March 8 – May 26, 2019
South London Gallery, London, UK
Installation view of Haegue Yang: Tracing Movement, South London Gallery, London, UK, 2019
Photo: Andy Stagg
Performance by Okkyung Lee on March 30, 2019
Photo: Sam Nightingale
Installation view of Haegue Yang: Tracing Movement, South London Gallery, UK, 2019
Video: Gordon Beswick
A new solo exhibition Tracing Movement combines new and recent works born of acclaimed South Korean artist Haegue Yang’s ongoing exploration into ideas around identity politics and migration, alienation and difference. Her choice of materials is similarly wide-ranging, often integrating industrially manufactured with crafted items, revealing otherwise overlooked juxtapositions and co- existences through her own, very particular sensibility. Acts of tracing, from perceiving the physical terrain of spaces to revisiting obscured voices in history, provide the defining thread between the works in this sensorially charged show, some of which add to series developed over many years, while others are site-specific pieces.
Inspired by the potential of the South London Gallery’s elegant Victorian exhibition space to be a ballroom, two works from the Dress Vehicle series (2011–), Sonic Dress Vehicle – Hulky Head and Sonic Dress Vehicle – Bulky Birdy (both 2018), take centre stage. These wheeled, angular sculptures occupy an indeterminate territory between abstraction and figuration, motion and stillness. Their powder- coated aluminium frames are dressed with venetian blinds and brass- and nickel-plated bells that create a subtle yet distinctive rattle when periodically activated by performers. The unevenness of the floor is traced by this rattling, which intermingles with the sounds of birdsong emanating from clusters of speakers positioned in diagonally opposite corners of the space.
Poignantly, this birdsong was recorded in April 2018 when thousands of journalists were gathered to report on the historic inter-Korean summit in the DMZ (demilitarised zone), an event watched by millions of viewers worldwide. The leaders’ every move and word were scrutinised, fuelling speculation of a real breakthrough in tense military relations between North and South since the division of the Korean Peninsula after the Korean War (1950–53). Unexpectedly, the leaders asked to talk in private at a distance from the press. Lacking any evidence of the political significance of the moment or the heavily guarded nature of the site which represents deep human conflict, the audio recording of only peaceful birdsong and occasional camera sounds piqued the artist’ interest.
Another sound element is triggered when visitors approach the centre of the gallery where hidden beneath the wooden floor is the original marquetry panel designed in 1891 by the English artist, book illustrator and socialist activist, Walter Crane (1845–1915). Generated through TTS (Text to Speech, a speech synthesis), 26 distinctly different artificial productions of human speech are heard uttering the words “the source of art is in the life of a people”, the phrase inscribed on Crane’s floor. Voices have long been significant in Yang’s work, frequently referred to in her titles and important tools as what she calls ‘aural writing’. Departing from her focus on human voices and their inevitable association with particular people and personalities, mechanically-generated voices enable Yang to trace Crane’s sentence with “voices without throats”, highlighting its invisibility as a buried piece of history.
The geometric design marked out in tape on the floor also responds to Crane's panel. Yang traced certain lines of the original design, before rotating the motif in two different directions. The off-kilter repositioning serves as a metaphor for processes of translation and interpretation, migration and movement. Yang’s interest in abstraction and geometric designs, as well as in acts of recycling, informs the Trustworthies series (2010–), in which aesthetic value is blown into scraps of envelopes, origami, graph and sandpapers, integrating otherwise insignificant materials into expansive, dynamic wall designs. These are shown alongside other works which in various ways trace the processes of their own production. For example, Yang keeps all the blades used to make her Trustworthies, and has integrated some into Blade Notations (2019), a group of recently-made works within her ongoing Lacquer Paintings (1994–) that incorporate by-products from her studio and environment such as chipboard, hair, dust and insects. She arranges the salvaged blades in specific formations suggestive of a language or code, hinting at the existence of underlying narratives.
The Cutting Board Prints (2012) were produced during Yang’s residency at the world-renowned print- making institution, STPI, Singapore. Inspired by Singapore’s multicultural population and its diverse eateries, she drew on the impressive array of vegetables and spices to produce simple vegetable prints. Yang then used the underlying juice-stained paper to make the Cutting Board Prints, works which trace the process of making her vegetable prints.
Hardware Store Collages date back to 1994, the year when Yang arrived in Germany. Speaking only basic German, the product catalogues of hardware stores became an artist’s lexicon from which to compose her non-verbal narratives and counter her linguistic isolation. From popular products and items, the Hardware Store Collages have since evolved to narrate and trace our contemporary existence by including commodities that have newly emerged, such as technological devices, from electronic appliances through to sophisticated medical equipment and, in the most recent examples shown here, QLEDs, electric bidet toilet seats, airbags and bucket seats.
The Carsick Drawings (2006 and 2016), relate more literally than any others in the exhibition to its title, Tracing Movement. Again, the artist was in a foreign place, on a residency in 2006 in Yamaguchi, a remote part of Japan with an extraordinary volcanic landscape and hot springs. Yang explored the environment by taking bus trips, each one initiated with the purchase of a local newspaper. Unable to comprehend the newspaper text, she traced all the straight lines and boxes which, for her, demarcated a “structurally evident yet non-verbal and therefore incomprehensible communication”. The lines of these drawings, made on large sheets of tracing paper, capture the bumpiness of her rides and as such are abstract recordings of her experience, interrupted only when she became too carsick to continue. In 2016, on a field trip with friends by car over the China-Vietnam border where massive construction of infrastructure was under way, Yang attempted another Carsick Drawing, this time in a small notebook. The two drawings shown here trace that road, capturing the variations of terrain and differing degrees of discomfort along the way.
Myriad influences have informed Haegue Yang’s artistic practice: the life and work of historic figures, including the artist Oskar Schlemmer, Dadaist Sophie Taeuber-Arp and the spiritualist George I. Gurdjieff; the music of the Korean composer Isang Yun; and the significance of dance and rattle instruments in European pagan cultures and Korean Shamanism. These reference points are often hidden but contribute additional layers of meaning to her probing of ideas around migration, and its vast and nuanced impact. To Yang, movement is not only a physical act, but is also felt mentally, emotionally and socially. In her fundamentally anachronistic approach, ancient and futuristic go hand in hand. Her work offers us a metaphorical map of a place where time is collapsed and hierarchies between history, personal narratives, human solidarity and mechanical tracing are eradicated
Performance: Okkyung Lee
March 30, 2019
Performance: Anton Lukoszevieze and Bartosz Glowacki
April 20, 2019
Talk: Haegue Yang with Yung Ma
May 15, 2019
Floor element, 2019
Sound elements, 2019