Tightrope Walking

A talk with Haegue Yang.

A talk with Haegue Yang about her first Italian solo show “Tightrope Walking and Its Wordless Shadow” curated by Bruna Roccasalva on view at La Triennale di Milano. Interview by Angelica Moschin.

“This is the road we all must walk — over the bridge of sighs into eternity”
– Søren Kierkegaard, Pap. I A 334; CC19

From September 7 to November 4, 2018, La Triennale di Milano pays homage to the incredibly versatile oeuvre of Haegue Yang with a show that combines landmark works with new commissions to highlight recurrent themes in the artist’s career such as migration, postcolonial diasporas, enforced exile and social mobility. Over the past few years, working with nontraditional materials such as venetian blinds, clothing racks, synthetic straw, bells and graph paper, she has created a series of carefully staged installations that embrace all senses and are the results of the entanglement of politics and human passions.

Two works In particular have contributed to praise her work as greatly modest and restrained: Sadong 30 (2006), where she resuscitated an abandoned house in Seoul to create a lyrical and deeply personal orchestration of Christmas lights, origami polyhedrons, mirrors and various electronic devices and Series of Vulnerable Arrangements – Blind Room (2006), where she folded black venetian blinds to convey a sense of reserve and concealment. Besides pointing to her deep engagement with the unspoken, the exhibition at La Triennale also reveals her penchant for the mood of melancholy – a fundamental aspect of our human condition that is intimately tied to the historical environment we live in. Here she tells us how to embrace this feeling, turn it into a powerful trigger and bravely step outside our comfort zone towards the others.

How crucial is it for you to go where you exhibit to get the atmosphere of the space and understand its surroundings? Though the idea of “studio practice” might define well what you do, you sometimes prefer to have a more “context-oriented” approach to the setting as you have a tendency to develop the largest part of you works in situ and take in the culture of the place with all your senses. How do you manage to blend those two aspects together so properly and poignantly?

I’ve always considered space as a crucial starting point in my career but my aim is to turn a space into a place. “Space” sounds too neutral to me; it reminds of the so-called white cube and the mode of display it implies. At a point I felt that through sculptures and installations I had to become more specific and consider whatever exhibition space I was working in more as a place. A place is a common ground that holds the potential for creating a shared experience and invites people to dwell, encounter the others and go through a series of perceptual associations that include scent, sound, light and tactility.

In Cittadella (2011) the use of venetian blinds is extensive and magnificent. As one takes a step inside the installation, is suddenly bombarded by the most diverse sensorial elements. In today’s societies our waking hours are filled with a great deal of perceptual stimuli we barely pay attention to and Cittadella tries to invoke them and protect their integrity. However, these elements are not gathered to form a clearly understandable situation; they rather stand on their own in an almost purist-like way. Could you elaborate a bit further on this?

Cittadella is a work I conceived in 2001 and this is the third time it’s been presented. It’s a transitional piece where you have a series of half-transparent “cells” formed by venetian blinds suspended from the ceiling and folded almost like origami. For this exhibition we wanted the first room to be that “intro” you are referring to – something conceptual and minimal that exists prior to any chronology or categorization. When you come across Cittadella you find a room that is physically overwhelming and perceptually challenging; there are few passages you can move through quite easily but you can’t penetrate the entire installation. It’s literally a maze.

At a certain stage of your career you realized that non-figurative sculptures can sometimes portrait a person or a personal quality better than any figurative reference and that your main interests lay in abstraction rather than illustration. Do you think you art needs to be decoded?

Representation is the use of signs that generally take the place of something else. Since ancient times representation has been deemed as natural to man and therefore necessary for people’s learning and being in the world. The ability to project something human onto something that’s not human at all, say, your small belongings, your car, your room etc., is a definitively human activity and to me one of the most fascinating ones. As a sculptor, I want to honor that specific human instinct by projecting narratives and feelings onto our everyday objects and achieve what I call empathy or sometimes sympathy. Even though today progress happens at a furious pace and both technology and science force us to deal with macro realities that we neither see nor touch we still rely on imagination. Does my art need to be decoded? Well, I think the liminal divide between abstraction and representation has been blurred a long time ago so I would say no. This kind of abstraction stands on her own and is generous with whomever has a desire to understand it.

Your interventions have often been praised as modest and restrained. On one hand, working on a global scale allowed you to travel a lot and perhaps quench your wanderlust but on the other it might have contributed to deepen your sense of vulnerability and melancholy. However, as an artist, you’ve found your own way to weave histories of human passions and fleeting places in a flux without moving much further from the innermost core of yourself which seems to be the most exquisite oriental melancholy. Don’t you think that melancholy could be easily mistaken for an act of self-negation and “airtight” concealment? I know you’ve repeatedly warned viewers against such a reading but it’s difficult not to keep bouncing back to it, especially for those who don’t have a well-rounded understanding of your works.

They call it modesty, I’d rather call it ignorance or blindness on my part. On one hand I acknowledge the impossibility to communicate and fill the chasm between what I am to others and what I am to myself. But on the other I clearly see the risks of cutting myself off and not communicate at all. I think I will be truly accepted and understood by the others when I make an effort to not take their openness as a given but rather as a generative force that helps me shake free of prejudices. Of course it’s not easy and it takes a great amount of bravery but I believe that’s exactly what artists need to come up with. They need a feedback from the others as they deal with uncertain things that cannot be proven as true or false.

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