Young In Hong: Flowers, Desire, Transgression and Jokes

Hyewon Lee (Art Historian)

Young In Hong delivered stolen flowerpots to a police station, raised a huge balloon above downtown Seoul, which is illegal, and puts up random posters along streets, avoiding the police’s watch. In her installation projects, which unfold in urban spaces, policemen guided viewers as docents in an exhibition space, and an art museum turned into a site for unlawful activities. Moreover, people who attended a Sunday mass listen to a “sermon” of prisoners, prostitutes, and the homeless in the very same place which displays holy embroideries and icon paintings.

Hong’s subversive imagination reveals a complex structure in which human desire is entangled with beauty, embodied in flower bouquets, flowers planted in pots, flowers embroidered with gold and silver threads, computer-generated flowers, and colorful curtains. However, many artists abandoned such an idea of beauty long ago, and beauty is not often brought up in discourses on contemporary art. Immanuel Kant, the follower of Western philosophical tradition in which beauty and desire had been regarded as separate realms, stressed that we should exclude desire when it come to aesthetic judgments, by defining that “beautiful is what, without a concept, is liked universally.” isn’t Kant’s definition based on the premise that desire is not detachable from beauty? Today’s art, filled with more discourses on desire than beauty, focuses on desire in its own territory and on how to represent it from social standpoints, rather than on dialectical relations between beauty and desire. Yet, in her search for human desire, Hong sticks to the beautiful, which has become an outcast of contemporary art.

For Open Theatre, a public art project that she curated in 2004, Hong created spaces where beauty met with the desire for possession and deviation. Working on I Will Commit Crimes Forever, and One More Day, one of two projects included in this show which lasted for about a month, Hong walk around streets to steal flowerpots. Decorating a police station in downtown Seoul with stolen flowerpots, she asked the police to kindly show them to the visitors. As a result, she turned this law-observance place into an illegal-behavior-happening place and, at the same time, a place for art. The artist was once asked why she stole those flowers, and she simply answered that she “stole them because they were pretty,” noting that flowers symbolize objects of desire in her art.

Hong’s work seems to say that her intention is not more than what her pieces show by all surfaces and that she denies seriousness. Experimenting with the danger of desire through an undeniable lure of beauty, Hong sets an unavoidable trap, a joke, to remove viewers’ resistance to deviation and in turn facilitate communication with them. Hong’s viewers unconsciously encounter their own desire, smiling at the artist’s subversive acts. This respect of her work is easily associated with Milan Kundera’s writings. This association is possible not because keywords in her work, such as “curtains” and “jokes,” are titles of Kundera’s books and she entitled one of her works Kunderaish Statement of Lightness (2004). Instead, both Hong and Kundera explore human desires and continue to turn serious stories about lightness or light stories about seriousness into a joke that is, to borrow Kundera’s definition, the “best evidence that a sharp sense of the real and an imagination that ventures into the implausible can make a perfect pairing.”

In 2008, Hong worked on a project called Anonymous Show in London, having left Seoul by the time she secured her position in the Korean art world. To prepare the project which consisted of two different projects, entitled Words and Unidentified Images, the artist talked with people who live anonymously in the city. Later, she hung, in an Anglican church, a gold framed canvas onto which she embroidered what those Londoners said to her. Furthermore, in many places along London streets, she attached posters which displayed images of flowers taken from Plants and Insects by a Korean female painter Shin Saimdang and taken from a book of illustrations set in 18th century Europe. On these posters, it is hard to recognize any traces of original paintings.

Anonymous flowers leave their creators through “simple process of pasting and taking off” of Hong’s posters, and words without speakers become unfamiliar gospels, and belong to people whom the original speakers do not know. This procedure of her work exposes and simultaneously erases relations among those whom she doesn’t know and those who do not know one another. Her artistic vision constantly reflects herself on the Other and the Other on herself, and turns into another subversive symbol of Hong, wandering around the space of Diaspora, and finally retires from the art market that is ruled by capitalistic power and logic.

The artist’s work “honest with situations” and “truly depending on intuition in most cases” presents dialectic relations between beauty and desire with perfect logic. This must be why Hong clearly understands the irony that the depth of our thoughts grows with unbearable lightness of desires which constantly challenges our reason. Hong notes, “I am interested in what put me ceaselessly in danger.” This observation proves that she daringly confronts the existence of human beings possessing desire who continue to live, walking on a risky tightrope between the normal and the abnormal, the right and the wrong, the moral and immoral, and the legal and the illegal. Such human existence occurs frequently in the moments that we must choose to which side a tossed coin, having both sides of reason and desire, will tilt at the point when it forms the right angle with the floor.

Hong sticks to create the beautiful and does not deny the heaviness of the tradition portrayed in canvases and golden frames, and at the same time, she does not sacrifice physicality of artworks for conceptual elements. Her works, nevertheless, are not outmoded because she indefatigably questions the nature of art and of human beings, challenging the modernist myth that has been evolved around the autonomy of art.

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. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (New York: Hackett Publishing, 1987) p. 64.

. Milan Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, trans. Linda Asher (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008) p. 75.

. In this article, Young In Hong’s own expressions are based on the interviews done by the author on July 13th and 14th, 2008. They are indicated inside quotation marks without additional footnotes.