The Future art magazine

Marcus Verhagen on possibly the best show this year
Haegue Yang: Storage Piece

Lawrence O'Hana Gallery
28 April – 9 May 2004

Haegue Yang’s Storage Piece, which showed at Lawrence O’Hana Gallery in late April and early May, was a brilliant tease, a work of art made out of other works that were wrapped up and stacked together on palettes. It cast the viewer as an interloper whose aesthetic instincts were not just frustrated but gently mocked, while offering a thoughtful meditation on the nomadism of the contemporary artist.

At first sight, the pile of boxes, crates and bubble-wrapped oddments came across as a slightly fussy, neo-minimalist piece, hovering cleverly on the border between sculpture and installation. After all, it sat on a pedestal of sorts – the palettes – and had an imposing physical presence. But the impression quickly unravelled. As soon as you realised that the work consisted of earlier pieces by the same artist, the minimalist reading became problematic and the show took on a more provocative character. The artist had left a clipboard lying on top of a box, and the clipboard, it turned out, held an inventory of all the works that were piled up in the gallery, together with telegraphic descriptions (‘UN matchbox’, ‘Knitting material’, etc.). The list was a bureaucratically-framed taunt, holding out tantalising scraps of information on pieces that would remain under wraps for the duration of the show.

At the opening, two actors appeared and read out a rambling script in which the artist disserted on our attachment to things and on her experience of making and showing some of the mothballed pieces. (The reading was recorded and then replayed throughout the show.) One of the hidden objects, apparently, was a rack that she had wanted for her home but had instead exhibited – having bought it with the help of a sponsor, she could hardly use it for private ends. Another invisible piece consisted of Korean objects that had been assembled for a show in Amsterdam on contemporary Korean culture; Yang, who was already living in Europe, had to hire a ‘personal shopper’ to collect the objects for her in Korea. By this point in the performance it was clear that Yang had a taste for the absurd and that much of her earlier work hinged on telling incongruities – on mismatched ambitions and deflected purposes. But the end of the reading held a masterstroke. Still speaking through the actors, Yang explained that the offer of a show at Lawrence O’Hana Gallery had come just as she was trying to find a storage facility for earlier pieces, some of which were on the point of arriving from exhibitions which had recently closed. A little disingenuously, she suggested that the show wasn’t a carefully executed artistic project as much as a convenient solution to a practical problem.

It was an eye-opening joke, one that transformed the show into a tug of war between the assemblage and the space. Could the pile of wrapped objects turn the room into a warehouse or would the gallery turn the crates and packages into an artwork? And of course the gallery won, but it won at the cost of the piece’s cogency as a purely aesthetic proposition. The collection of boxes did, yes, read as a work of art, but not as the kind you first took it for. Rather, it read as a witty commentary on the quasi-sacral aura of the traditional art object and on the role of the gallery in maintaining that aura. It took the viewer’s initial response and exposed it as a conditioned reflex – and one that eased the process of commoditisation but didn’t necessarily do justice to the work itself. And the piece hinted, just hinted, that if the artist had instead pandered to the viewer’s expectations, she might have had a home or studio large enough to accommodate her earlier work.

The piece also read as a diary-cum-travelogue, as the account of one artist’s experience in a rapidly globalising art world. The packages came from far-flung places, from Seoul, Paris, Frankfurt and Berlin, and their movements presumably mirrored those of the artist herself. But in the piece travel was pictured in terms of residues. In between the witticisms and sharp observations, the work told of deracination and unrelatedness. After all, the pieces-within-the-piece were in a sense homeless.
The show nimbly managed a number of conceptual tricks. It used concealment in the service of demystification. The artist spoke but not in her own voice and her work, like her person, was both present and not. But the show was more than just a clever display of conceptual prowess. It held up a mirror to the art world, wrong-footing it and uncovering deep-seated automatisms. And it was also a bemused but deeply compelling meditation on globalisation and on the opportunities, lapses and redundancies that come in its wake.

Marcus Verhagen is a freelance lecturer and critic.