Young In Hong: Stitching together the images of South Korean post-war history

Andrew Stooke, Art Radar Journal

The relationship between fleeting impressions and eternal records is at the heart of “The Moon’s Trick”, Young-In Hong’s exhibition at Korean Cultural Centre UK.
The exhibition is haunted by photographic images, but, in most instances, only a trace is disclosed, a black outline of basic compositional elements, embroidered on snow-white cloth.

Beside textile elements the exhibition “The Moon’s Trick” highlights the diversity of Young-In Hong’s practice that also embraces performance, sound installation and participatory collaboration. It is the translation between these modes that is important in this configuration of her work. Hong currently lives and works in Bristol, United Kingdom. Her work has been shown in many international venues including Grand Palais, Paris (2016), ICA London (2015), Gwangju Biennale (2014) and Plateau Museum, Seoul (2014).

Young-In’s use of embroidery highlights momentary experience by juxtaposing it with the drawn-out means of reproduction. The method draws attention to source images as complex productions of editing and selection. In the image-saturated contemporary world, she highlights the importance of context. The implicitly slow work of tapestry also demands abbreviation, obliterating details and reducing everything to the homogeneous stitch. This effect can be appreciated in Burning Love (2014), the earliest and largest work included in the exhibition.

The subject is a view from a high vantage point of protests that took place in Seoul in 2008, following the government’s decision to end the ban on US beef imports ensuing from the 2003 ‘Mad Cow’ epidemic (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE). The view is transformed from a specific to a generalised image. The separate protesters become a mass of points, unspecific but each represented by individual gestures in needlework. The tapestry is not neatly finished, stray yarn punctuates the surface, and a broad border of raw canvas contains the image suggesting an incomplete project. In an interview with Jinnie Seo, Hong describes it as, Images from the media memorialise significant moments in recent Korean history in other works too. Partition (2016) is a tapestry made from a photograph of fireworks, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. The image is cut in two. The crowd of spectators in the lower half is gone, leaving only the picture of the firework display burning out in the sky. Split from its context, the picture is as suggestive of a raging fire as of festivity.

A major series, produced for this exhibition, is derived from newspaper images of South Korea’s post-war modernisation. These are reduced to spare linear elements in the framed embroideries, collectively entitled Prayers No. 1-40 (2017). From these near abstract distillations, Hong has produced a musical composition, playing in the exhibition space. The schism between this sound environment and the photographic sources highlights how an image’s objectivity is transformed when the original motivation that directed the camera is disconnected. The unprepossessing source images are available in a humble dossier at the exhibition entrance. This reveals the process by which Hong has expunged details to liberate a succinct abstract schema from every picture.

The 40 works in the “Prayers” series lead the visitor through the gallery that has been partitioned around an asymmetric centre. The show opened with an event involving four diverse musicians, two singers and a sewing machine operator, stationed throughout these eclectic spaces. A diagram functioned to direct the performers to different positions in the space and as a graphic score. It was derived from a further series of panoramic machine embroidered works on taught silk, Looking Down From the Sky (2017): their minimal jittering delineations are based on archive photos of public demonstrations that took place in South Korea between the 1960s and 1990s. The works’ contours are interpreted by the performers as duration, pitch and timbre. Hong’s influence on the outcome of the performance is tangential, mirroring the manner whereby the reception of a photographic source becomes detached from the impetus of its creation over time.

The performance strategy followed the pattern of Hong’s 5100:Pentagon (2014), a work staged outside London’s Royal Academy of Arts earlier in 2017 and documented in the exhibition with a video. First realised at the Gwanju Biennale, the dance-like action is performed by volunteers, interpreting a web-based tutorial. The work derives from images of the Gwanju Democratic Uprising of May 1980, a public response to the bloody suppression of a Chonnam University student demonstration against the nascent Chun Doo-hwan government. The participants’ movements do not directly correlate with the evidence of the photographs, creating an associative memorial that releases the specific relevance of the event into general cultural circulation.

The title “The Moon’s Trick” is taken from a poem by Soo-Young Kim (1921-1968). It is the name he gives to the effect observed where the dynamism of a spinning top creates a vortex of stability and imagination; its movement temporarily suspends the prosaic effect of gravity. The transitional acts of drawing to embroidery, facilitated by mechanical means, to sonic interpretation, defer the photographic record, challenging its claim of veracity. Hong’s practices treat the optical image as if it were a whirling gyroscope, restive while giving the appearance of being frozen. She says: The process of making, of sewing, allows me to materialize and visualize my own intuitive process with my bodily movement engaged with the movement of physical machinery, and to stimulate both vision and tangibility for the viewer. By displacing her source material with a series of interpretive endeavors, she reveals South Korean post-war history to be experiential, a history in layers with unpredictable trajectories.

By Andrew Stooke, Art Radar Journal