Ran Hwang and the Aesthetics of Chance
Robert C. Morgan
The experience of seeing Ran Hwang’s work for the first time is startling – an experience that for some viewers incites strong feelings of beauty and fulfillment. In the process of observing the space, color, and light inherent in her brilliant panels and installations, one may also consider how the artist discovered this path and how she began making such delicate, extraordinary, and even defiant works of art. It would appear that our recently evolved transcultural world has become largely contingent on chance. This is what the so-called “information age” has brought upon us. To discover beauty in such an environment is not always so readily assessable. While the artist Ran Hwang is aware of this, her art suggests a more defiant and positive direction. If the everyday virtual environment represents one aspect of how we live, then the responsibility of the artist is to discover a means toward constructing a necessary balance. In response to the virtual, the art of Ran Hwang offers a tactile response whereby the act of seeing is brought into focus with the heart and mind.
In the late 1950s, the late American avant-garde composer, John Cage, would often speak of “chance operations” as an alternative to the superficial way of life that pigeonholed people into specialized categories. Cage believed that chance was happening around us at every moment, if only we could develop our senses to recognize it. He advocated that we learn to use our senses and to empty our overstuffed minds. This was appropriated from a Zen Buddhist teaching described by Cage in his book Silence (1961). His message was to see the world in a new and startling way and to awaken the indeterminate and unpredictable aspects that lay dormant in our everyday lives. Indeed, Cage’s teaching suggests something important about the remarkably clear iconic forms and vanishing spaces of Ran Hwang. Not only are these works decidedly beautiful but they offer the potential to explore an indeterminate way of seeing that we may not have considered. Therefore, upon discovering a large bird composed of pins and wound with red thread, titled Dreaming of Joy 2, or in Dreaming of Joy, an installation in which the form of the bird is only partially composed of red buttons pinned to a panel and viewed from behind the bars of a cage, we are obliged to think differently and to experience something outside the normal routine.
By using a seemingly infinite number of buttons, threads, and pins in her art, Ran Hwang metaphorically reveals the unraveling of fashion, the process whereby the allure of glamour takes a more profound turn toward beauty. In doing so, she implicitly suggests a difference or contrast between the two. While glamour functions as a temporal manifestation of the exterior, beauty reads as a phenomenon emanating from within. Hwang has often remarked that her work is a form of meditation leading towards inner harmony and peace. “I use buttons,” proclaims the artist, “because they are common and ordinary like the existence of human beings.” In recent large-scale installations, often depicting birds in red or white buttons against a painted background, the formal aggregation of repetitive dots and lines is transformed into a personal or symbolic icon that expresses self-liberation. Whether the birds are caged or soaring into space, whether the cherry blossoms cling to the branches or fall to the ground, whether the curved primary shapes take the form of an ancient vase from the Silla Dynasty, the evolution of beauty is present in all of these works.
Moreover, this evolution parallels a form of meditative practice that western art audiences might better understand as performance art. “Like the monks practicing Zen while facing a wall,” says Ran Hwang, “my work is a form of performance that leads to finding oneself.” In these words, we sense the artist’s native Buddhist perspective. While some works appear unfinished, Hwang regards these forms as symbolic of nature. She sees nature as perpetually appearing, disappearing and then reappearing. Nature – like form – constitutes a reality sometimes visible, half-visible or not visible at all. For the Korean-born artist, we may enunciate our presence in nature only by recognizing our absence. This is not only the paradox of existence as taught by Lao-tzu; it is the fundamental basis by which we understand beauty. This is the point where we engage with the sensory, poetic, and cognitive aspects of Ran Hwang’s artistry.
Returning to the aesthetics of chance, there is much implied in this aspect of the artist’s work. One could take it on a purely aesthetic level or related to the practical aspects of the work, the technicalities involved in finding a way to sustain the buttons, to hold them in place against the lesser weight of the pins. This may be the reason why some of the installations have piles of buttons stacked on the floor against the wall. It suggests impermanence, which is fully consistent with the artist’s intention and method of work. While chance might be understood as intuitive, this should not discount the use of precision. Indeed, both are connected in the work of Ran Hwang. For example, a work, titled Two Love Trees is conceived in three panels that function autonomously from the wall on which they are hung. The red blossoms implied by the aggregation of buttons that move across the three panels are essential to the flow and design of the work. This suggests that the intuition of placement