The Baker Museum at Artis-Naples
October 22, 2022 through January 8, 2023
Curated by Rangsook Yoon, Ph.D.
By MARK BLOCH, January 2023
A couple years ago, I saw, on Broadway of all places, one of those improv groups where the audience is asked to supply a word which then becomes the premise of an ad libbed skit. The word that was chosen was “cascading.” Ever since that moment I haven’t been able to shake it from my head. I have since walked the earth delighted by all that cascades. I was impressed that night by the audience member who plucked it from his vocabulary and I was tickled by the improvisatory routine that followed. Not that I recall exactly what they did. Mostly I was taken by the dynamism of everything that single word— “cascading” —evokes and how it was seldom used in my own vocabulary until then. And now.
Ran Hwang’s work cascades. It is made of thousands of tiny buttons, crystals, beads, and threads on pins, rising just above the magnificent surfaces from which they protrude to cast shadows and paint pictures with pointillistic mastery. As they cascaded, they charmed, educated and surprised me on a recent trip to Florida.
Hwang was born in a small town in South Korea, then moved to New York where she studied at SVA, impressed by, among others, the work of Sol LeWitt, a fellow alumni whose creations could similarly be characterized as a series of isolated actions, often on walls, that combine to form larger works. The execution of LeWitt’s pieces arise from his Duchampian-derived dictum that an idea is a machine that makes the art.
Just as in Pointillism, another pre-ordained way of creating art from late in the 19th Century to early in the 20th Century, Seurat’s Neo-Impressionist conspiracies of individual dots weaved larger coherent wholes. Ran Hwang, moved by the tragedies of 9/11 and more recently The Pandemic, constructs imagery out of microcosms just as magically. She literally hammers together beaded visions driven by a personal mythology manifesting her own vision out of her own ideas: the Buddhist teachings and calligraphic skills that she observed in her father as a youngster merge with her need, in the wake of tragedy, to release emotion and potentially healing forces—an artistic balm for herself and for her audience—for what ails us all in the complex 21st century. She confronts sadness and anger head on with art.
Hwang originally did this in ephemeral ways, creating her button installations on walls—to be hammered in temporarily and then dismantled, disappeared memories of art objects that barely ever were. Traces remained: pockmarked walls, anecdotal recollections and photographs. But she now adheres buttons and beads to moveable surfaces that live on, manifesting her impermanent, cascading vision more concretely and, luckily for us, longer lasting. Nothing is forever but Ran’s pictures of Buddhas, chandeliers, layered installations of waterfalls and blossoms and images of a Phoenix that rises from the flames, engulfing the viewer, now can exist at greater scales. Her 21st century art world strategies allow her “ideas that make the art” to travel the world in search of institutional homes to create multicultural dialogue.
She has succeeded, showing her work, among other places, from Mass MoCA to UNESCO headquarters in Paris to the Dubai Opera House in the United Arab Emirates. Hwang’s work permanently resides in the Brooklyn Museum and NYU in New York; the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; the Deji Art Museum in Nanjing, China and the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa. Her works delight the public. Not only moveable but now literally and figuratively moving, Hwang’s works today are monumentally preserved as are the fleeting emotions she calls attention to, every bit as ephemerally as her early pieces, thanks to the delicate nature of her work. But now, with a team of assistants, she works neither temporarily nor locally but with gravitas and for audiences worldwide.
Ran Hwang was born in Busan in 1960, shortly after the Korean War when South Korea was on the verge of growing into the technological powerhouse it is today. She grew up in the neighborhood of Gamcheon that was crammed with houses adjacent to each other then. Today the district is full of colorful murals. Perhaps both of these histories are reflected in the button compositions she has executed since 1997.
When Ran was young, her father was a teacher in a temple near their family home who did calligraphy as a hobby. When Ran was 5 years old, she would help him make sumi ink by grinding the ink stick on stone as he prepared to create writing or paint chrysanthemums and other subjects. Ran’s recent plum blossom compositions recall these powerful memories.
A mountain range overlooks another temple to which Ran, in her mid-30s, retreated, following a divorce in the 1990s, a somewhat daring move for a woman to endure in the South Korea of that time. But it was this life changing experience, allowing her to spend time alone, to forge her desire toward the fierce artistic career path she followed.
