The Shape Shifter
The multiple registers and references in the work of Haegue Yang
The multiple registers and references in the work of Haegue Yang
Why do elephants exert such a strong symbolic charge? Why are they the stuff of legend and lore? Is it their size? Their social behaviour? Their fabled memory? The animal is invoked by Haegue Yang in her current show at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul. Despite the hinge-like title Shooting the Elephant 象 Thinking the Elephant (the Chinese character also means elephant) she refers to the pachyderms only indirectly. Her main reference is to two literary texts that feature elephants as their subject to comment on politics, society, colonialism and the relationship between man and nature.
Shooting an Elephant is the title of a short autobiographical, anti-colonial sketch by George Orwell published in 1936, in which the author recounts an episode from his experience as a British colonial policeman in Burma in the mid-1920s. Orwell, a young police officer, is called upon to shoot a rampaging elephant. Despite his initial reluctance, to save face in front of the locals he ends up firing the deadly shot. The animal’s death throes are described in excruciating detail. The policeman’s inner turmoil points to the politics of the author, who describes imperialism as ‘dirty work’ and who sympathizes with the oppressed Burmese, despite his position: ‘the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear’.
The second half of the title refers to Romain Gary’s novel Les racines du ciel, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1956 but is now largely forgotten and which was made into the Hollywood film The Roots of Heaven (1958). In the midst of the battle for independence between the French administration and the anti-colonial liberation movement, the uncompromising animal activist Morel causes a stir in the colony of French Equatorial Africa by campaigning for the protection of elephants against big-game hunting. Morel’s contemporaries find his vehemence hard to understand, but it is rooted in his experience as a former member of the French Resistance who survived a German concentration camp. Thinking about elephants, those free, wild animals, was what gave him the strength to live through his incarceration.
Linking such literary references back to specific works in Yang’s exhibitions is not always easy, however. In most cases, the relationship between what is shown and what is said is not linear; instead, a space opens up between sculpture and reference, upsetting a one-to-one correspondence. Similarly, the two stories cited in the Leeum show themselves are about dislocation and rupture, shifting and displacement: transplanting the horrors of Nazi Germany and World War II to colonial Africa and Asia; the border between man and beast broken down by empathy. Political themes then, are articulated via a detour.
There are no elephants in the actual exhibition at Leeum, as the artist emphasizes during a conversation at her Berlin studio. But in the installation views of the otherwise deserted museum provided by her studio, an elegant, dandyish Elephant Man sashays through the exhibition spaces. His face is hidden by a scarf wound round his head, one end hanging down like a trunk. He looks like some hybrid being from another world, half visitor, half exhibit. The status of this figure, who appears only in the exhibition documentation in the catalogue remains a mystery. Perhaps this ghostly figure is a transcendental wanderer capable of linking the various points of reference within Yang’s universe?
Buried clues of this kind occur throughout her work, as Yang’s approach is based on the element of surprise, on contradictions and abrupt twists, on accepting a certain openness and creating a space where connections, ideas and objects (and the relationships between them) are set in motion. When dealing with Yang’s work, even such a usually uncontroversial term as Conceptual art raises more questions than answers. ‘I find it hard to use the term concept,’ she says during our conversation: ‘If someone thought my work was conceptual I would agree, but I’m at a loss when asked to actually explain how it is conceptual. Perhaps we live in a time when the notion of Conceptual art is at a turning point. We know what Conceptual art was in the 1960s, but I think what the term means now is something that needs redefining.’
For her installations, Yang often works with everyday objects and materials, but she never contents herself with their readymade character. Instead she subjects them to further artistic treatment but without stripping them of their original connotations. She has taken ordinary laundry drying racks and enveloped them in weaves of different coloured wool (Non-Indépliables, 2006/09–10), transforming the mass-produced commodity into unique pieces of folk art; she has manipulated Filofax calendar inserts (Week on Two Pages Diary, 1999) by making almost imperceptible changes to company logos, holidays and typography; and she has stacked 16 empty drinks crates into two towers on a small wooden ramp set at an angle that almost, but only almost, caused them to topple (Tilted on a Plane, 2002).
In her détournement of a A3 block of graph paper that plays havoc with standardization (Grid Bloc A3, 2013, in collaboration with Jeong Hwa Min) or her hanging interlocking aluminium blinds (at dOCUMENTA(13) in 2012, for instance) that produce beautiful moiré effects, there is a geometrical rigour characterized less by norm-based inflexibility than by the breaking of such strictures. She populates exhibitions with anthropomorphic sculptures (Warrior Believer Lover, 2011), at times accompanied by Igor Stravinsky’s ballet music Le sacre du printemps: the vision of a pagan sacrifice that caused riots when first performed in Paris in 1913. Another classic 20th century avant-garde work for the stage, Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet that premiered in 1922 in Stuttgart, provided a point of reference for the bell-covered sound sculptures that visitors were invited to touch and move at Bonner Kunstverein last autumn (Sonic Figures, 2013/15). Through reference to dance, movement is understood here as including a more flexible relationship between viewer, object and space. Although these sculptures refer to specific moments in art history, they come across as contemporary. This may be because Yang’s sculptures have an aesthetic that oscillates between the object’s original practical nature and its character as a work of art. This was true of the bell-covered Schlemmer sound sculptures: they stood there majestic and golden, but as soon as one took hold of their black foam-rubber handles, there was a certain feeling akin to being in physiotherapy.
Yang’s installations are thronged with avatars that appear to have been beamed into the exhibition space from very different worlds. She takes the space between objects as seriously as the objects themselves. This is reflected, for example, in her deliberate use of sounds, music or smells and by the mobile hospital stands she often uses as the basis for her avatar sculptures. The resulting field of associations allows the mind to wander, but also the art itself. It is in these interspatial fields that the Elephant Man finds himself in Seoul. Aren’t the blinds so often used by Yang (with their strange now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t logic of a sudden switch between closure and transparency) the perfect symbols for this interspace?
Yang is not one to hammer away at her subject matter and attribute specificity to her meanings, however, as that would immediately close the constitutive openness of her arrangements. Instead, she provokes intimations and subliminal associations – as in Seoul, where many of the works’ forms and crafted quality made them look like ethnological artefacts. Formally, three large straw-looking totems from the series The Intermediates (2015) refer to places or monuments of religious significance: an ancient Maya pyramid; the Buddhist temple complex of Borobudur in Indonesia and Lala Tulpan, one of the largest modern mosques in Russia, opened in the late 1990s in Ufa, the capital of the Russian republic of Bashkortostan, around 26 hours east of Moscow by train. Between these architecture-invoking constructions, the artist placed other straw figures whose anthropomorphism recalled unusual cult costumes (like those of traditional Swiss New Year Mummers). But the aura of the traditional, handmade and the ethnographically inspired was broken by an technical note: the ‘straw’ of these figures was actually plastic. Consequently, The Intermediates is not so much about mediating between different spheres as about things that are not and cannot be communicated and reified. Through this Yang’s artistic allusions to the relationship among nature, man and culture are immunized against any rose-tinted romanticization.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Haegue Yang’s solo exhibition Temporary Permanent at Galerie Wien Lukatsch, Berlin is on view 1 May – 31 July.