The Tender Buttons of Ran Hwang
By Barbara Pollack

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading. Gertrude Stein, Tender Button, 1914

There is a lot to be found in a pile of buttons—recollections of old clothes, my grandmother’s housecoat and my mother’s formal worsted suit, more poignant yet. My own sweater, the one I wore as a baby, with tiny white pearlescent circles running up its front. These are buttons that have endured, against the elements and human carelessness, staying put on their respective garments, a combination of decoration and practicality. There are also those buttons that have gone astray, leaving behind two pinholes and torn threads, launching me on a search for something that matches the original. More often than not, I will give up and simply stop wearing the jacket.

This combination of endurance and ephemerality is at the heart of Korean artist Ran Hwang’s choice of buttons as her primary medium. As a framework, Hwang starts with iconic silhouettes—Buddhas, birds, temples, plum blossoms---then covers the surfaces with thousands upon thousands of buttons of all sizes. She affixed them, not with glue, but with multitudes of straight pins, carefully tapped into place at an angle. Within this system to pointing, in Gertude Stein’s words, the buttons are free to move, shimmer and vibrate, in place, even as the overall images remain fixed and durable.

Born in Pusan and trained as a realist painter at Chung Ang University in Seoul, Ran Hwang moved to New York in 1997 to attend the School of Visual Arts. After studying, she worked in an embroidery design studio in the garment district where her drawings were scanned into a computer, generating gorgeous machine-made patterns. While working there, she noticed boxes and boxes of unused buttons, stacked in a corner. She asked if she could use them and was told, “Take as much as you like.” Hwang soon began incorporating buttons, first into small scale collages and later in room-sized installations.

But her decision to use this material was not just coincidental, or at least, coincided with a bigger event that was life-changing, namely the World Trade Center disaster. From her studio, then in Dumbo, Brooklyn, she could see the towers on fire and in the news coverage she was shaken by images of tiny people falling from the upper floors. To Hwang, the buttons were like tiny faces with two eyes peeking out from each. The random boxes of buttons in the corner of the embroidery business felt much like forgotten souls, piling up on a sidewalk. She intuitively knew that a button could represent a life, and the life cycle, the process of reincarnation, as she picked up the discarded cache of buttons and recycled them into her art works.

The use of buttons most obviously refers to woman’s work especially in the labor force of the international garment industry. With globalization, many labor intensive tasks—from stitching t-shirts to wiring the circuitry of an iPhone—are performed by millions of women, many in Asian countries. Though Hwang would not call her work feminist, the fact remains that her choice of medium recalls the generations of women sewing on buttons, at home and in the factory. Her magic is that she can turn this mundane task into a noble, ever magnificent production.

Indeed, Hwang’s imagery is often monumental. In her most recent work, she has created two towering structures, Old Palace and East Wing from Old Palace, 2011, each over six feet high and ten feet long, actually an amalgam of various temples and palaces she visited as a child. These are much more than postcards of souvenirs. In person, these palaces are inviting and imposing, fantastic and beautiful, spectacular and meditative, all at the same time. To create these works, Hwang started with pictures of details from existing structures, scanned them into a computer, and composed an image in a 3-D CAD file, that provides the blueprint for the dimensionality of her final sized panel and starts affixing her buttons, pin by pin. Even with the help of assistants, one of these palaces can take as love as five months to complete.

Look carefully at these ancient buildings and you will see that they do not have strong foundations, but are resting on a series of chandeliers with flaming candles. In one way, both the temples and the chandeliers share a common goal, that of delivering enlightenment. On the other hand, Hwang knows that by combining the two, she is creating an image where the permanence and invincibility of these sites of power are undercut by the image of flickering candles, soon to be extinguished. It is an image in direct contrast to the art works themselves, which seem quite fragile on first glance, but are actually made to be as strong as a bronze sculpture, the pins permanently stuck in place.

Hwang’s treatment of these palaces turns them into the dystopian structures, embodying a clash between an age-old quest for ideal institutions and the 21st century reality of their deterioration and corruption. This artist is looking at iconic Korean symbols, such as the ancient palaces, but infuses these images with a permanent state of instability, as if to say that their power cannot hold in her country’s rush towards modernization.

Sometimes, Hwang uses another technique to evince transience. At the foot of her artworks, you can find pile of buttons on the floor, as if they have popped off their panels. In another series, images of birds and eagles, the picture seems to be disintegrating, with gaps in the depiction and an entropic disbursement of buttons. In Empty Me, S-II, 2010, the eagle, a regal emblem, is both an image of power and an especially powerful image, wearing a crown and spreading it wings against a golden background, paired by a female eagle nearby on a smaller scale. It is impossible to resist its evocation of freedom. Yet, these birds are literally pinned in place, unable to go anywhere, like butterfly specimens on an entomologist’s table. It is this tension between freedom and confinement, power and impermanence, underlies all of Hwang’s work and gives it a complicated beauty.

In fact, Hwang admits that her own process replicates these complications. On one hand, it is and overtly labor-intensive mode of art-making, to the point that thinking about the sheer effort can distract from appreciation of the work.

But, for the artist, the task of mounting buttons upon buttons, on pin at a time, parallels a Buddhist monk’s practice of staring at a blank wall for months on end as a path to enlightenment. Her art-making is entirely meditative for Hwang, and she hopes that viewers can share the meditative state evoked by her strongest work.

All of these qualities come together in Hwang’s video installation, Garden of Water, 2010. In this work, three Plexiglas panels are pierced with thousands of crystals on the end of pins, creating the impression of three crystal chandeliers, hanging from the ceiling and touching the floor. An ethereal projection of spiders dancing across the strands of light enlivens each panel, later turning into streams of a waterfall, flowing down the walls. Slowly, the waterfall fades and the chandeliers return to light the dark interior of the room.

Spectacle can often be a distraction from meditation, the very opposite of sitting still and exploring the mind’s interior space. But in Hwang’s Garden of Water, spectacle is employed to instill a meditative state of mind. Viewers cannot resist the mesmerizing sensation of watching the fantastic light source—chandeliers with flickering candles—dissolve in the flow of an unstoppable rush of water, the seemingly permanent thing erased by a more transient force. In seeing the chandeliers disappear and return again, Hwang has created an environment brimming with the spirit of reincarnation, a spiritual life cycle found in all of her works.

These days, Hwang divides her time between New York and Seoul with studios in both locations to keep up with the demand for her work. She seamlessly manages the inevitable identity shift that comes with shuttling between these two locations. In her work she seems to be saying that all is fluid and nothing permanent, not culture, not identity, not ever her art works themselves. After all, after seeing something as monumental and durable as the Twin Towers topple to the ground, what can endure of ancient palaces and fragile temples? That they do endure, even in contemporary Korea, only proves that the ephemeral is sometimes stronger than structures built from concrete and steel. It is marvelous that Hwang finds this truth by staring at an ordinary button and from this little bit of nothing builds entire worlds.