One difference between a diagram and a tracing is their relationship to abstraction. To diagram is to anticipate the production of something new, and a diagram’s information can be read selectively. To trace is to attempt to capture the totality of a formation as something absent. Haegue Yang’s exhibition Tracing Movement is marked by a tension between a diagram as generative map and a tracing as associative Rorschach. Through site-specific sculptures, audio installations, and two-dimensional works from ongoing series, the exhibition displays Yang’s manifold artistic tendencies, which are too thematically heterogeneous to be cozily contained, even within the cavernous Victorian space of South London Gallery.
March 8 – May 26, 2019
The four site-specific works dominate the space, occupying the gallery’s center, and impose themselves upon the surrounding wall works. The first of these is a diagram made with gaffer’s tape on the gallery floor, outlining simplified shapes with curved and concave arcs, semicircular stadiums, and flanked vectors, which correspond to shapes within an ornate art nouveau marquetry panel hidden beneath the gallery’s floorboards. Donated in 1891 by socialist activist and children’s book illustrator Walter Crane, at the gallery’s inception, the panel was concealed after the building was remodeled following World War II, and it has been uncovered only twice, briefly, since. By pivoting Crane’s decorative motifs and paring his illustrations down to their primitive geometries, Yang makes the inlaid marquetry’s very invisibility palpable. Her gesture evokes the fundamental fault of any tracing: the necessity for a degree of estimation and inadequacy.
Inscribed at the center of Crane’s panel, amid his cascades of floral bulbs, fish scales, and dancing swans, is the phrase, “the source of art is in the life of a people.” Yang maps this inscription, still hidden beneath the floorboards, onto the acoustic space of the gallery through the use of motion sensors, which trace gallery goers as they cross the tape. Artificial voices iterate the phrase, with varying emphases and volumes, throughout a 27 minute looped recording. By deploying text-to-speech technologies used in applications like Google Translate and Amazon Echo, Yang’s synthetic assemblage of 26 bodiless utterances evokes a frequent subject of the Korean artist’s work: the linguistic isolation that a language’s nonnative speakers experience as immigrants.
Speakers above the diagram emit chirruping birdsong and snapping camera shutters in between the synthetic phrases. The exhibition guide indicates that these field-recorded sounds were provided by the Presidential Office of the Republic of Korea, and were captured during the historic meeting of President Moon Jae-in and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un at the Joint Security Area, just south of the military demarcation line dividing their nations. The border dividing the Korean peninsula is among the most heavily guarded in the world, yet these tranquil sonic traces leave the day’s political significance unexamined. This recording, like all tracings, requires mental completion with reference to the antecedent structure that generated it. The effect is eerie, as it distills the imminent present threat of geopolitical tensions into mere representation.
The last of the core works are two large, wheeled aluminum constructions featuring the artist’s signature use of Venetian blinds. Titled Sonic Dress Vehicles, each of these constructions is an amalgamation of powder-coated aluminum squares and triangles, the discrete components soldered together to fabricate of a garish, angular Gestalt. Every module is adorned with either the aluminum horizontal slats of window covering or nickel and brass plated bells, arranged sequentially at right angles or in successively in parallel segments. Whereas the artist’s previous creations using Venetian blinds consisted of monumental Donald Judd-like cubic stacks spanning their venues’ heights, the complexity of these oblique, circuitous compositions fails to command the same gravity. With the previous works, the signifiers of domestic privacy were programmatically accumulated, asserting an simple yet elegant uncanniness; the Sonic Dress Vehicles, by contrast, with their cautious, mismatched ornamentation, feel both noncommittal and maudlin by comparison.
Of the hung wall works surrounding the central designs, two pieces from Yang’s Trustworthies series catty-corner the space. These two corners house blasted remnants of unopened security envelopes, corrugated origami, and sandpaper atop crisp graphs of intricate, hand-traced arrangements. Intersecting convex polygons of vinyl film connect the corners of the framed pieces, yet it was difficult for me to grasp how these relate conceptually to the core works, save for a few common formal elements.
The remainder of the wall works, with the series titles “Hardware Store Collages,” “Cutting Board Prints,” “Blade Notations,” and "Carsick Drawings,” feel conspicuously peripheral relative to the central works. The only recognizable shared theme is that many of the materials used are byproducts of Yang’s artistic process. While the press release makes vague reference to their status as immigration documents from the artist’s time in Germany—perhaps the “movements” she traces—the juxtaposition of these widely disparate works gives the unavoidable impression of their being the exhibition’s afterthoughts. They detract from the poignancy of the larger, more thematically focused pieces.
Yang’s tracings of vernacular material culture indicate her awareness of a line’s inherent inexactitude, and reveal a productive failure that bathes the viewer in a thick associative sea of impressions within which to deliberate. Each of the show’s series evokes the image of an impassioned psycho-biographical interiority. And yet the pieces collected in Tracing Movement leave the inescapable sensation of enduring in a deferred state of cohesion, with nebulous connective links traversing the formally persuasive collection of techniques.