Hwang searched the world to find the right school and found the School for Visual Arts in New York which boasted LeWitt, Keith Haring and Elizabeth Peyton as graduates. Each spoke highly of the school’s reputation and so she felt that if such strong practicing artists had gone there, so could she. Before coming to NY in 1997 she trained as a painter in Seoul so, with a strong start in the fundamentals, she started grad school in NYC as a painter, working as a designer for an embroidery factory in the garment district to make ends meet.
The fabric company was located on Thirty-eighth Street, which was packed with wholesale stores at street level. The first floor fashion items she saw in windows and discarded on the street caught her eye as she passed by. She began to think about these fandangles as art. One day in the corner of the factory where she worked, she spotted large amounts of buttons to be tossed out. She asked her boss, the owner, if she could buy some at a discount and his reply was, “Take them for free,” which signalled the beginning of a support system to make her art that Ran is still the beneficiary of and grateful for.
With the buttons and her education in place, Hwang eventually found her unique path. Echoing an interest in both LeWitt and Haring, as well as the autobiographical references of Peyton and later the multi-media endeavors of her countryman, Nam June Paik, her early button work began with the creation of the site specific installations executed on any available wall space, allowing her to work larger than the paintings and collages of her start. Her engagement with materials became increasingly sculptural as she moved from small collage pieces with buttons to her first large installation in Soho on her studio wall. None of these works survive except in photos but they charted a path forward.
In 2001, 9/11 gave her the imperative for her now monumental practice. Living downtown that morning after having worked the night before, a friend in Korea called her and, half awake, she went on her rooftop and saw an airplane hit the World Trade Center, the buildings wrapped in smoke and eventually the towers falling. Ran describes coming back to her room to watch news reports of people leaping to their death. This started her thinking about causes of terror and the horrible effects of violence on individuals.
Hwang connected her childhood in a Buddhist household surrounded by bodhisattva images and the contemplation of life with the violence and suffering of contemporary existence. That evening she started work in her studio, sticking pins in the wall, unable to afford to work on canvas. The experience gave her a sense of freedom and the space to spread out.
In 2003-4 she began presenting Buddhas in her first site specific show in a gallery. When the de-installation of buttons on pins or nails came down, she re-contemplated loss in the traces left behind when the work was removed. She continued on such sites for ten years but now transcends that idea in new ways with works such as in Rest II, a buddha image in the Baker Museum that reunited her past and present. It recalls Rest I, an earlier work that signaled her eventual move to canvas and other supporting materials.
Today she has also expanded her work to include multimedia. Twenty-five years ago as she hammered pins and buttons into walls and then canvasses she wondered what did they look like in reverse, from the wall's point of view? She has since introduced transparency and 3D, becoming interested in works that are not static but moving. She experimented with layering images with moving projections, as if over water.
So Becoming Again, this major museum exhibition, is a cascading summation of Ran Hwang's 30 year career, a visual concordance of her development and heritage as a truly international artist. It features several large and elaborate installation pieces built out of the everyday materials she loves, innovative production methods, and is rooted in budding 21st-century global contemporary art practices.
Contemplation Time from 2014 features thousands of pink paper buttons floating on a clear background and casting a shadow as a whole. She replaces the lotus pedestal of Maitreya, a bodhisattava on his way to becoming the Buddha, a traditional form in her country, with plum blossoms, a leitmotif in Hwang's work since 2006. She scatters the blossoms around the figure's feet, thus claiming as her own, one of the most popular subjects in traditional East Asian painting, a symbol of strength battling oncoming cold. This piece on plexiglas mounted on a wooden frame employed paper buttons and beads on pins.
In Nothing Forever PB, and Nothing Forever RG, both from 2021, her familiar paper buttons, beads, and pins are installed on acrylic domes, creating more plum blossom compositions, this time on luminous hemispheres painted in different colors, calling to mind the surface of a crowded planet as well as the barbed spherical surface of a coronavirus molecule.
In a three-paneled 2015 backlit work, The Beginning of The Bright, made of visual poetry in four colors of Hanji, a thick Korean paper made out of mulberry, a rendition of a humble Korean temple is dramatically flanked by the Arc de Triumph and the Eiffel Tower. Like the 15th Century King Sejong the Great, who united Korea with literacy and language by creating the Hangul language system, Hwang, using his Hangul letters and the calibrated strokes of a hammer, executed a similarly ambitious teaching moment for UNESCO headquarters in the French capital.
