Accuracy and the mysterious ordinariness of everyday life
Charles Esche

“…if we regard everyday life as the frontier between the dominated and the undominated sectors of life, and thus as the terrain of risk and uncertainty, it would be necessary to replace the present ghetto with a constantly moving frontier; to work ceaselessly toward the organisation of new chances.”

Why is everyday life so different, so appealing? The situationists. following de Certeau and Le Febvre, were hooked on how the changes in the everyday would forge the next revolutionary cycle. Given the obsession with reality TV and celebrity in the early 21st century they could have had a point, but in much good contemporary art it is more the intimate, small scale interests in quotidian reality that has come to be the arena for the exploration of 'new chances'. In this development, the artists who stand out are those that incorporate the 'interestingness' of the everyday but subvert or supercede it with other significant observationd or qualities.. Haegue Yang’s work certainly seeks to use evidence of everyday life in a way that reveals what would otherwise be ignored. However, simply to say that her work makes the world a more interesting place to observe is not enough. either for us demanding viewers or for art in general. 'Interesting' should become a term that damns art with faint praise.

It is true that her work helps us, her consumers, to step out of our accustomed sloth and look again at things we have too often ignored. It is also true that she brings a Korean sensibility, or simply upbringing in a different visual culture, to Europe and by doing so points out things we first worlders too easily miss. Significantly, she has recently brought such observation back to Korea to reveal the possibilities of the ‘undominated sector’ of everyday life there. No, the problem with ‘interesting’ is simply that it is too easy to achieve and too dull to appreciate. What is valuable about Yang’s work is that it has an autonomous quality separating it out from its source material, making it less dependent on a viewer’s existing engagement with everyday life itself and more drawn by something mundanely mysterious in the work itself.

To shift the attention of the viewer from the merely ‘interesting’ to the more rigorous ‘mysterious’ requires another qualitative element to be constantly present. In Yang’s work, that quality is accuracy - the careful choice and precise wording of image, site, text, form and action. To seek to be accurate is to avoid taking things at first sight but caring enough to want to know more in order to be exact. The ‘caring’ is inherent, stemming as the word does from ‘curare’ in Latin. It also suggests the need to take time to achieve precision as well as the desire to be right if challenged.

A small edition of hers, Grid Bloc, a textbook full of neatly ruled pages of graph paper makes the point. Each page has been drawn to a different scale, each division representing not an agreed measure but the artist’s own whimsical decision. Once her rules are established however, the implementation is relentless and precise, enough to have any casual observer mistaking this work for any other graph paper book on the school supply shelves where she distributed it. The mystery, and the satisfaction for the artist I suspect, comes when the book is used for the first time.

Sitting Tables is a mysteriously ordinary series of photographs from Korean city streets. Observing the strange phenomenon, to Yang’s now western-educated eyes, of low, homemade tables sitting on the pavement outside shops and restaurants, Yang began to make an inventory of their kinds and positions. The resulting photographs are very understated, a simple grid of commercially printed images mounted on a wall. What makes them at least ‘interesting’ is their differences based in their amateur manufacture out of material found in the immediate neighbourhood. What takes them beyond that, what makes them ‘mysterious’ is partly the obsessive collection that brings our thoughts back to the individual behind the work and partly the potential symbolic value these relatively dull objects generate. These sitting tables are probably vestiges of traditional Korean house design, where a platform around the house was used to rest or to meet the inhabitants without having to take of your shoes and be formally welcomed. They are then necessary social devices, ignored by the adoption of modernism during the frantic industrialisation of the US backed military dictatorship. They reflect a kind of low-level resistance by the population, something only readable from within the society and now, as Yang’s eulogy suggests, in danger of disappearing.

If Sitting Tables is an early version of a series of grid based photo collections, then it heralds a particular form of work that has become more disciplined and accurate as it has developed. The use of the grid is common, as are machine-processed prints of the smallest 9 x 13 cms standard. The selection of images differs in each, either being taken from the artist’s own archive, or generated through collaborations with others. The grid orders the ordinariness of the images, often unremarkable urban street scenes. Viewers are invited to identify the sources perhaps, or to find some kind of empathy with the author of the pictures. It is not that easy to do this, until you realise that the task is less demanding than it seems. The sheer quantity of images, and the anonymity of the individual components, requires a kind of unfocused, osmotic consumption where the odd rationality of the collections affects the unconsciousness. This is why in a work like Forget, Igret, Regret, made for the Akioshidai residency in rural Japan, the photos are placed in the workers lounge alongside a number of atmospheric changes to make the space more comfortably domestic. Relaxing, in an unfocused state of transitional reverie, the term accuracy the quality that distinguishes this collection from any other, an accuracy that reflects the site, the audience and the experience of being in that specific place.

The beautifully titled series Unrealistic to Generalise includes some of these grid works alongside a number of different works about the urban environment and its unintentional spaces. Some of these works take Yang’s production beyond the documentation of everyday life and into its symbolic reproduction. One is an anonymous public artwork in Paris, subtitled Accidental Monument and made by others based on Yang’s rather open instructions. The technicians are free to interpret their orders within their limits and they produce a work the specific form of which is unknown to Yang. The instructions ensure that the work will mimic the conditions of an abstract, anonymous modernist monument yet its rather absurd placement in the street draws an unwarranted attention that results in some mild damage and graffiti. These marks subsequently become the most significant element of the project, as the monument itself is shipped to a gallery space, to play the role of interior design sculpture with added interventions.

For Manifesta 4 in Frankfurt/Main, Yang simply occupied a dark corner of the warehouse used as the exhibition site. Changing nothing in this discarded dead end of the architecture, she lit it intensely with neon light from the ceiling. She asked the space to play a role, rather like the Accidental Monument, as a significant yet mysterious element for the visitors as they trawled through a series of temporarily restored space in a building that ultimately proved rather unsatisfactory for art. Her intervention, subtle but accurate as ever, made this point. By controlling the light so that it switched off occasionally, she also seemed to want to emphasise the mysteriousness of the successful viewing experience itself, something always dependent on relations to space, time, mood and sequence and particularly fugitive in such large scale exhibitions.

Role playing, both artistic and social, is is likely to be reflected in her piece for The Sonje Art Center here. This time the roles are shared between sculpture, space and audience as Yang intends to invite the audience to engage in specific activities around a fabricated ‘hill’ sculpture. The gallery perhaps has the potential to forget itself during the presentation, but more likely the self-consciousness of the audience will be the dominant effect. They will possibly feel distanced from the mundane reality in the same way that much of Yang’s previous work speaks of her own distance, or at least curiosity, about day-to-day activities and their mysterious motivations.