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Makeshift privacy and pissing bodies: in conversation with HaeAhn Kwon

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

 

 

 

I think of HaeAhn Kwon's assemblage works as solutions to open-ended questions. How might we tweak our surroundings to bring light to the things we take for granted? How do our surroundings shape us, our bodies, and the way we behave? How can one inflect change, or make the best of a situation, with minimal means? Or as the artist asks: “How do incongruent parts come together meaningfully to suggest an otherwise?”

 

Working in drawing, sculpture and installation, Kwon's practice largely revolves around the idea of “the makeshift” -- a word that aptly describes the haphazard site of art production, the art object that emerges both from chance and necessity, and the daily labour of making-do. The makeshift, as she describes it, implies operating creatively within (and despite) material limitations, and having to navigate barriers through efficacious improvisation.

 

In a recent work titled Pissbox (2018), two shoe prints embedded in a yellowed block of gypsum cement allude to a bodily presence, one that challenges the conventions of public space through the act of urinating. Rather than a private stall with a seat, the sculpture is a simple box on which one might stand or squat -- a makeshift podium. From a small hole at the top of the box liquids might trickle, exiting through the front. The "pissing figure" is widely present within the canon of art history, albeit the imagery has predominantly featured men and small children. There undoubtedly remains to this day a certain queasiness around the topic of bodily functions, especially as it rubs against the construct of femininity. Kwon's exploration of the theme of the pissing woman in her work becomes a way through which to speak of the body, of its urges and needs, of the various material conditions that affect it. Kwon's pissing woman, neither coy nor afraid, reaches catharsis by defiantly owning the abjection of which she is capable, as she refuses to be bound by architectures of enclosure and shame.


In January of 2019, Kwon greeted me into the warmth of her home studio in Guelph (which she shares with her partner and collaborator Paul Kajander), where we exchanged thoughts about practice and chance, about the challenges and surprises of collaborative endeavours, about authorship and unnamed collaborations throughout history (ie. Marcel Duchamp’s and Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven’s upturned urinal), about feminism and urinating in public, among many other things. What follows is the written conversation that has since unfolded.

 

 

 

 

“the makeshift is concerned with creating things through available means. It’s a rich terrain for me to explore because it includes all sides of the economic, ethical and aesthetic positions, which in turn are tied to the political, ideological, and the messiness of living with both agency and precarity.”

 

 

 

 

I'm especially interested in the traditions of meaning-making through assemblage with which you engage. When I look at your work, I see various strategies at play; in some cases, the works seem assembled through cumulative gestures, in other instances the works seem to have come together by pure coincidence or by free association.

 

Assemblage gets me moving; free association, coincidence and repeated gestures happen in the space of moving things around. It seems obvious, but I cannot avoid wanting to say that the thinking/meaning-making happens through doing. When you ask about strategies, I think about all of this along with a purposeful spirit of ambiguity. In a recent collaboration with my partner Paul Kajander, we have started to enunciate the improvisational quality that activates our process of assembling. Our bodies think through things. What’s also funny and enigmatic is that this moving isn’t just a smooth easy ride, although it can be as simple as looking around the room or taking something apart. There’s a tremendous resistance and doubt involved in this intuitive work.

 

 

 

 

 

Femme Vitale, 2018. Photo by: Laura Findlay, Toni Hafkenscheid

 

 

The objects and images you incorporate into your works are extremely eclectic, ranging from construction materials, to domestic objects, to food items, to personal tokens, to the “stuff” of consumer culture. How do you come about these objects, and what is your relationship to them?

 

I feel dedicated to working with many different kinds of materials and objects, as well as methods (of assembling) so that my work is more open, less nameable and perhaps more resistant to becoming formulaic. Some materials, objects or gestures play an apotropaic role, like when I use auto-body parts or crack something open. Some are reflective of the excessive material availability due to over-production and consumption. More recently, I have been adopting associations to certain narratives (autobiographical and otherwise) in my decisions. I find it interesting to see the diverse elements rub up against each other; a narrative and an object can throw each other off productively in an installation. There’s a great phrase by the screenwriter Robert Towne, “reality as a collaborator,” which describes this oddness of working with limitations that also defines possibilities.

 

 

 

 

De-Privation Screen, 2018, found objects, custom printed t-shirt, laundry rack, hanging devices, rice paper, soy sauce, diet coke, mirror, metal tubing, address numerals, inkjet prints, custom wallpaper, metal hinges. From solo exhibition, Get Around to How, Erin Stump Projects (2018)

 

 

In your artist statement, you qualify your work as being informed by the “vernacular architecture and object arrangements found in the urban environment of [your] native South Korea.” What does it mean, for you, to create sculptures and installations referencing where you grew up, in the context of Guelph, where you currently live and work?
 

