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Frieze Week Seoul 2023

Woo Hannah Brings ‘The Great Ballroom’ to Frieze Seoul

The Korean artist uses fabric to consider the ageing female body in a new commission at the fair for the 2023 Frieze Artist Award

BY Hyunjin Kim in Frieze Seoul , Frieze Week Magazine | 05 SEP 23

Fabric is a familiar material to the artist Woo Hannah. It has given rise to irrepressible stories of chaotic and campy creatures. It has created a space where her myriad emotions combat one another. This space has also been generous, where desires and mutant imaginaries have relentlessly thrived. In lieu of traditional or organic materials, Woo uses synthetic fibres that are either shiny, gooey, bouncy, electronic and psychedelic, or thin, crunchy and plastic. The common misconception is that fibres are fragile and easily break apart, yet synthetic fibres are durable and tenacious to the extent that their resistance to decomposition has become environmentally problematic. It is for this reason that synthetic fibres are excellent artistic materials. They are also endlessly diverse, with a spectrum of hues, textures and patterns.

Woo’s The Great Ballroom (2023), which will feature in Frieze Seoul, is a large-scale installation in which gigantic draperies are left hanging from the eight-metre-high ceiling of the exhibition hall. An expansion of her existing series “Milk and Honey”, the work demonstrates Woo’s conception of ageing as a dynamic and resplendent transformation of bodies. With the force of gravity, the fabric sags into manifold creases that form a U-shape; to the artist, it is at once a bat and a woman’s breast. Glistening beads are visible, but these details of handicraft and labour-intensive sewing are overshadowed by the exaggerated and overwhelming materiality of the fabric’s folds. Bats are symbols of night, darkness and viruses; what follows these associations are breasts as the epitome of femininity, their shadows deepening with the passage of time. Their wrinkles are powerful, however, creating a liberatory space that suggests both the process of ageing and the spreading of wings, blurring the line between the two. The deeply folded breasts thus become wings, unfurling as if making a declaration, turning the installation into a bold celebration of female bodies caught in the temporality of age.

Woo Hannah in her studio smiling
Woo Hannah in her studio. Photography: Hasisi Park

It was not the idea of female labour or feminist art—implied in the needlework—that led Woo to choose fabric as her primary artistic material. It was childhood memories of intimacy, or the familiar tactility and comfort of stuffed dolls that she used to have as a child. However, a certain feminist standpoint has entered her work in the last two or three years as the artist has witnessed the precarity of female bodies declining with time, laden with the deeply rooted misogyny of South Korea. In Swinging (2018), an installation with swing music (composed and arranged by Park Daham) as its backdrop, skull and face-shaped trinkets are woven with pieces of fabric on the top of mops and sticks. What emerges is a clamorous cluster of protesters who, despite their emaciated bodies and off-kilter spines are filled with emotions: anger, hysteria, madness, articulation, assertion, enthusiasm, joy and a campness that is at once weighted, spooky and full of life. This enchanting world of heterologous, surreal and terrifying stories arises from anime, webtoon, anti-hero fiction, sci-fi and other minority spaces of mass culture that the artist was exposed to in her youth.

Above all, Woo’s formless sculptures propagate and evolve into “oddkins”—soft and bizarre, repugnant yet gorgeous, endearing but never obedient—that traverse the boundaries between humans, non-human beings and things. In the exhibition “Feather” (Cylinder, 2022, Seoul), for instance, what took centre stage was a painting of a heroine or character from extra-terrestrial mythical imagination, caught in blazing flames. Surrounding the heroine in the work are gaseous yet fluid objects that are various reinterpretations of her body. Flamboyantly embellished with beads and embroideries, their forms are abstract while suggesting butterflies, tumbleweeds, organs, divided cells or mutants with protruding tentacular structures.

On the other hand, the objects in Woo’s installation Bag with You_Take Your Shape (2022) at SeMA Buk Seoul Museum are wearable sculptures in the form of decorative renditions of genitalia and organs typically hidden beneath the flesh. When worn, they become an extension of the human body; in other words, upon donning these objects the audience transforms into a human-thing or a mutant with organs attached to the surface of its skin. The artist regards them as totemic objects that hold wishes inside—often relating to the wearers’ bodies—that could be worn or carried around. On the other hand, the lumpy cysts each cradled in a woven net sag from, or grab on to, the ceiling. While grotesque, they do not surrender their loveliness. Through these choices, Woo actively appropriates forms and colours that are stereotypically feminine. Nevertheless, in the exhibition “Tumbleweeds” (ARTSPACE BOAN 2, 2023, Seoul)—inspired by the plants that survive in the desert without roots by rolling around—the objects are feeble yet sturdy. Images of fiery flames and spikes abound, while the gigantic psychedelic flowers of blue, green and bloody purple encapsulate what could be called the futurist-primitivist and sci-fi process of “becoming-plant”.

mix media artwork detail
Details in Woo Hannah’s studio. Photography: Hasisi Park

Many iterations of becoming take place in Woo’s work. One is her characteristic “becoming-animal” through images of beasts, mythical non-human creatures and internal organs. Another is “becoming-strata”, as seen in two-dimensional quilts that are mobile, including Mating Dance (2022) or the “Day” series (Uneasy Day, Punchdrunk DayThe Day, 2022). The quilted plane becomes a field where forces come together in contest. Cutting, rupturing, junctioning, invaginating, leaping and moving, they form geological strata of deterritorialized lines of flight. These strata are layers of fabric that resemble divided cells, “the body without organs” (à la Deleuze and Guattari), or organs without the body, slicing lines and parts while grabbing and stretching them as they propagate and entangle. The severed lines start fusing with the lumps even as they move away from each other, ultimately getting sewn into a singular mass: a wriggling organ or an alien with tentacles.

Considering that this iterative cycle of imagining, handling fabric and sewing is done by the artist as a human, it might be argued that Woo practices the process of “involution”, that is, becoming non- human: organ fragments, cysts, slices of flesh, animals, plants or fictitious mythical creatures. According to the artist, this process is equivalent to her pursuit of “accumulated and bulging mass,” which materializes within a mutually anomalous cycle of becoming-women—becoming-animal—becoming-minority—becoming-mutants. It is a cycle that brings soft touches and feminine expressions back into untameable tentacles and thorns, and back again. What is it that we face after this cyclical vortex that cuts and tears, destroys and attacks, pierces through a particular discord? It is the “plurality of crumbs” of which Woo Hannah speaks—that is, the movement of escaping lines and rhythms, and the fantastical stories of mutants and variant bodies whose ambitions compose the rhymes of vitality.

Woo Hannah’s commission for the Frieze Seoul Artist Award, The Great Ballroom, is on view at the fair. The commission is realized with the support of Bulgari.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, Seoul 2023 under the headline 'Becoming Woo Hannah'

Main image: Woo Hannah’s studio, Milk and Honey - 4, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and G Gallery. Photography: Hasisi Park

Hyunjin Kim is a curator and writer. Her exhibitions include “Frequencies of Tradition” (2022) at KADIST, San Francisco. She lives in Seoul, Korea.