Tilting One Degree

Today, more than ever, the real constitutes a passionate territory for exploration. If the history of twentieth-century art was marked by the question of realism, it seems that never more than now has it been directly in touch with the real. The nineteen-nineties witnessed new forms of expression reflecting the links between art and life. Today’s artist creates relationships with the world to redefine her place in it and to better inhabit it. To better understand the attitudes of contemporary artists, it’s essential to consider Félix Guattari’s “écosophy,” which explains the “éthico-political articulation among the environment, social relationships, and human subjectivity.”1 In a contemporary society that is becoming more and more structured along two lines–uniformity of production and complex interaction–shouldn’t the role of artists be to create new values in relationship with their reality and to reinvent reality itself? For Guattari, art can make possible this model of values, and the artist can be its agent, transcending this existential territory and recreating reality through an unprecedented reunion. The work of Yang Hae-gue “investigates economic, historical, and cultural forms in modern society”and “reevaluates them by revealing facts, objects, situations, and structures that have lost their possibilities of expression due to their banality,” all of which suggests “the possibilities of life”2 through a spiritual axis that allows one to struggle against the danger of the standardization of rules and values in today’s postindustrial society.

The artist’s axis of resistance begins with Wall Painting, whose large bands and long lines tilt one degree from the horizontal. Although it’s hard to make this out without a close look, in this one-degree difference can be found Yang’s expression of the possibility of discovering and recreating forgotten fragments of things, abandoned life, values that modern society, where conformism and systematic norms reign, ignores. With her acute sensitivity, the artist reevaluates the economic and cultural systems of modern society, discovers ignored fragments of life, and adds new values to them.

Grid Bloc is the rejection of the decimal system and the transformation of mathematics as it is applied to what is normally 1 x 1 mm graph paper to come up with...1 x 2 graph paper. The work looks, at first, like normal graph paper, yet it replaces its habitual measurements, and with it its symbol of precision and standards, with the user’s freedom, and in doing so proclaims itself against the uniformity of capitalism and for an extension of existential territory, the composition of objectives, and the creation of prototypes. In this light, Grid Bloc, as well as Wall Painting, both of which create objects that are different by ‘one degree,’ present the possibility of liberating themselves from collective reason, the quotidian with its generalizations, and mind sets that control us. When I look at the ‘one–degree tilt’ of Wall Painting, its familiar and simple plastic language reminds me of what Felix Gonzalez-Torres once said: “What I like in aesthetics is that the politics that imbues it remains entirely invisible. In effect, when we talk about aesthetics, we’re talking about an entire group of rules that someone postulated (. . .) The most successful political acts are those that don’t appear to be political.”3 In this context, the aesthetic meaning of Yang’s one-degree tilt is that it is ‘politically invisible,’ which is necessary so that the artist lives reality as a social existence and a norm for analyzing cultural, economic, political, and social systems.

Yang expresses her aesthetics of one-degree in economical gestures involving photography, installation, drawing, text, and performance in which she implicates herself and analyzes historical, cultural, economic, and social contexts. What’s crucial to her is to make modest suggestions using a minimum of transformations in aspects of reality that propose, in the end, a maximum number of possibilities in life. The premise of Traces of Anonymous Pupil-Authors, which was shown in the Tirana Biennale 2001, is her chance discovery, in a used-book store, of a middle-school textbook on social and technical studies. She was particularly struck by the notes and drawings that anonymous students who had owned the book wrote on the pages: lines, parentheses, circles, arrows, stars, and other graffiti, all absolute traces of rote textbook learning. It’s evident that all of us, including the artist, have left such traces at certain moments of our lives, but we haven’t assigned them a lasting importance or particular meaning. The traces, which are for us ordinary acts of noting the obvious, begin, however, to take on aspects of drawings as the artist erases one by one the printed text of the textbook, an intervention that, at the same time, erases a system that society imposes on us. This tiny gesture transforms the fleeting acts of anonymous students into drawings by anonymous artists.

It also reveals critical points of and various approaches to culture and society while awakening emotion and memory in the spectator. If we consider the meaning of monumentality through the conventional lens of commemorating a historical spirit or event, the traces of the anonymous students’ studies cannot be part of those objects that we commemorate. For me, this fragile and unpolished work is not just traces of the studies of anonymous students that are destined to be forgotten, but a monument exuding a magnificent invisible force. And although, as modest traces of daily life implying regret for the sacrifices of the students to a politicized educational system and the energy to succeed, they might not deserve to inhabit our memories, they also symbolize study to gain knowledge. By associating worthless memories in the act of erasing – the contents of a textbook – and commemorating – the rescue of anonymous artists’ drawings –Yang reveals in a contradictory yet gentle fashion not only the political, historical, and cultural situation of our society, but today’s fictitious and warped sense of the monument and of monumentality. Traces of Anonymous Pupil-Authors is a work that proves that the least monumental form and method can be as magnificent, powerful, and eternal as any other monument.

In Yang’s work, the dialogic relationship among the past (memory) and the present, the social and cultural collectivity, and the individual are all expressed through the act of borrowing and juxtaposing the tiniest possibilities. In Sleeping Coins, the artist creates a series of displays under Plexiglas in which, among other items, she puts smalls stacks of coins she has received from different people. In doing so, she adds a new value to the coins, while reevaluating and setting aside their monetary value in a cultural, economic, and social context, which is that of leftover and oftentimes forgotten change from trips abroad until the day when they are rediscovered for another trip or for a trip to the bank to change them into local currency. VIP’s Union, which the artist previously exhibited in the VIP Lounge of Art Forum Berlin, consists of a collection of chairs in various colors and forms – an element that reappears in her work – borrowed from different homes, a detail that lends each chair a transcendental quality. By her simple act of installing borrowed chairs in a space, the artist juxtaposes the individual and the public, and changes the cultural and social context of the space. Through the simple act of installing borrowed chairs from the lives of ‘ordinary people,’ the artist juxtaposes the individual next to the public and changes the cultural context of the space. In doing so, what was formerly intended as a space for ‘special people’ – the VIP Lounge at Art Forum Berlin – loses its original character and is reborn as a popular and democratic space. These two works, Sleeping Coins and VIP’s Union, underscore the relationship between art and life in their juxtaposition of various economic, cultural, and social elements that cannot coexist in reality.

Figurative Fall-Over consists of photos the artist has taken of discarded objects in the street. The black and white photos are of fragments of life that constitute neither a normal cityscape nor a tragic scene of an accident. The halftone dots that the enlarged photos present are reminiscent of newspaper photos, except that they would never interest a newspaper because of their insignificance as events. These scenes, which might seem ordinary compared to those of great tragedies, possess, through their large format and black and white colors, a dramatic, expressive, and contradictory rhythm. They seem to highlight momentarily the the dark corners of human conditions that, unfortunately, we ignore. Through these fragments of life taken in streets empty of human presence, the artist transmits tragic traces, painful breaths of man, and anxious situations. She illuminates the small tragedies of daily life that we ignore. Figurative Fall-Over, a series of photos representing trivial fragments of reality, replaces our social reality, in which habitual materialistic values are the norm, with the new and glowing transformative energy of dismissed, isolated, and abandoned human values.

Kim Sung Won

1) Felix Guattari, Les Trois Ecologies, Galillee, Paris
2) Interview with the artist, Seoul, 2002
3) Nancy Spector, “Felix Gonzalez-Torres”, in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 1996