Friday, January 23, 2009

Why Does Toronto Hate Haegue Yang?

So... I've noticed Toronto doesn't really seem to like Korean artist (and Venice Biennale 09er) Haegue Yang.

In her recent review in the Globe, Sarah Milroy described Yang's work, currently on display as part of a group show at the Power Plant, as "anemic, ... (Having dutifully digested the support material, I still found it pretentious and smelly.)"

And in his less recent review on Akimbo, Terence Dick described the exhibition as "frustrating and it often feels like the idea, instead of the art, is driving the curation."

In contrast, in my initial review of the show, posted the week of its opening back in December, I found I loved the show overall (excluding one or two serious missteps), but especially Yang's work. And I maintained this view in my Jan 15 review in NOW.

What's more, I really felt an emotional response to the works, not just a conceptual one. That emotion wouldn't seem compatible to me with an overreliance on supporting text or concept, rather than art, driving curation. To me it really felt right.

All this has made me think (yet again) about the differences between critics that drive differences in criticism, in likes and dislikes, in what works come off as successful or unsuccessful. A lot of it can be objective, but just as much if not more lies in the experiences we bring to the work, in what we see reflected there of our own troubles and triumphs.

[More after the jump...]

For instance, I know I related to the Yang work almost immediately for the way it spoke to a mental and physical state of migration and inbetweenness. I don't mean to get overly maudlin, but I'm a first-generation Canadian with parents from two other immigration-fuelled countries: The United States and New Zealand. I've lived in a few different parts of Canada, and immediate family is scattered a fair distance away in different cities, extended family further.

Of course, I'll be the first to admit that I've always enjoyed the life-smoothing privileges of being whiteish and middle-classish. My experience of migration is considerably less harsh than that of those who don't enjoy those societal perks. But nonetheless I find that the tidal-wave emotion of an "Inheritance of Loss" (as Kiran Desai put it) resonates with me. With every move, a migrant hopes for (and often gains) aspects of a better life; but the rootlessness that comes with such harvests also has its problems.

What I recognized/projected onto Yang's work (perhaps in mirror-neuron structure, as Sally McKay might put it) is very much that state of statelessness. And not only that, but an attempt to connect through the most elemental of means -- heat, air, odor -- those things that communicate/touch/affect in any place and any language.

And sure, I'm a brainy, anxious type who thinks a fair bit about these conditions in my life, about symbols; maybe Yang is too. I've also lived in enough crappy apartments to know those cheap weird universal venetian blinds she uses, those heating pads of marginal comfort, those standing in the street moments of not belonging to anyone or anything, just attempting to navigate how the good and the sad of life might reconcile. Not awful, not great, just thinking about the long stretches of in between. Being shocked out of it or into it by a physical sensation; the heat of the sun, the breeze on my clothing, some respite of immediacy from the future/past negotiation.

So even though Toronto doesn't seem to like Hague Yang, gosh darn it, I sure do. And as I've made clear, I have my reasons. I'm sure others do too. (It seems a lot of those globetrotting curators can sure as hell relate....)

Image of Haegue Yang's Blind Room 2006/2007 from eflux

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