artistic licenseSummer 2010

Domestic Explorations

A new installation by Haegue Yang, one of the most talked about artists from Life on Mars, focuses on ideas of home.
By Justin Hopper

Haegue Yang at the installation of Series of Vulnerable Arrangements–Domestics of Community this past January. photos: Renee Rosensteel

An empty milk carton, its label in German, hangs from a stainless steel kitchen stand. A few feet away, a clothes rack holds not its usual burden of half-dry trousers and socks but a beehive of electrical cords that ends in bulbs casting light on nearby venetian blinds. A third stainless steel contraption wears a crocheted orange-and-black tube like a dancer’s feather boa, its knitted form bulging at intervals like a just-fed python.

At first glance, this latest addition to Carnegie Museum of Art’s contemporary collection by Korean artist Haegue Yang seems chaotic, aided by the constant hum of televisions looping four different instructional-style videos. But rather than focus on the separate sculptural elements of Series of Vulnerable Arrangements–Domestics of Community, visitors are encouraged to look up at the tent-like mingling of the sculptures’ power cords. Because when the diminutive, soft-spoken Yang oversaw the work’s installation this past January, her process was anything but chaotic as she guided each accidental-looking loop and knot with calm and exact precision. 

The pieces that comprise Domestics of Community share a common narrative—one, perhaps, as complex as Yang’s own. Yang is an artist for whom abrupt shifts in artistic media are as natural as her mid-sentence shifts from English to German, or her regular flights between Los Angeles and Seoul.

Since her emergence on the international art scene in the late 1990s, Yang has worn her global perspective and artistic diversity as badges of honor. Her work not only moves between video, sculpture, and writing, but often does so in the course of a single installation. From her 2000 work Blue Meadow-Coloured Language to the subjects covered in her recently published book Symmetric Inequality, she incorporates multilingual writing with an abstract feel for pastels and nontraditionally textured sculptural materials such as cardboard, window blinds, and light bulbs.

Similarly, geography has often defined Yang’s output, not because her art is built of a place but because her location—like her artwork—has so often been ephemeral; yet another aspect of life to be consumed, comprehended, and incorporated into an ever-growing personal narrative. From South Korea to Germany to North America and back again, Yang sees her artwork as defined more by leaving than by arriving in a place.

“It’s not ‘transient,’” says Yang. “When I speak of ‘leaving’ a place, it’s sort of unlearning. It’s more about the concept and the definition, not necessarily geographical.”

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, over the past few years Yang’s work has increasingly focused on ideas of home. Her Three Kinds, one of the highlights of Life of Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International, explored two of Yang’s most passionate interests: domesticity and the meeting point between public and private life. In Three Kinds, colored venetian blinds, cut into diamonds and hexagons, were lit by reflected soft spotlights, obstructing the way to a cutout in a gallery wall that revealed Yang’s workspace.

“It’s a very particular moment when the personal life encounters the public life,” says Yang. “What I focus on is how they open up to one another. There’s a kind of violence—because it’s inevitable. In these pieces there’s no border between friendship, love affairs, political engagement. I like that word—it’s inevitable.”

“It’s a very particular moment when the personal life encounters the public life. What I focus on is how they open up to one another.”

- Haegue yang

Three Kinds
might be seen as a forerunner to Domestics of Community, which picks up on those same ideas of the household and places them into an even more complex narrative. The installation intrigued Lynn Zelevansky, who made    it her first acquisition as The Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art.

“I saw the work in the Arsenale, the main exhibition space at the Venice Biennale, last June, and thought it was a great example of Haegue’s art,” says Zelevansky, who included Yang’s work in Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists from Korea, an exhibition she
co-curated last year while still at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I knew that she had participated in the last International and that the museumhadn’t acquired a work, so I immediately   put a reserve on it. It has been a very exciting process.”

When creating the installation, Yang notes, “I thought about ‘What is the household?’ And ‘What is life?’ So it was important that the objects matured; that it was a very organic process.”  
As she knitted and experimented with objects over a full year, Yang kept all the packaging she used in her home—milk cartons, pesto jars, plastics—often knitting them into her creations. The final product eventually reminded her of the 1970s-era, pioneering videos by feminist artist Martha Rosler such as Semiotics of the Kitchen, in which the artist redefines kitchenware as weaponry. Rosler approaches domesticity with a sense of revolution—an inspiration for Yang’s sculptures and a perfect match for the installation. So after conversations with Yang, Dan Byers, Carnegie Museum of Art’s associate curator of contemporary art, opted to acquire four of Rosler’s videos for the museum and show them within Yang’s work.

“Her performance in these videos—there’s this sense of domestics, but as something that you were working for; there’s this sense of battle,” says Yang. “I feel indebted to artists like Rosler because if it weren’t for their aggressive insisting, I don’t think I could practice in this more peaceful way.”

Also in this issue:

Growing Up With Science  ·  The Disappeared  ·  Ode to a Collection  ·  Twisted Pair  ·  Special Supplement: A Tribute to Our Donors  ·  Directors' Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Face Time: Zhe-Xi Luo  ·  Science & Nature: Geological Wonder  ·  About Town: Artists Among Us  ·  The Big Picture