In 2009’s Rest II, Hwang brought a spiritual avatar from earlier in her own oeuvre to life again using antique metal buttons and pins on a wooden panel. It was a remake of a bodhisattva of mercy and compassion known as Guanyin in East Asia. The piece echoed its predecessor, her 2006 Queens Museum image of a Guanyin facing the opposite direction. She relished creating it in reverse this time, imagining the two figures “looking at each other in the afterlife.” The being’s water-moon pose shows the bodhisattva figure contemplating a reflection. The metal buttons dangle like a tambourine, casting shadows of the figure as a whole as well as its finespun components. A half circle that forms a halo around the figure’s head hints at, but never arrives at, completion, announcing a reminder of Hwang’s early process that she nailed directly into walls, not removable and transportable surfaces. Rest II and it’s predecessor Rest I are like twins—two parts of her life and her relationship to her work, each a nod to impermanence.
Finally the eponymous Becoming Again that the show is named for, is a major multimedia site-specific installation created by Ran Hwang from 2017 to ‘22. A larger version, with 21 panels, was first installed in 2017 in Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum. Here, replicated and reborn, and still immense at just seven panels for the Baker Museum show, the hypnotic audiovisual projections of a majestic bonghwang, a Korean phoenix, gracefully flies across the gallery space, to the strange traditional sounds of remixed Korean music. Nearby, spinning off from another tradition—that of a Korean headdress—Hwang created a chandelier form that secures an ornate vertical connection with the meaning of a woman’s life changing with time. Ceremonial Korean women's wedding attire, called Jokduri, was also added anew for the Naples iteration, reinforced by the projected image of a bride on an adjoining wall that links to the cyclical nature of life inviting further reflections on a woman's existence, yesterday and today, calling traditions and meaning into question. The paper buttons, beads, crystals, and pins on hanging Plexiglas, similar to other works in the show, then becomes a floating textured “screen” turning it, the projections and the chandelier across the gallery into an immersive experience for viewers to traverse and criss-cross as they watch and listen.
It is that word “cascading” that comes to mind as I recall my overall impressions of Ran Hwang’s powerful art in in Naples that I traveled to see in this fabulous museum during Miami Art Week. Although I didn’t consciously realize it at the time, as I journeyed across the Everglades to see it, there were many cascading natural phenomena en route so when I reached Florida's Gulf Coast I was struck by the humanly-made cascading nature of Ran’s ambitious constructions.
Like other things that cascade, the exhibition was comprised of seemingly still, inert objects joining forces to become phenomena. Tiny individual monads, arrays of atoms frozen in time, cohere into larger entities seemingly or actually in flux. Single particles join hands to meditatively create greater cascading movements or motion, waves of substance, fully present yet somehow alive, pulsating with the life force. Ran Hwang’s unique cascades had been created out of painstakingly placed beads, crystals or buttons or, in The Beginning of The Bright, thousands of individually placed, custom made Hangul letterforms, each on a tiny pin hammered into a surface, to set in motion larger tableaus. Each piece is carefully placed to depict something like motion, with one layer positioned over another as intricate sub-events endlessly combine for an overall effect that is euphoric, transcendent and whole.
Finally, like the chandelier in Becoming Again, the work Garden of Water, from 2010, is largely vertical, made of crystals, beads, and pins on six Plexiglas panels hung from the ceiling. A video projection over it conjures both a spider web and the undulating silhouette of a crystal chandelier punctuated by lit candles, accompanied by the sound of a waterfall. A multitude of crystals and beads affixed to the panels, phantasmagorically covered the cobwebs with spiders that crawl like sparce, mysterious trickles of water just as the projection reaches a critical mass. Foreshadowed by the sound of a syncopated banging drum, the columns of spider imagery morph into torrents of falling blue water that tumbles from ceiling to floor. All of this happens within the black void of a dimly lit room. An avalanche of imagery, a deluge of mysterious sorrow, and an outpouring of egoless talent grabs our attention in the darkness for a moment then humbly begins again. Such is the nature of a healing art experience that feels made to cascade. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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