I see that such language – whether artist’s statement or press release – operates as a form of cultural currency concerning (my) identity here in North America, and especially in Canada, where the “vernacular architecture in Korea” sounds exotic. Yet, I think it’s evocative of my everyday experience with make-do situs that are manifest in materials and traces all over the world. It’s relatable to putting a rock under a basin to catch rainwater in a Canadian context, or whatever solutions people arrive at to fulfill particular needs. I would say every culture has a version of this, so I think that it’s necessary to point to the source of the subject matter regarding the makeshift, which can be defined and described in different directions.

 

I think the “vernacular” also brings up the makeshift spirit I see and feel in my affinity with the works of other artists, most recognisably Yiso Bahc and Abraham Cruzvillegas. What’s not mentioned but I wish to add to that artist statement is that I am also influenced by the ways certain women artists like Rosemarie Trockel or Trisha Donnelly choose to work with or against the “vernacular” of the white cube.  

 

But to go back to your question, what does it mean to create things referencing where I grew up... I think it means I’m still attached to that place, it’s been formative to my thinking, and I continue to have a preoccupation with that culture and how the whole divided peninsula’s historical and current significance functions in the global consciousness today.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get Around to How, 2018 at Erin Stump Projects Photo by: Laura Findlay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This phenomenon of the “makeshift” keeps appearing through your thought process, it seems. Can you elaborate?

 

The makeshift is concerned with creating things through available means. It’s a rich terrain for me to explore because it includes all sides of the economic, ethical and aesthetic positions, which in turn are tied to the political, the ideological, not to mention the messiness of living with both agency and precarity.

 

 

 

 

 

“[the idea of urinating in public] mirrors the expelling of frustration and/or makes me internalize the sensation of releasing oneself from shame. I guess you could say that the pissing woman became my muse.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

In our studio visit, we talked about the recurring image of the pissing woman in your recent work. How did the series start?

 

The series is about encountering a woman or a group of women pissing. The origin of it was actually rooted in experience; I found out that you can use car doors as makeshift bathroom stalls when my friend had to go so badly that she pulled over on the highway between LA and Joshua Tree. It’s a kind of defiance I’m looking at, but the performative act of drawing and thinking these images keeps bringing me back to the work as it grows and expands in my thoughts about sexuality, bodies and shame. I think the process mirrors the expelling of frustration and/or makes me internalize the sensation of releasing oneself from shame. I guess you could say that the pissing woman became my muse, thanks to my friend and her impatient bladder.

 

 

 

 

 

Everything Can Be Someone’s Headache, 2019, plexiglass, recycled glass, lining from headphone, fox bone. Gallery Galerie Galería (2019)

Collaboration with Paul Kajander

 

 

 

 

 

You talked about potentially co-authoring a book with Paul. What is your relationship to writing?

 

Writing is a fraught terrain for me. The small amount of writing I have done so far is in English mostly. I have been thinking in my second language for one third of my life now, and it's like I love and hate this language I speak, or maybe language in general. My paternal grandma spoke Japanese, and I sometimes wonder about how we both have this intimate relationship to our colonizer’s language.

 

I started finding my clunky way of thinking through writing. For me, even if it’s not an efficient tool -like using a dull knife- or an enjoyable process, writing is like going on a walk or taking a hike with your consciousness.

 

 

You and Paul are currently working on a piece for an exhibition that will be held at the Small Arms Building in Mississauga, Ontario in the coming months. How does this collaborative process infect or change your perspective on your own practice?

 

Paul and I recently made a small number of works for a group show for Franz Kaka’s participation in Gallery Galerie Galería at Jack Barrett Gallery in New York. This felt like the most resolved thing we’ve yet produced, but we are in the early stages of collaborating, though we’ve been informing each other’s works for years, to the point that authorship already felt blurred at times. This is the first time we’ve consciously begun things together, which is a new experience for me in the way that the boundary between “I” and “you” is dissipated through the process, whether these pronouns mean speaker/listener or maker/audience or host/parasite.

 

Regarding any changes in the way I see my own work now, it’s funny you say infection; I think I haven’t noticed any symptoms yet, and I don’t know either if those changes will present themselves that soon, but I’m excited to find out.

 

 

 

Laura Demers is an emerging artist and writer based in Toronto.

 

Editorial Support by Tatum Dooley 

 

Frontis image: Pissbox, 2017, hydrostone, pigment, 21.5 x 17 x 16"  from HaeAhn Kwon's exhibition Get Around to How, at Erin Stump Projects (2018)

 

 

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