Ran Hwang, a Korean-born artist working in New York, Zurich and Seoul, is best known for large-scale wall installations in which buttons, pins, beads and thread are used to create silhouette images of traditional Korean vessels, falling blossoms or caged birds. At times, the shapes are those of such diversely revered figures as the Buddha or Marilyn Monroe. Pinned directly onto the wall of the gallery, using each element like a pixel on a screen, at closer look, the amount of individual buttons is somewhat overwhelming, but from afar, the installation transforms into one breathtaking image.
Hwang’s working method, developed over 25years, has always been something of a private performance, if not a ritual. Projecting an image on a hard surface such as a wall, ceiling, window frame or portable panel, she traces the figure’s contours, then laboriously fills in the outline with thousands of buttons or beads impaled on long straight pins. The obsessively repetitive action (aided these days by numerous assistants) results in works like Sweet Destiny, 2010, a roughly 23 1/2-foot-long image of bright red plum blossoms – a traditional symbol of renewal and/or fleeting youth-under which lies an uncoiled snake, beautiful yet deadly. This creature dramatically offsets the work’s almost too gorgeous spring-time motif, suggesting that every object of desire has its dangers, and that lovely illusion and grim reality coexist like two sides of a coin.
|Sweet Destiny - detail|
Dualism – ever present in her works, is even more evident in the video work Garden of Water (2010), a room-size installation in which ghostly images of chandeliers are projected on transparent sheets of Plexiglas. A huge, silhouetted spider begins to roam about a web, and before long we see its would-be prey. Slowly at first, then with accelerating speed, the chandeliers are overrun by hordes of skittering bugs. Just when the infestation is at its peak, a noisy deluge washes all the shadowy critters away, and the process begins again. The cyclical cleansing is not only mysterious in its origins but also discomfortingly futile.
Garden of Water
In recent years, the Korean-born Ran Hwang, resident of the U.S. since 1997, has developed two related bodies of work: one composed of moderately scaled 3D collages, the other comprising large wall installations that utilize buttons, pins and thread to evoke a hovering figure of the Buddha. In both modes, between which she alternates freely, Hwang addresses current social issues—particularly “menial” labour and its relation to the glamour trade—as well as timeless spiritual concerns. The overall effect of her work is to ennoble commonplace materials, processes and persons, while simultaneously grounding and authenticating two very different types of grandeur-one pop-cultural, the other divine.
There is, then, a teasing, peek-a-boo quality to Hwang's evocations of the Buddha. In some works, the great teacher is a presence, a distinct form in positive space, created from thousands of small items-usually buttons and pins-concentrated to imply a solid mass. Other pieces show only a haunting linear outline. Still others offer a field of tiny elements within which the Buddha is a virtual knockout, a phantom of negative space. Beyond its innate formal intrigue, this technique has a major thematic import. The absence of one who is nevertheless very much there implies that spiritual substance resides in the mind and the heart of the willing perceiver. Every religious devotee, like every lover, knows the paradox of a being who is compellingly present even when materially absent, and whose fleshly manifestation seems only a token of an immeasurably finer, untouchable essence.
When an artist and the right subject matter find each other, the art can really take off. When Hwang was a child in Korea her father used to take her to Buddhist temples. No child is ever fully aware of the meaning of worship and ritual, but an affinity for the sacred is planted then, and is a seed that can flourish later. For Hwang it blossomed as art.
Zen Buddhism is apparent not only in Hwang’s motifs, but also in the process of constructing the works. Weaving thread, creating hand-made paper buttons, hammering each pin approximately 25 times until it is secure are all time-consuming tasks. The monotony and receptiveness of these actions require the upmost concentration and discipline, recalling the meditative state practiced by Zen masters. In the catalogue essay, Barbara Pollack writes: “On one hand, it is an overtly labour-intensive mode of art-making, to the point that thinking about the sheer effort can distract from appreciation of the work. But, for the artist, the task of mounting buttons upon buttons, one pin at a time, parallels a Buddhist monk's practice of staring at a blank wall for months on end as a path to enlightenment. Her art-making is entirely meditative for Hwang, and she hopes that viewers can share the meditative state evoked by her strongest work.”
|Garden of Water 2|
Born in the Republic of Korea in 1960, Ran Hwang lives and works in both Seoul and New York City. She studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and attended the Graduate School of Fine Arts at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. She has exhibited at several international institutions including the Queens Museum of Art, New York; the Chelsea Art Museum, New York; The Seoul Arts Centre Museum; and The Jeju Museum of Art, Jeju Island. Hwang’s work is also a part of numerous private and public collections including The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul; and The Hammond Museum, North Salem, NY.
|Dreaming of Joy|
|Whimsical Dream 1|