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Rebranding Identity: Bringing the gallery into the digital age

YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES, ISN'T IT THE GREATEST IN THE WORLD? PART 1: WANT TO DO GOOD? KNOW HOW TO SHOOT A SEMI- AUTOMATIC HANDGUN?, 2012, original text and music soundtrack, 11 min 13 sec loop, one of a two-channel HD QuickTime movie, Courtesy YHCHI

By Jonathan Odden, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 11, 2012

The Internet is now our bookstore. It’s our auction house, matchmaker, entertainer, newspaper and the first place we go for bad medical advice. But is the Internet also our new art gallery? The pioneering work of Seoul-based corporation Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, whose newly commissioned work is on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, would argue that it is.

Though selectively calling themselves a corporation, YHCHI actually consists of two collaborative artists, Young-hae Chang, a South Korean native, and Chinese-American Marc Voge. The former is YHCHI’s chief executive officer and the latter its chief information officer. The two artists began working together in 1999 after meeting in Paris.

Why do the collaborators work as a quasi-corporation? In a 2005 interview the artists explained that, “ ‘YHC’ is for Young-Hae and ‘HI’ is for Marc. We changed Marc into ‘Heavy Industries,’ because Koreans love big companies and Marc doesn’t mind being objectified and capitalized on.”

Their answer, blatant as it is nuanced, with a sardonic tinge, is essential to the concept and the understanding of their work. In a world where corporations can be viewed as real as people, with ideologies and agendas — think Chick-Fil-A — YHCHI both embraces that trend and rejects it, forcing you to reconcile the discrepancy.

Sensory overload

In order to pick apart these modern incongruities, YHCHI adopted the use of Flash-based basic text flickering on a minimalistic template with syncopated accompaniment. According to Natsu Oyobe, associate curator of Asian art at UMMA and curator of YHCHI’s new installation, the model has proven to be a very adaptive and expandable form.

“YHCHI’s work has become increasingly complex as it exploits the three-dimensional possibilities of the medium, a development seen in video works by other artists since the 1990s,” Oyobe said.

Often their text is quick, nearly unreadable, with bombastic jazz or percussion. Entering their new installation can feel like a sensory overload, surrounded by eight panels that throw text, piano and accordion at the viewer. But most striking are the muted moments, like when the gallery goes silent and flickers “***” on every panel. Taking a breath, one could try to capture the swirling subject matter just before the work begins galloping away again.

Oyobe writes in the show’s companion book that “(their) work confronts the viewer with stark contrasts — the grand and the mundane, official history and private history, violence and tranquility, sacred and profane, and international and local — at high velocity and with a brilliant sense of humor and irony.”

This is clear in their piece from 12 years ago, “Samsung Means to Come,” in which a sexually unsatisfied housewife experiences her first orgasm only while dreaming about South Korea’s largest electronic company. A truly bizarre account, told as if it is a confession, YHCHI’s absurd work points to the all-too-real domination of consumer culture in our minds.

“And their critique extends to the viewer of the story as well: The housewife’s ecstatic state of mind is very much an allegory of our image of the comfortable life, surrounded by the latest electronics and modern amenities,” Oyobe writes in the artist’s book.

It’s something to think about next time you get excited for the new iPhone.

“I like the way they don’t shy away from the bigger, hot topics these days,” Oyobe said. “Their subjects are right at the forefront of social issues and we became interested in them, not only because they are breaking substantial new ground in digital art, but because their art really resonates with college students.”

Visibility and accessibility

For their UMMA show, YHCHI has installed a two-channel set of pieces, fully titled “Isn’t it the Greatest in the World? Part 1: What to Do Good? Know How to Shoot a Semi-Automatic Weapon,” which operates in rhythm on projected walls and on stacked monitors. The piece exudes the coy wit and social probing of their art, but also translates their artistic form into a gallery space.

“Most shows are a little bit difficult to curate in the Irving Stenn, Jr., Family Project Gallery because there is little way to control lighting,” Oyobe said. “And we could have used other spaces in the museum, but I was adamant that it needed to be in this gallery — it had to be visible to the students.”

Oyobe explained that one way UMMA makes the show more visible to students is by running it during the night, which began Oct. 1. This way, the giant projections on the gallery walls and six widescreen television screens are visible to anyone on the State Street lawn. If they could pump the music outside, Oyobe explained, pedestrians would get the full gallery experience as they passed by.

