Haegue Yang is a South Korean artist whose sculptures, installations, and videos reveal themes of identity, isolation, displacement, and unpredictable change. Her light sculptures and signature venetian blind installations are often metaphors for her life of willful isolation and for her refusal to embody any single nationality in her work. She resides in Seoul and Berlin with a professorship in Frankfurt, Germany.
Yang was born in Seoul, South Korea amid political upheaval that would ultimately affect her family. Her father left the family to work in the Middle East. Her mother moved away after her father returned, and her parents divorced. Yang received her B.F.A. from Seoul National University. In 1994, she attended the Stadelschule art academy in Frankfurt and graduated in 1999. For her thesis show, Yang presented a large case on metal legs which held a selection of her work to showcase her identity as an outsider in Germany. Yet in 2005, Yang moved to Berlin and exhibited in a Berlin gallery.
Her installation “Storage Piece,” which presented a pile of crates filled with her unsold work, brought her serious critical attention as it showcased her sense of displacement. Another work, showing her sense of displacement, was her 2006 immersive piece “Sadong 30.” It took place in her deceased grandmother’s abandoned house in South Korea where visitors could enter and stay as long as they wanted. This theme of displacement continued in her “Series of Vulnerable Arrangements – Blind Room,” where black venetian blinds, backlit by light bulbs, hung from the ceiling surrounding her video art. Venetian blinds remain one of her signature materials since they are permeable barriers between her private and public life.
In 2010, Yang adapted “The Malady of Death” for the stage. This was a novel/memoir written by Marguerite Duras in 1982, which centered on a self-absorbed man and the girl he used for a sexual companion. Yang staged the Duras text as a monodrama with a single female performer delivering all the lines. This work has been presented in different countries during the past decade.
Yang’s sculptures can look like nonsensical architectural fixtures, such as shades that don’t cover windows or lighting fixtures that don’t work. She creates infographics, diagrams, site-specific wallpaper, anthropomorphic figures, and works joining craft techniques with odors and sounds. Her works often look like ritual objects from folk cultures. Her narratives allude to historical events such as: Korean resistance to the Japanese occupation, human migration, historical change, the natural world, and problems of industrialization.
The rapid industrialization of South Korea and the mass-production of goods led her to focus on the importance of traditional crafts and the natural world in sculptures that included hand-knit textiles, bamboo roots, or light bulbs. She uses found objects or household items such as canned food, towels, umbrella stands, or refrigerator magnets. Her 2016 “”Ikebana Dragon Ball” was made from woven artificial straw, powder-coated steel stands, metal grid, casters, and artificial plants.
In 2019, Yang created “Handles” for the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This installation was composed of six large, abstract sculptures with thousands of spherical bells, that alluded to Korean shamanism. The bells rattled and rang along with recorded birdsong. A performance piece, five dancers wheeled the pieces, mounted on casters, in lilting arcs as trails of iridescent, vinyl polygons fanned across the floor and up the walls.
Yang likes to create pieces that link her exhibition to the history and culture of the locale where her exhibition will be shown. For her 2019-2020 exhibition in Miami, “In the Cone of Uncertainty,” she focussed on extreme weather conditions and hurricanes that South Florida’s residents have always had to deal with. Her “Coordinates of Speculative Solidarity” was a site-specific, storm-themed wallpaper graphic, a floor-to-ceiling digital collage of storm-tracking symbols, satellite photos, distorted palm trees, thermal mapping, and gyres that covered the gallery space. There were two major large-scale installations made of venetian blinds and her use of the color red. One installation consisted of red blinds, while the other contained white blinds colored by red light. Light sculptures, woven anthropomorphic works, whirlwind-derived structures, textile canopies, and sound elements were used to show her interest in phenomena and curiosity about the world.
Yang’s work has appeared at the 2015 Sharjah Biennial 12, Kassel’s Documenta, Venice Biennale, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, and countless other museums. In 2019, her work was in 15 shows on four continents. She ended 2020 by having four major international shows, in Toronto, Manila, Tate St. Ives, and Seoul.
Her work is in the permanent collections of more than two dozen major museums in Germany, South Korea, Poland, Hong Kong, England, Canada, U.A.E., Portugal, and Australia. In the United States, her wok is in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.