposed that he unpack the work in order to see what he had collected. As part of this agreement, under the title ‘Unpacking the Storage Piece’, everything would be fiercely unpacked and neatly installed. I agreed, and the traces of Storage Piece – the packaging – were also included in the exhibition, as ‘Cabinet of Packaging’. And there was a new speech written for this chapter. So ever since then, Storage Piece has been unpacked many times, sometimes gradually, sometimes as it is.

HC: Let’s move along to the next work. Tell me more about your light sculptures.

HY: Here there are six individual light sculptures, which are in the collection of Leeum, shown as one installation, Seoul Guts, which was first exhibited at Artsonje Center in 2010 (that exhibition, Voice over Three, was also my first institutional exhibition in my hometown; this one is my first in five years). I spent three months in Seoul preparing the show, and Seoul Guts is one of very few light sculptures that I produced out of my studio. The portrait of the city of Seoul is articulated by the small objects, mostly expressing ridiculous and trivial desires and the nostalgia of people. Here you see an object made of seashells and urban waste, disguised as romantic souvenir of a possible holiday, which I collected from seafood restaurants, day by day. There you see some artificial plants, cosmetic supplies, pseudo health devices, all of which constitute a pitiful portrait of Seoul. Pill cases were somehow most touching to me.

HC: Why were these the most touching for you?

HY: Seoul is full of people who are ‘sick’: in a sense they’re all not fit, they’re tired and wasted. The daily life in Seoul is just tough, you come up with ideas to survive – taking vitamins or medicine against cancer, for diabetes, it’s just crazy. They’re all functioning, but at the same time they’re not functioning at all. There is no border any more between healthy and sick. These two things build a parallel, and in this you still have to keep going. For example, these objects I use, these small objects for massaging your body, it’s at once humorous and pitiful. You only can spend a small amount of money with such a big hope that it will make you feel better. These items I discovered while I was shopping, or ‘hunting’ for material; I think this shopping process in the city was crucial.

HC: What was the trigger for you to use these standing structures to hang these objects on?

HY: At the very beginning I started using IV (intravenous) drip poles, which are frail, much like a line in space, on which you cannot hang so much. I used them for the first time in 2006, in a project called Sadong 30, at an abandoned house. The ceiling in that house was about to collapse, so you couldn’t hang anything from it. In order to illuminate the space, I registered and reinstalled the electricity supply, but I needed a stand from which to hang lights. The IV poles were easy to get and it seemed natural to have them in that space. But I wasn’t aware of the association of that object with body and health. After using them once as a lighting device, I started to make sculptures of out this stand. I was very touched by the melancholic look of it, how the cables are draped from/over it. Over time, it became an autonomous sculpture. By the time I switched over to the much chunkier clothing racks, each stand became anthropomorphic, to portray certain qualities of possible figures.

HC: In a way you’re building characters.

HY: Yes, quite. In this series it comes across very strongly. Originating from the Sadong 30 project, where I plugged in the lights, it became apparent to me that this work comes from this gesture: plugging into a power source. This gesture meant a lot to me. The house was locked up for many years, and the address, Sa-dong 30 was dropped out from the redevelopment of the city of Incheon. So there was no electricity, no water, and the house was kind of dead. When I succeeded in reregistering the address in the city council’s system in order to reconnect the electricity, the house could be finally be illuminated. I locked the space with a lock that had a number code on it so that people with the code could have 24-hour access I had limited the luminosity of each bulb to under 25 watts; again, at the beginning I was afraid that the bulbs would get too hot while there is no guard or any other attendant there, so it was a practical decision. But over time I really liked the low luminosity, because it prevented the lights from being absolutely functional: they would be able to light up little corners– efficient enough. The light sculptures inherited this principle, where each bulb is only 15 to 25 watts.

HC: What are these chairs and tables on the other side of the space?

HY: In 2001 I was commissioned to conceive the so-called VIP lounge for an art fair, Art Forum Berlin. Commenting on the aspect that one can only access this space with a VIP pass, I decided to equip the space with furniture pieces borrowed from Berliners, whose equivalent significance (VIP) can be only measured by their participation rather than predetermined and hierarchical status. And people (VIPs) could sit on the furniture (from VIPs), achieving an open heterogeneity. The loan of the furniture would be for the duration of the exhibition, and each piece would be returned after the show. I continued to adopt this principle and made a lot of lounges ever since in the middle of exhibitions, and now this is the Seoul version. Seen in the same space as Storage Piece and Seoul Guts, you can sense that they are different configurations of similar observation, an expression of my position as a semi-insider/outsider.

HC: Let’s address your new work in this show. Can you walk me through it?

HY: This is a new series of sculptures titled The Intermediates. They are made of straw, woven into different architectures and figures. They create a kind of ‘parcours’ through a set of obstacles. These pieces reference actual architectural sites, such as those produced by the Mayan civilisation, the Borobudur Temple, and features found in a contemporary Islamic mosque with minarets in Russia. In between them there are figures. Some of them are abstract, some are more figurative.

HC: This material that you use, is this real straw? How did you discover and begin to work with this material?

HY: No, it’s artificial straw. By critically reexamining the notion of ‘folk’, I realised that the use of natural straw would only conform the given narrow idea of ‘folk art’, confirming the notion of ‘us,’ which is often a race, nation, religious or language group, etc. But this artificial straw gives me a bit of distance from this definition of ‘our tradition’, empowers the works and makes them immune to this tribal claim. The project is not about expressing traditional craftsmanship, but to take a step out of it, to become alien to or a hybrid of it. In a sense, for me, they rather associate with rituals and exotic forms than the familiar.

HC: You are personifying the technique, extending the technique as a metaphor, rather than simply mastering the technique of straw weaving. It’s far from rejuvenating the idea of folk.

HY: It has never been a primary feature of my production method, but I always worked with two very different ways simultaneously; One relies on using industrially manufactured objects, while the other is based on craft – almost a domestic way of approaching craft – believed to be of low efficiency – such as crochet and knitting. At some point I realised that I’m completely into weaving. But a very inefficient weaving. I used to take a lot of photographs of these straw wraps around trees over the winter in Japan and Korea. These appeared once in a while as reference material in my catalogues, but I never used the observation of straw wrap, realised as a production yet. But when I settled in Seoul a year ago, the first thing I wanted to learn was straw weaving from a craftsman, and The Intermediates was initiated.

Haegue Yang: Shooting the Elephant 象 Thinking the Elephant, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, 12 February – 10 May 2015. 

This article was first published in the March 2015 Hong Kong special edition of ArtReview Asia.