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Haegue Yang’s cones of concern and hybrid intermediaries

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 14, 2022 5:00 am

When South Korean artist Haegue Yang was here in the Philippines for her 2020 exhibit “The Cone of Concern” at Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD), things were still deep in lockdown.

“There were, of course, many times when we felt doomed or were even stopped due to the COVID-19 restrictions,” she says now, after recently receiving the Benesse prize at Singapore Biennale held at Singapore Art Museum (SAM). “My team and I were always grateful for the full-hearted collaborations and engagements of the MCAD team, not to mention that of our partner S.C. Vizcarra and their rattan-weaving artisans.”

The local S.C. Vizcarra team, in fact, produced half of the biennale installation, a pair of matted and woven towers resembling AC/DC outlet totems (the one called “The Randing Intermediate – Furless Uncolored Dweller”) for the SAM exhibit. And in another twist of fate, she reconnected with MCAD curator/director Maria Joselina Cruz, who served as a judge for the 13th Benesse prize awarding held in Singapore.

The two totemic figures resemble male plugs and female sockets set on wheels and covered in layers of matting and small bells, arrangements of fake fruit upon each of their crowns.

Established in 1995, the Benesse prize was originally awarded at the Venice Biennale, but shifted to the Singapore Biennale in 2016.

Shuttling between Berlin and Seoul these days, Yang (born 1971) has often looked to household objects as a power source, in a way, towards some new, more shamanistic or animistic meaning. In this quest, she’s often worked with artisans, folk craftspeople, or weavers, as she did in the Philippines.

We modern folk couldn’t exist without our plugs. Those of us in a digital world couldn’t survive without connections between energy sources and machinery. The question is, who is using whose energy, and which way does the flow go—and is it all sustainable?

Yang’s paired installation “The Hybrid Intermediates – Flourishing Electrophorus Duo” during the “activation” at Singapore Biennale 2022.

Perhaps that’s one theme that Yang was alluding to in her paired installation “The Hybrid Intermediates – Flourishing Electrophorus Duo.” The two totemic figures resemble male plugs and female sockets set on wheels and covered in layers of matting and small bells, arrangements of fake fruit upon each of their crowns. Upon receiving the prize, Yang joked, “This doesn’t happen nearly as much as you’d think.”

We asked a few questions.

Philippine Star: What were some of your memorable experiences of Manila?

HAEGUE YANG: Wherever I go, the greatest moments I have are from interacting with artists and art professionals. I know many great artists living in Manila and what I appreciate the most is to converse with those great minds. In fact, what really matters is rather my curiosity and its vitality—in other words, me staying curious about the people and the land. 

(NOTE: The title of her October 2020 show, “The Cone of Concern,” referred to a graphic tool for weather forecasting, one that traces the path of an oncoming storm or tropical depression. Yang wanted to “draw out the metaphoric towards the notion of solidarity amongst those facing difficult circumstances, and with human imagination, understand our very own condition in the universe” through complex layering of objects—woven anthropomorphic sculptures, light sculptures, rotating sound bells, whirlwind-derived structures, textile canopies and sound elements.)

Artist Haegue Yang making remarks at Singapore Art Museum (SAM) during the Benesse prize 2022 awarding ceremony. Photo courtesy of Benesse Holdings Inc.

I had actually planned multiple field trips prior to the opening, to visit the north to study textile and also visit the south. And without COVID, I could have spent more time with artisans at S.C. Vizcarra. Until today, I haven’t seen my own works—the works that were showcased at MCAD. We were very ambitious and produced many of the exhibited works locally in Manila, including one duo and one quartet-like rattan sculpture. In fact, I can’t wait to come back to the Philippines, as I continue to work with the workshop Vizcarra after the show in Manila. 

Your work blends folk art elements with a kind of incidental, but omnipresent technology. Do you see those two elements as balanced in the modern world? Or do you seek a balance between in your work?

I personally do not value the word “balance” much, because that term has somehow been too contaminated by the false fantasy of peaceful balance; it sounds too static or calm to me. I believe that if there ever is any equilibrium in the world, it is about a state of dynamic coexistence, rather than static balance. 

About the specific relationship between folk art and technology, I do think that they are historically tightly interwoven. Of course, the technology that is involved in craftsmanship has been the common technology, more widespread, in relation to high technology. I would thus call it the “most technology” that employs common materiality and yet doesn’t ward off the spirit of innovation and artisanal talent. I was interested in that notion of commonness and modest qualities of the craftsmanship in folk art, which refer directly to the notion of the people and their life, rather than any notion of sophisticated art of the ruling classes, such as elite aristocracy. 

The modern world is not necessarily advocative of folk art, which is far from being machine-efficient. So if my works blend the two notions, it is a particular balance since folk art would in fact resist merciless technological demand, as it is rather about the more grounded technology. And it is interesting to think about where we need innovation and where we need groundedness in terms of technology.

Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Do you think technology can be reclaimed to create some kind of spiritual link?

I take inspiration from Jeremy Narby’s seminal text “The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge” (1998), which was based on two years of fieldwork in the Pichis Valley of the Peruvian Amazon, where the author infers that connections exist between the shamanic practice of ingesting Ayahuasca (a psychoactive brew) and molecular biology. Narby’s speculations on the transmission of knowledge at the molecular level between mankind and nature empowers me to imagine many unprovable connections between the high and the low as well as between the scientific and the spiritual. 

“The Cone of Concern” was also about those somewhat hidden but connected possible binaries on earth, relating to Gaia Theory. I am super happy that MCAD will produce the belated exhibition catalogue of “The Cone of Concern.” And this leads to the new duo sculpture in Singapore, which takes on the form of electricity outlets and their reversed shapes. We do not know whether these creatures are about to plug in to get energy or to be plugged to give energy. However, what is inherent here is the idea of transmitting energy to each other, which refers to the basics of animism.