Illusion and Reality
Ki Hye-Gyeong: Curator, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea

Ran Hwang produces art works using thread, buttons and beads. After graduating an art college and postponing her pursuit of an art career for a while, she decided to work again as an artist when, as she later told me, she found out that the weight of life is rather heavy. 

After determining that she would find her direction of life in art, she went to US for study. 

Early in her stay in New York, she worked in fashion industry for a living, and one day, she saw the boxes with full of buttons with a different perspective, and started to produce a series of small-sized, very feminine works. The foreign atmosphere of New York made a significant impact on her art—an impact that changed her work from painting to installation art using new materials like thread, buttons, etc.

Hwang’s earlier works were produced using the common materials found in New York and fashion industry she worked in. During the time, she used a fancy silhouette of a female model, fashion items and women’s accessories as the motif of her works. The characteristic of her early works is shown well in a manikin attached to a frame, a female silhouette decorated with buttons in a box, or drawings of fashion models and accessories.  Most of her works at the time were small in size—made up of buttons or beads, or embroidery works using a needle and thread. Her works reflected her own life as a female in Korea and its strong patriarchal culture, and at the same time, she expressed her feminity through glamorous fashion icons. 

However, her earlier works were different from traditional feminism art because they were intimately related to the spirit of late 1990’s. Rather than focusing solely on structural contradictions of sex in the society and physiological difference of man and woman, Hwang used images of daily life to create a feminine image in a mass consumption society that touched lightly the desire of women and their feminity.

Although, in her early works, Hwang used buttons and thread because of their material properties, later, she started to pay attention to usualness and universality that those objet would symbolize. The change, which occurred after she witnessed people falling down from the building during 9/11, came from her new perspective on common people that form the society—an understanding that, although common people are trivial like thread and buttons, without them, no society or no art work can exist. Indeed, after her changed perspective, the stitches and buttons started to speak for common people, their membership in the society, and their trivial yet unique lives. Furthermore, the materials she used started to become more than what formed her works—a semee that has a meaning.

The individual unit in her works represents common person as a member of the society, therefore, it demands time just like a common person would require time to have a larger meaning than just a member of the society. Physically speaking, the time can be understood as the time required for hammering down buttons or beads in a panel using pins, however, the time can also be understood as the time required for a human to introspect or reflect her life. In a sense, her works are the results of myriads of careful consideration and reflection of life.

As the meaning of buttons and thread, which represent usualness of mass consumption society, expanded to the meaning of human figures in the society, the amplitude of her works started to have a bigger significance.

After Hwang acquired a different perspective on her materials, her works became sexlessness. Since then, new images like a bird, Buddha and a full moon jar appeared in her works. Indeed, all these works show the modernity encountering Zen Buddhism in her works: A bird encaged in a closed space in her Bird series shows the usualness of modern life though a bird; Buddha meditating under a blossoming plum tree in her Buddha series shows the meaning of existence and non-existence simultaneously; and the empty full moon shape jar in her <Urn> series expresses the emptiness yet filled space.

“Illusion and Reality” exhibition should be understood as the extension of her past work. The only difference is that the artist’s viewpoint of the society has become more sensitive and detailed, and that she is focusing more keenly on the beautiful yet fatal attractions of daily life. In the exhibition, Hwang Ran displays the world full of glamour and lucidity which are “sweet yet fatal.” In this world, there is a tarantula hidden in the bright light of crystal chandelier, a beautiful yet deadly snake under a blossoming plum tree and a desert flower hiding a thorn. In this lovely yet deadly world, we are like birds surrounded by volcanic ash, not knowing where to hide and unable to fly, even when we are aware of the danger of the world and try to avoid it. 

Also, the world she created is ambivalent. The ambivalence comes from the images of the works, and, of course, those images come from the materials she uses. This time, she used mainly splendid and shiny materials like shell buttons, crystal balls and beads. Although these materials can be somewhat seem too decorative, when observed closely, it shows the delicate and beautiful manual works of countless hammering, and the glamour and lucidity of these materials are beyond description. To the viewer, the details of her works will create the clever illusion of Zen Buddhism and its curiosity—an illusion that, through ultimate fascination, speaks of meditation which lies in the very opposite of the meditation that we usually experience. Whether it is intended or not, this image is the fundamental characteristic of her works that comes from her use of beads, dyed thread and pins. Truly, this clever illusion can be a slice of modern society, and that is why her works are noteworthy. 

In the exhibition, Hwang displays the harsh reality hidden in the beauty, and in her works, we see the tragedy of our lives, our helplessness of not knowing what to do even when we are aware of the danger in our lives. Are her works all pessimistic, then? The artist does not answer the question. Instead she provides a room for the interpretation through Guan Yin (the Buddhist Goddess of mercy) gazing the world calmly. Now, it is up to viewers how to make of this “sweet yet fatal” world. 

Supervised by Thalia Vrachopoulos, Ph,D : Music and Art John Jay College of the City University of New York