That essential accessibility of YHCHI’s work has been as vital to the context of their form as their subtle irony is to their subject matter. It’s hard to consider now how unorthodox it was in 1999 to upload art solely for dissemination over the Internet. Keeping in mind those were the days of dial-up, AOL and Netscape, creating a space where anyone with a phone line and modem could go watch a full piece of art — music and all — online was unheard of. It was the digitalization of the gallery.

Imagine the potential this shift has for the viewer, especially the college student. Rather than expensively traveling to a museum or site of history, the work exists wholly wherever it is viewed. It opens the potential for collaboration, sharing and exposure on a level previously unimaginable. And without the infrastructure of the old art world, traditional discourses on originality or authenticity become muted.

Behind the enigmas

Conversely, another key aspect of YHCHI’s art is that it lacks interactivity and the viewer is intentionally blocked from any two-way dialogue. You can’t stop it, you can’t rewind it, all you can do is watch and listen. Even the artists, who declined to comment for this article, are careful to conceal themselves, making them high-profile enigmas in the art world.

Oyobe explained that this denial of interaction between the artist and audience is often heightened in the gallery setting.

“Actually, in an exhibition in L.A., they tilted all the screens and projection, which was not warmly received,” Oyobe said. “We expect to be accommodated when we see something in a gallery, and YHCHI, with their sly humor, know it.”

And this negative reaction to the show and outcry itself showed what YHCHI was driving at: Consumers and viewers still have the power to resist and say, “no.”

In addition to an expansion of the ways in which YHCHI’s work is presented spatially, they have also begun experimenting with ways of presenting their text. One clear example of this growth in their UMMA work is the backdrop of the American flag the text is placed on.

“The flag, which is reminiscent of Jasper John’s ‘Three Flags,’ forces you to read each line of text against the mixed signals of the American identity,” Oyobe said. “At times it’s patriotic, but tinged with doubt and sometimes it just looks like a symbol of decline — you read its meaning from the poetry, but you can’t read the poetry the same without it.”

On a semantic level, YHCHI’s poetic style blends different discourses to create a single strand of assembled pieces. Oyobe explained that “they adopt a number of discursive models: monologue, dialogue, personal letters, speeches, prose, novels, poems, journalism and chat-room posts and responses,” and combine them with appropriated and original jazz, percussion and orchestral arrangements to create a single progression.

“They really believe that any form can be manipulated as art,” Oyobe said. “For example, in our show they present a parody of spam mail — one of the African prince money scams. Within the context of the work though, the letter isn’t asking for money as much as it’s asking for commitment.”

Entering the art world

Along with the gallery show, which will run until Dec. 30, Oyobe and YHCHI also collaborated on an innovative artist’s book, which was published through UMMA and serves as the companion piece to the show.

“They’re usually against making a traditional exhibition catalogue,” Oyobe said. “This is only their second attempt at an artist’s book and, although I wrote the essay, the book is their aesthetic, and their work.”

The book itself — white, bound and simple — is written in their minimalist white text broken down by each page into different size fonts. The entire text is an analysis of the artist’s work, with each page is its own entity.

As interesting as YHCHI is as a corporate symbol, so too are its artists as enigmatic individuals. Neither Young-Hae Chang nor Marc Voge followed the typical contemporary artist trajectory, and it is only in the last few years that both poets have thought of themselves as visual artists, Oyobe explained.

“Because they began outside of the typical visual arts pattern and are now gaining such regard for their work, YHCHI has a lot of valuable experience and insight that students need for the real world of art today,” Oyobe said.

Thursday’s Penny Stamps talk, “Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries: One or Two Things We Know About Art” will be a master class in the real experience and dedication it takes to create original art in the modern world, Oyobe explained. The lecture will be at 5:10 p.m. at the Michigan Theater, as part of the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design’s lecture series.

“It’s very special to hear them speak,” Oyobe said. “They do not give that many lectures, though they enjoy talking to students, and we’re very lucky to have them so interested in wanting to come speak to our students.”

They are so careful about their public image, Oyobe explained, that in a recent interview, they didn’t even allow photographs. As they climb to higher and higher echelons in the art world, they become even more careful.

“They have experience in the art world, particularly in the growing popularity of art fairs in Europe and Asia, and they want to share not only their perspective on the art world today, but information on how to make it as an artist,” Oyobe said. “It’s a very important subject for students, whether or not they are in the arts.”


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