Must try harder

Haegue Yang, installation for Korean Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2009. Image: cdnimg.visualizeus.com

On Tuesday night I saw Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘The Skin I Live In‘, for which I would struggle to find an equal out of the admittedly limited selection of films I have seen in all my 22 years. The next day I payed a visit to the Haegue Yang exhibition at Bristol’s Arnolfini and was left wondering: why are some visual artists so afraid of trying to be really good?

It’s a crass question, undoubtedly. And I didn’t even have a particularly bad experience at ‘The Sea Wall‘, which also features several “inclusions” by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Yang’s work is moving when it is realised in a slick, professional manner that confirms its conceptual depth and at the same time belies its vulnerable affective qualities. Take the series of sculptures that make up Yang’s coded tribute to the writer, filmmaker and political activist Marguerite Duras (‘5, Rue Saint-Benoit’, 2008): cold, industrial-looking steel frames supporting light bulbs and brightly-painted Venetian blinds, their dimensions determined by various appliances from Yang’s own house – boiler, stove, radiator, etc. Not to put too zen a point on it, but the sculptures are both empty and full: contentless frames with an immediate visual impact and a communicative, conceptual weight. They speak lucidly of the oblique tactics sometimes required to convey an affinity.

I appreciate that communicativity is not a given in a contemporary art practice: rather, it is one of the many issues at stake when choosing how to give form to an idea. Failure, misdirection, vulnerability and sometimes sheer crapness are all part of the modern creator’s toolkit. But sometimes you encounter a work that, while employing some such devices, makes you wish it had just been done well. ‘The Story of a Bear-Lady in a Sand Cave’ (2010-11) is one such work. Yang’s work is based on a fascinating Korean myth about the birth of that nation:

‘According to the legend, a tiger and a bear were instructed to eat only garlic and the herb mugwort, and remain out of sunlight for 100 days in a cave. The tiger gave up after about twenty days and left the cave. The bear remained and was transformed into a woman, later marrying the son of the lord of heaven and giving birth to Dangun, the forefather of Koreans.’

Modern Korean religious painting depicting Founding King Dang-gun. Image: http://www.san-shin.org

Filtering this narrative through Kōbō Abe‘s novel ‘The Woman in the Dunes’, Yang has concocted a yarn in which the fabular Bear-lady is transported to a sand-cave, out of which she must continuously bail sand to prevent her home from collapsing, an act which is unbeknown to her all the while creating a ‘beautiful and seductive sand wave’. On paper, this sounds like a compelling and lyrical story. However, as a work ‘The Story of a Bear-Lady in a Sand Cave’ was not designed for paper, but for audio-narration. And here is the problem: with the best will in the world, one Tsukasa Yamamoto’s execution of this task is perfunctory at best. The fault is not Yamamoto’s. It is Yang’s. An internationally-renowned and successful artist, whose works filled the Korean pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale no less, Yang has nevertheless chosen to put into this work few if any of the rare and estimable resources open to her at this stage in her career. The result is practically unlistenable, at least to myself and the other visitors to ‘The Sea Wall’ who walked into the 2nd floor gallery, heard a badly produced and confusing tangle of monotonous, broken English and promptly left. The right to strength through vulnerability should be sacrosanct in a world where artists can no longer pretend to be superheroes, but sometimes a bit of  Almodóvar-style directorial genius wouldn’t go amiss.

Karla Black, ‘What to ask of others’, 2011. Image: http://www.spikeisland.org.uk

Or perhaps a modicum of compositional flair. This struck me later in the afternoon, at Spike Island, the Bristol venue currently hosting the Arts Council touring show ‘Structure and Material‘, with works by Claire Barclay, Karla Black and Becky Beasley (whose contribution to the British Art Show had got severely lost in the mix, but whose talent really sang here). All three are masters of that somewhat underappreciated skill. If you want a demonstration of the residual virtue of composition, try accidentally bumping into a Karla Black sculpture – in my case it was the pink polythene-and-plaster-powder assemblage that is ‘What to ask of others’ (2011). Its sheer ephemerality when rattled comes as a shock – even if you’re familiar with the artist and her repeated emphasis on sheer ephemerality – when considered alongside the overwhelming ‘rightness’ of her formal handling of these materials. If this sounds like intuitivist hokum, then you may be right. But one thing’s for sure – the surplus value of an object designated as ‘art’ is no guarantee of a compelling or even noteworthy whole. The process is a lot more mysterious than that.

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