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Issue 218

Living in the World of Haegue Yang's Precious Objects

At the Art Gallery of Ontario, a retrospective celebrates the artist’s eloquent obsession with material  

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BY Charlene K. Lau in Reviews , Reviews Across The World | 02 FEB 21

Rather unceremoniously, Haegue Yang’s retrospective, ‘Emergence’, at the Art Gallery of Ontario greets the visitor with a selection of sculptures made in the last decade: goofy monsters crafted from all manner of everyday things, including bells, straw, food-truck ventilation fans, ski jackets and a towel printed with the outsized image of a US$500 bill. But installed here on an elevated platform, rather than on the floor as they usually are, these anthropomorphic and zoomorphic alien forms – The Intermediate – Dragon Conglomerate (2016), a fringy white spheroid à la Nick Cave’s ‘Soundsuits’ (1992–ongoing), is particularly otherworldly – seem too precious. After this static parade of creatures, the exhibition abruptly turns a corner into a gallery dedicated to Yang’s art-school days in Frankfurt, jammed with arte povera-esque explorations in materials like pasta and wire.  

Haegue Yang The Intermediate – Dragon Conglomerate, 2016 Artificial straw, powder-coated steel frame and mesh, casters, and plastic raffia string 180 x 115 x 115 cm
Haegue Yang, The Intermediate – Dragon Conglomerate, 2016, artificial straw, powder-coated steel frame and mesh, casters, and plastic raffia string, 180 × 115 × 115 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; photography: Craig Boyko

As with any retrospective, Yang’s practice of the past quarter century expands and contracts in the exhibition. At times, the works are compromised by the museum’s rigid layout: a series of origami objects, framed on the wall and scattered on the floor (Origami Dust - Side Effects and By Products [2004/2012] and Origami Dust [2004/2018]) stand alongside two Sol LeWitt Vehicles (both 2018) – towering white sculptures comprised of venetian blinds hanging from powder-coated aluminium frames. Other areas have been so compressed that the exhibition verges, at points, on claustrophobic. These curatorial cramming techniques work occasionally, as is the case with Non-Indépliables (2006–10), a whimsical field of collapsible drying racks covered in colourful textiles, yarns and hanging lights – objects that look alive albeit freeze-framed in their callisthenics-like poses.

Haegue Yang in collaboration with OK-RM (Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath), London Eclectic Totemic, 2013 Digital colour print Courtesy of the artists Installation view of Haegue Yang: Emergence, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada, 2020 Photography by Craig Boyko
Haegue Yang in collaboration with OK-RM (Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath), Eclectic Totemic, 2013, installation view, digital colour print. Courtesy: the artists and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; photography: Craig Boyko

Some awkward layouts and placements unfortunately detract from Yang’s grand designs. ‘Boxing Ballet’ (2013–15), a series of tall figures on casters crafted from brass bells, electric fans and other metal and steel components that reference Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet, 1922), squeeze into a smaller gallery leaving very little room for viewers when human handlers listlessly activated the works. An artwork of this scale requires the luxury of space; without this, it shrinks from its potential or original intent. On my first visit, I was bumped by Sonic Figure – Mesmerizing Pirouette (2013) – a swinging humanoid pendulum made from clusters of brass bells (its head and stylized collar) and an array of white metal rings (its hair) – unaware that my body took up so much space. The crowding of bodies, sentient and otherwise, was amplified by COVID-19 anxiety. By my second visit, the room capacity was limited to six people.

Haegue Yang, Boxing Ballet, 2013–2015
Haegue Yang, 'Boxing Ballet', 2013–2015, installation view, powder-coated steel frames, mesh, and handles; steel wire rope, casters, brass-plated bells, metal rings, and vinyl tape. Courtesy: the artist and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; photography: Craig Boyko

A series of ‘Lacquer Paintings’ (1999–ongoing) – chipboard tableaux made with mesh bags, seeds, hair, insects, dust and other detritus varnished onto their surfaces – ran along walls throughout the exhibition, sometimes feeling out of place. Yet, looking at the work altogether in this way allowed viewers to see Yang weave in and out of ideas – domestic, industrial, thematic – returning to them at various points in her career.

Haegue Yang, Emergence, 2020–2021, exhibition view
Haegue Yang, 'Haegue Yang: Emergence', 2020–2021, exhibition view, Art Galley of Ontario, Toronto. Courtesy: the artist and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; photography: Craig Boyko

Yang’s global appeal is noteworthy, with concurrent shows taking place at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul and Tate St Ives in Cornwall. In the autumn of 2019, I took a visiting curator from Asia to see the choreographed activations of Yang’s sculptures in her exhibition ‘Handles’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The curator dismissed it as ‘too Western’, missing the point of the artist’s idiosyncratic and expansive practice. Yang’s oeuvre functions like a history of the self through extended material exploration, unconstrained by limiting stereotypes on national, cultural or racial identity. As an encyclopaedic appreciation of humble stuff, an obsession with materiality and endless exploration of ideas cobbled from everywhere and anywhere, ‘Emergence’ surprises and rewards the viewer with its volume and deep inquiry into the life of things and being in the world.

'Haegue Yang: Emergence' is on view at Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, through 5 April 2021.

Main image: Haegue Yang, 'Haegue Yang: Emergence', 2020–2021, exhibition view, Art Galley of Ontario, Toronto. Courtesy: the artist and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; photography: Craig Boyko

Charlene K. Lau is an art historian, critic, and curator who has held fellowships at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Parsons School of Design, The New School and Performa Biennial. Her writing has been published in Artforum, Atlantic.com, the Brooklyn Rail, Canadian Art, Frieze, Fashion Theory and Journal of Curatorial Studies, among others.

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