“Abstraction is not a...simplified way of thinking: it’s a leap—a leap into a dimension that cannot otherwise be understood.”
“Most people cannot imagine what it means to be a non-Westerner working in contemporary art," Haegue Yang once remarked. The Korean-born, Berlin-based artist has spent her career traversing boundaries—between geographic regions, historical periods, and artistic styles. Her genre-defying approach to art making prizes fluidity over unified narratives, resulting in “a kind of mapping of times and places that are normally not neighbors.”
Yang is known for combining industrially manufactured objects with store-bought, everyday items. Her large-scale sculptures and installations consist of starkly disparate materials, from clothing racks to jingle bells, space heaters to artificial straw. Hand-crafted techniques such as knitting and weaving lend her work a human touch, and blur the lines between these more domestic pursuits and fine art. Yang brings a private, historically feminized space into the public sphere in Sallim (2009), a sculptural assemblage whose title comes from the Korean word for “housekeeping.” A steel armature replicates the contours of the artist’s home kitchen in Berlin, its interior filled with objects designed to engage the senses: light bulbs, an electric fan, scent emitters, and cloves of garlic.
In recent years, her work has taken on a performative dimension, with moveable objects arrayed in increasingly elaborate choreographies. Mobility has long been implicit in Yang’s signature motif, the venetian blind—a permeable barrier that can be raised and lowered, used to block sightlines or let in more light. Sculptures on casters, such as Dress Vehicles or the bell-covered objects in Handles, her 2019 commission for MoMA’s Marron Atrium, are imbued with potential energy that is activated when they are set in motion, wheeled through the gallery by trained performers in ever-shifting configurations.
Yang’s process is informed by meticulous research, but her references remain oblique, subsumed in a highly personal visual language that she refers to as “abstraction.” Her fascination with certain historical figures and movements is idiosyncratic and subjective, and she is careful to keep her work open to interpretation rather than fully resolved. She’s said, “maintaining an aporia between form and content, material and subject, abstraction and history, is an act of translating the struggle of one’s life.”
Note: Opening quote is from Haegue Yang, “Influences: Haegue Yang,” Frieze, December 19, 2017. https://www.frieze.com/article/influences-haegue-yang.
Taylor Walsh, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints