In an alley between Greene Naftali gallery and a walled parking lot under the High Line, sit two Haegue Yang installations. Consisting of wind turbines and air conditioners atop layers of concrete bricks, the sculptures (“Opaque Grey – Humbled #1” and “#2,” both 2016) channel contemporary estrangement in their bifurcated aesthetics. The bricks are reduced to props instead of being used as foundations for solid borders of defense, shelter, or safety, while the turbines and fans seem odd al fresco, detached from their usual placement on top of or inside buildings. At the same time, the assembled objects make an unmistakable reference to the archaic palaces and temples of ancient civilization. In repurposing and muddling aesthetics and materials, Yang studies globalization’s struggles with modern and traditional life, a theme apparent throughout her solo exhibition, Quasi-Pagan Minimal.
“Rooted stones on parallel dimensions” (2016), a sublime slab of teak shaped by the ancient Chinese art form of root carving, is the centerpiece of the first indoor space we encounter. Suiseki, exceptionally formed Japanese rocks found in nature, sit on the surface of this sculpture, standing upright in a geometric formation that hark back to the Chinese scholar’s desk or study, where quotidian materials were transformed into rare objects due to unique placement or purpose. Circling this sculpture are four pieces from Yang’s Intermediates series, which reflects a similar transformation: man-made textiles such as artificial straw, plastic fruit, and plastic flowers are used to craft semi-holy structures that look like votive offerings, all playfully set on moveable caster wheels. Here, Yang uses earthly objects to initiate conversations with the spiritual world, stripping the objects of their specific cultural contexts. Additionally, by using plastic fruits and flowers, she comments on the sacrifice of natural beauty in our capitalist rush to mass-produce everything.
The abrupt and clashing transition from the charming straw sculptures to the adjacent room’s installations — Yang’s famous Venetian blind works — is yet another example of the jarring effects of globalization. Rapid sociopolitical and economic growth has widened a gap between our appreciation of individually crafted objects and those produced for consumerist culture.
Variations of Venetian blind works have appeared in Yang’s shows since 2008. She fashioned the household accessory first into labyrinths (“Mountains of Encounter,” 2008) where a visitor’s permutable pathway was dictated by the remote-controlled opening and closing of the blinds, emphasizing the kinetic quality of the material. Then, in 2015, she started to craft her “Sol LeWitt Upside Down” series, where she focused on the architecture of blinds, expanding and composing LeWitt’s white, spatially logical structures that, at the time, aimed to deconstruct abstract aesthetics. The blinds in Quasi-Pagan Minimal are a continuation of that series, and remain static, although charged with a domestic, private energy. Against cobalt blue walls, Yang’s structures evoke cookie-cutter homes and, semi-unopened, the blinds lose their portal function of looking both in and out, instead obscuring and cordoning off spaces in the room.
The final room shows the oldest series in the exhibition (most are newer works): the Trustworthy pieces, which are both painted mural-style on the walls and framed as works on paper. Where the show started strong in its theme of juxtaposing the traditional and the contemporary, steam peters out significantly in this very last room. The painted waves and swirls on the walls, as well as the mainly primary colors that are used, are vaguely reminiscent of the traditional Korean tricolored Taegeuk, a patriotic symbol that represents humanity, heaven, and earth. The use of security envelopes in this context seems, however, a little arbitrary. Yang collected envelopes stamped with security patterns from around the world, reworking the strips and bits into collages, reflecting on the ubiquity of these objects and their functionality value — are these bits of papers, so easily torn and remolded, really that trustworthy?
One other piece in the room, “Sonic Figure – Venting Gourd” (2016) is from Yang’s Sonic Sculpture series. Brass-plated bells hang off an abstract steel frame on caster wheels, the curve of the sculpture’s body inspired by the Bauhaus school. The object appears to be waiting to be played like an instrument, or pushed. The motion and mobility Yang offers (but does not act upon) in this sculpture is a metaphor for change and globalization as well as an homage to sound, in particular bells, in ancient rituals. The entire exhibition could be moved — the Venetian blinds up and down, the sculptures on caster wheels rolled around, the wind turbines activated by a strong gust. But it is this still and silent scene, which teeters on the edge of potential movement, that makes a meditation on the past and present possible.
Haegue Yang: Quasi-Pagan Minimal continues at Greene Naftali (508 W 26th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 16.