Bells tinkle faintly on the fifth floor of the Art Gallery of Ontario on a Saturday afternoon. Gloved technicians are gently rotating sculptures entirely covered in small brass jingle bells, moving them according to choreography laid out by their creator, the South Korean artist Haegue Yang. In this period of restriction, the restrained movements breed a certain tension: Imagine if you let a pack of unmasked kindergarteners into this room and could watch the sculptures swirl and hear the volume rise.
But in Yang’s art the possibility of movement is more important than its actualization. This survey of her work curated by the AGO’s Adelina Vlas begins with a delightful series of sculptures made over the last decade. Each one is mounted on aluminum legs with casters like those on a heavy office chair or the sale rack at a clothing store. Perhaps the art will just roll along once the viewer’s back is turned.
On top of those legs, Yang uses everyday materials to create forms that are part figure, part furniture. They include a white puffball made of synthetic twine and several more shapes covered in bells, one of them topped with metal turbine vents of the kind sometimes mounted on roofs. Bit of breeze and the vents might start spinning.
As these descriptions suggest, this work is easily accessible, partly because of its human scale and partly because of the familiar materials. And yet, Yang is also an artist intent on sharing her dense intellectual sources in works that make reference to her muses among cultural greats of the 20th century.
For example, there are two versions of Sol LeWitt Vehicle, other pieces the gallery is activating on Saturdays for the length of the exhibition. These are all-white aluminum-frame towers built from stacked cubes filled with plastic Venetian blinds. With more casters and protruding handles, they can also be gently rotated.
Their inspiration is the American minimalist artist Sol LeWitt, whose abstract sculptures were scrupulously free of references beyond their own sparse geometry. Yang’s use of the familiar Venetian blind, one of her favourite materials, is particularly sly here, contrasting the pure experience of abstract art with that mundane world where we all lower our window shades.
Appreciating the piece’s cleverness does rather depend on you knowing LeWitt, however. The references surrounding these mobile sculptures call on yet more cultural knowledge: The huge gallery where they are displayed is covered in bold vinyl wallpaper featuring massive collages, Dada-like photo assemblages of male and female faces that include the writers Romain Gary, Marguerite Duras and George Orwell, German Green party founder Petra Kelly and the composer Igor Stravinsky, as well as a clown, an elephant and a bear.
The point of evoking such figures becomes perhaps slightly clearer in a text work that simply juxtaposes Duras’s biography – the child of French colonialists in Vietnam, she joined the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of Paris and was a leading figure of the postwar avant-garde – with the similarly dramatic mix of art and politics lived by the Korean composer Isang Yun. The piece, which might as well live on the page of a book, is dense with information and implied connections. In contrast, you need know nothing about the Bauhaus designer and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer to appreciate Boxing Ballet, that series of oversized bell-covered figures tinkling in the background. Inspired by Schlemmer’s geometric costumes for his Triadic Ballet of 1923, the series wittily deploys images of performance and play in the visual-arts space.
Bells. Blinds. The third item in Yang’s arsenal of the quotidian is the lowly laundry drying rack. It first appeared in her work in 2006, a pivotal year in her mid-30s when she created an installation in her grandparents' abandoned house in a decaying suburb of Seoul. There’s a recreation of that installation at the AGO, complete with various lights, fans, silver mylar streamers and a fridge full of bottled water for visitors. A row of photographs features the familiar winged drying rack that graces many a condo or basement: Yang posed it in various gymnastic moves, creating something part avian and part human. Nearby, there’s a gallery full of actual drying racks, encased in different coloured covers that make them appear both otherworldly and comic. Meanwhile, corners of the exhibition are dotted with collections of origami such as those Yang once scattered in the Seoul house, remnants of traditional culture accumulating like dust piles.
It is these contrasts between traditional handicrafts and modern consumer goods, between mass-production and fine art, between the familiar and the faraway, that can make Yang’s work so engaging, filled with encounters where the comic becomes poignant. Another contrast is that between East and West, as Yang divides her career between Korea and Germany. The show includes a series of cuboid frames fronted with Venetian blinds and lit from within, scaled to the appliances (two fridges, two washing machines, etc.) in her Seoul and Berlin apartments.
She’s less successful in nailing that approach in Canada with Woven Currents – Confluence of Parallels, a work created especially for the AGO. It’s a mobile of sorts, a whole series of Venetian blinds in white, blue and purple hanging from the ceiling in the AGO’s ground-floor sculpture court. The nearby wall text explains the piece was inspired by the beaded belt of the Two Row Wampum Treaty of 1613 between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch (in what is now upstate New York.) That would loosely link the work to Toronto’s long Indigenous history, but without reading the text, the piece, perhaps evoking an airy apartment block, speaks more strongly to the dense urban buildup of the AGO and its neighbours. Hung at intersecting angles, the forms create a pleasing mobile to gaze up at, while two longer blinds reach down and touch the floor, bringing the piece into the viewer’s space.
In a slow waltz that partners the elevated with the mundane, Yang’s art can fly over your head one moment and execute a perfect landing the next.
Haegue Yang: Emergence continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario to Jan. 21. 2021.