Ran Hwang, a Korean-born artist working in New York, Zurich and Seoul, is best known for large-scale wall installations in which buttons, pins, beads and thread are used to create silhouette images of traditional Korean vessels, falling blossoms or caged birds. At times, the shapes are those of such diversely revered figures as the Buddha or Marilyn Monroe. In her solo exhibition “Illusion and Reality,” Hwang presented 14 new works that echo her previous iconography while offering a fresh thematic element: occasional hints of menace.
Hwang’s working method—developed over 25 years in the intense, materially cumulative vein of Liza Lou, Angelo Filomeno and Fred Tomaselli—has always been something of a private performance, if not a ritual. Projecting an image on a hard surface such as a wall, ceiling, window frame or portable panel, she traces the figure’s contours, then laboriously fills in the outline with thousands of buttons or beads impaled on long straight pins. The obsessively repetitive action (aided these days by numerous assistants) results in works like Sweet In-yeon (Sweet Destiny), 2010, a roughly 23½-foot-long image of bright red plum blossoms—a traditional symbol of renewal and/or fleeting youth—under which lies an uncoiled snake, beautiful yet deadly. This creature dramatically offsets the work’s almost too gorgeous springtime motif, suggesting that every object of desire has its dangers, and that lovely illusion and grim reality coexist like two sides of a coin.
Dualism is even more evident in the video work Garden of Water (2010), a room-size installation in which ghostly images of chandeliers are projected on transparent sheets of Plexiglas. A huge, silhouetted spider begins to roam about a web, and before long we see its would-be prey. Slowly at first, then with accelerating speed, the chandeliers are overrun by hordes of skittering bugs. Just when the infestation is at its peak, a noisy deluge washes all the shadowy critters away, and the process begins again. The cyclical cleansing is not only mysterious in its origins but also discomfortingly futile.
Several of the works on view, including Sweet In-yeon and a silvery Buddha (2005/10) feature incomplete patches with stray buttons and beads trailing away from the central mass as if the image were disintegrating. Sometimes such bits are also heaped in a small pile beneath the piece, testimony to the transience of all things material, no matter how vivid their beauty or how sublime their spiritual import.
Photo: View of Ran Hwang’s video installation Garden of Water, 2010; at Hakgojae.