Sadang B: Young In Hong

Sadang means shrine but with a nod to the continuous, the title Sadang B replaces a possible sense of the ultimate icon. The suggestion here is that Young In does not wish her exhibition to aim to function as the end of the subject or journey, but to be instead a mere participant in a series of actively asked questions. Sadang B implies that there is also an A, a C, and a perhaps even a plan D. This shrine is not the only shrine, and B is part of a range of categorization. This title immediately implies another, perhaps parallel, order, process and rationale. Life, goes on, it seems, elsewhere.

As a highly accomplished artist, Young In uses whatever medium seems right and relevant for whatever she needs to say at any particular time. Sadang B is an exhibition of three works, with three types of moment, action, and ritual, taking place in three different sections of the gallery. The artist’s characteristically generous repertoire is represented here, in part, by audience involvement with different forms of movement to improvised music, sewn objects, recorded bird sound, and choreographed movement.

The notion of the permanent is challenged by the temporary. A range of embroidery, collage, tapestry and drawing move from the fabulous to the perfunctory with work that mimics a change in a skyline, for instance, as it traces the outline of figures, buildings, trees and crossroads to become imbedded in a two- dimensional horizon. Often, once a line emerges and takes its role here, the everyday inevitably can be elevated into much greater theatre, and vice versa. The artist traces, literally, old photographs in her recent works, and tried to touch some of the shifts and disruptions in the history of Korea over the last thirty years. Utilizing the cultural and folkloric iconography of Korean culture, the artist hopes to forensically unearth something that is significant and yet perhaps unclear. A compression of space and experience runs alongside the visualization of past and current struggles in her native Seoul. For the artist, any rise in simplistic characterisation means that a wide-open pride in National identity has to be feared. Her process of sorting through found images and museum photo archives mixes with childhood, adolescent, and student memories to create a fundamental, and multi layered process of questioning for Young In, who now lives in England.

With sinister tweeting on one side, and simple ominous shadow on the other, the first piece, ‘To Paint the Portrait of a Bird’ shows the artist seeming to already question notions of freedom. Who can be free to do whatever he, she or they, wants? A loud tweeting in this huge bird cage, and the implication is that you cannot get out, sits with fantastic heraldic embroidery, mustered and gathered together to conjure the most convincing equivalent of a series of Coats of Arms. This work, an engagement with belief, also draws a parallel with a hierarchy of species, of assumed differences between the animal or bird kingdom, for instance, and therefore the inevitable conclusion about any Nationalist thought that places human over human. Unconsciously border free, however, the birds which are sometimes outlined as shallow sewn objects, are brought together along with real shadows. Redolent of many cultures, birds from everywhere; penguins, ducks, and flamingos, seem to represent different countries to characterize local as well as other places and climates. Held on to, sewn or tacked into simple, decorous, delicate traditional icons, these apparently direct metaphors show the artist appearing to question this or any hierarchy, aware, anyway, that birds are capable of flying further and longer than any high-powered business woman or man.

There is no innocence anywhere and Young In trails, or sprinkles the subject of destruction and preservation, taste, history and identity to run alongside and through her work. Questions about value, the role, absorption and rejection of cultural history prevail. What about the control of grand imperial vistas and colonial buildings? Should they be bought down or left to be overtaken by new histories? Young In talks about being disturbed, for example, by the full-scale demolition of the Japanese General Government Building, a Colonial building in Seoul. This place had great significance for her as a child because of the ‘lovely’ garden, in part. The government said the building ‘blocked the energy of the Nation’, the public agreed. It is impossible to argue about such a representation of a subjugation to an external power, and it was demolished in 1996.

Although of great significance, a shrine is still a construction. The role of the audience is key in that each spectator is identified with, a participant in, the artist’s active, three dimensional, questioning of change. The significance of the religious relic, itself a matter of belief, runs alongside the whole process of the making and perpetuating of art. It runs beside the fact that value, again so nebulous, lies not in the financial value of a material used, and in a different significance. Young In is playing with a whole building, and then destroying belief. Her work deals with manifestations of a recent past, the city outline that sways the way that art tells truth and lies at the same time. She plays with the way that history elevates elements, only to dash them because of a change in significance and circumstance. One person’s hero is another person’s personification of hell, after all, and Young In works between the construction of meaning in an artistic sense and the significance of memorialisation. From the outside she observes a country that seems to try to act tougher like a family putting the right foot forward and down.

At the beginning of the exhibition the audience starts with active involvement. Young In makes a shrine that has the depth, intensity and abstract use of a Confucian ancestral ceremony carried out by sons of the family while the women wait outside. She introduces an underlying theme to the exhibition which is very much about the way that women are meant to behave. So the audience starts out at the beginning in a cage, albeit with the ability to walk through. The audience is implicated, surrounded and involved in a way it cannot avoid, and then, next door, the same member of the audience becomes a spectator, listening through speakers as well as headphones. The second work, ‘The White Mask’ is straight forward in its delivery but complex in its relation to the artist who asked, or perhaps instructed, musicians, from the celebrated Notes Inegales group in England, to follow instructions. She asked them to play their classical instruments with their total personification, or animalization in mind. They become or became creatures and the result is clear, in a way. These musicians practice the deepest, frankest, most creative level of collaborative improvisation and music making. It was said at the time ‘but we are animals already’. Young In is an accomplished musician, and much of her recent work, Prayers (2017) and Looking Down from the Sky (2017) involves the making and performing of scores often extrapolated from the outline of a historical photograph of Seoul.

‘Un-Splitting’ consists in part of a performance projected onto the wall and an embroidered label announcing the schedule of further performances at unspecified spots in the lobby and outside the gallery. The performances are a response to the repeated movement of women working in factories found in photographs by the artist. Performers act out instructions to women factory workers, obeyed not so long ago. Studying images, like many she uses, found in the Seoul Museum of History, Young In works with performers and a choreographer to construct movement, bringing in the actions of perhaps even less ‘valuable’ animals and birds as well as that of women at work in factories. She says she actually senses women’s fight to address the idea that their labour is ‘lower’ than that of a man. Movement brings everything together in an attempt to see if by perhaps looking somewhere else, looking down, or up, and across species, there might be a better way to communicate, and therefore exist. A collective movement of the combined body of women performers, some professional, some volunteers, is powerful and touching. Having advertised and recruited online, Young In has brought contemporary dancers, theatre actors, members of the general public and university and high school students together. Divided into two groups, each of six to seven performers, they reinforce apart from everything else the fact that women workers were expected to smile all the time. Workers were called by numbers not names, as well, not long ago; perhaps they still are? Each piece is different but connected. The tone the performers take is democratic but also influenced by whoever and what else is there. Performances programmed elsewhere other than in the gallery bring the work back to places Young In spent time in as a child, and where she now engages as an artist.

Attempting a complex but apparently sound method for renegotiating not only the representation, but the effect, of reality, Young In’s work is based very much around a precarious relationship to the past, about the way that it can be re-interpreted in different ways in terms of what is being looked at, preserved, re-considered, and surveyed in both pictorial and emotional terms. Aiming for a new way to communicate she is able to use what is out there, to transform, in terms of function, whatever it is that she traces and identifies. The outline of a horizon in a photograph, for instance, is used to write a score; the sewing machine turns into a musical instrument; the outline of a sewn, projected, drawn or collaged bird becomes the harbinger of good and bad, as well as the representation of trapped desire in a confident, heartening, but open contemplation of the design of political will.

Sacha Craddock, November 2019