|Daniel Birnbaum on Haegue Yang. (First Take). ArtForum, Jan, 2003
RED MEANS OCCUPIED, GREEN MEANS VACANT.
Although Haegue Yang has lived in Europe since the mid-'90s (first in Frankfurt, now in Paris), she can't keep herself from knocking on the bathroom door instead of simply checking the color before entering. This creates bewilderment for all involved. There are computer programs that translate between languages--Korean and German, say--and no doubt they are getting more sophisticated by the day. But they will never eliminate the ambiguous zones in which this thirty-one-year-old Korean artist operates. In Sonderfarben (Particular colors; Wiens Verlag, 2001), one of the most carefully crafted artist's books I've come across in recent years, Yang spells out an entire poetics based on misreadings and the limits of translation. It's not just about the meaning of words; it's about the predicament of living between languages: about referring to colors in German and Korean, about paying attention to the strange sounds between words, and about grasping oneself as being at home i n that which is also foreign. In Blue Meadow-Colored Language, zoo o, an installation involving fifteen short texts projected in white on a progression of hues, examples of linguistic displacement and existential estrangement abound. What is so familiar as to go unremarked suddenly becomes a conspicuous cultural trait: her own newly acquired exclamations so typical of German, like ach so, or the noises her Korean brothers make while eating soup (smacking their lips and slurping)--noises they must always have made but that used to pass unnoticed.
Yang, who participated in the 2001 Tirana Biennial and in last year's Manifesta 4, in Frankfurt, has shown extensively in Korea and Germany. She has contributed to the German art scene not only as an artist but also as one of the organizers of rraumo2, a lively alternative space in Frankfurt. Educated in Korea and Germany, Yang makes works that occupy the in-between spaces where cultures collide, where private and public meet, and where minute irregularities can destabilize a given order. An almost invisible shift could be the beginning of a revolution: Her large wall painting 936000 cm2, 2002, for instance, looks like an abstract pattern of horizontal red lines, but on closer inspection the whole design is tilted one degree. One finds similar slight alterations in Yang's Grid Block, 2000, sixteen sheets of paper ruled like graph paper but in squares of various colors and widths, making the pages a risky tool for scientific applications. They thus represent a subtle rejection of the standardization that seems to dominate our ways of ordering the world. Her project for the VIP Lounge at Art Forum Berlin in 2001 involved more hands-on displacements: Into a public space where one would expect a chic, integrated design, she imported lurid tables and chairs, of incompatible style and size, from private homes, thus conflating public and private spheres. This distinction is also explored in her puzzling installation Social Conditions of the Sitting Table, 2001, which showed at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt: Here the archaeology of a piece of Korean furniture leads to far-reaching speculation on the nature of privacy. Yang has noted, "In Korea, many doors, no matter if they're private or public, are not furnished with lock or key; even if there is a lock, it is seldom used." And yet the border is marked in other ways. This, it seems, is the role of the enigmatic sitting table found outside the doors of traditional Korean homes-an object so common the artist never noticed it when she was living in her home country. Now that she's become an other to herself, the most inconspicuous of things shine forth in a new light. This is certainly one of the lessons Haegue Yang teaches us: Seen from the outside, culture is strange.