Article | Jan 2016
Hwang Soo Yoen: “This world is imperfectly beautiful with too many things”
By William Stover
Upon RU's recommendation, the New York based curators Shlomit Dror (RU Alum) and William Stover as well as RU Alum Emireth Herrera Valdés (Mexico) were invited by the Seoul Art Space Geumcheon (SASG) in South Korea to write a critical review about the Korean artists Wonho Lee, Hwang Sooyeon, and Lee Sujin who are currently in residency at SASG. This is the third consecutive year for this partnership between RU and SASG.
In opposition to traditional Western notions of the ideals of beauty and perfection being harmonious and balanced, Hwang Soo Yoen finds beauty in imperfection. For Hwang beauty lies in what is flawed and her aesthetic is centered on the acceptance that beauty is, not only imperfect, but also impermanent and incomplete. She celebrates the mundane, turning ordinary, humble materials (some natural and some man made) into works that are enlivened with a mystical and magical quality. Like an alchemist who turns lead into gold, Hwang takes raw materials that exist in the physical realm - sand, spit, charcoal, rubber bands, aluminum foil, eggs - and transforms them. By slowly observing the object over time, recognizing its physical properties, acknowledging its intended societal function, and the “life” that is contained within, she begins to tear the object/material down, manipulating and maneuvering it into another state. In works such as Object and Object, ordinary rubber bands are cut into tiny bits and accumulated over many months in a small box, or More Hard, where aluminum foil is pounded and hammered over and over until it breaks into small pieces. The pieces are amassed together and shaped into spheres, whereby the flimsy foil, through the process becomes rock solid. The properties of the materials may still be recognizable, but in Hwang’s conversion the original function is negated and the materials are morphed into surrogates for both earthly and spiritual concerns.
As the archeologist/writer Barbara Ann Kipfer states, "In the garbage, I see beauty. In beautiful things, I see the garbage. One cannot exist without the other," Hwang’s work lies at the junction of this in-between. It must be pointed out Hwang does not believe the materials she uses are “garbage.” This is the label placed on them by society. Easily discarded by many people, they are resources for Hwang’s alchemy. Though trained formally in art, Hwang has great interest in science and technology and in her work strives to make sense of the physical, quantifiable world, while also trying to connect us to a world beyond one that we can see or touch. One that lies in our consciousness. Hwang’s art lies, not so much in the exhibition of these new works but in the process of their making. Her labor intensive and very physical, ritual of making is “not specifically planned and done, instead it is abruptly started while I scrutinize or touch it meticulously enjoying every single element and keep it near myself.” Hwang’s work lies “between senses and emotion” and harnesses the power of transformation.
Webster’s Dictionary defines alchemy as a “power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way.” While it can be argued that the act of making art itself is alchemical, within the history of art, this mystery has been explored by many artists. Through simple genre paintings of alchemists or including alchemy symbols in a drawing, to artists actually altering materials through chemical methods, the role of transformation in art has been important. For Hwang, the etching, Melencolia I (1514), a work by Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) has held great significance. Perhaps Dürer’s most well-known work, the meanings contained within the scene have been debated for centuries. Scholars have variously interpreted themes of astrology, philosophy, theology, as well as alchemy. As the title alludes, the most predominant interpretation suggests that the work is an allegory of the melancholy of the artist. Surrounded by the tools of mathematics and science (fields of knowledge that were considered building blocks of artistic creation and through which Dürer hoped to achieve perfection in his own work) the brooding, winged figure of Melancholy sits dejectedly with her head resting in her hands. Unable to fly, she is powerless to leave the earthbound realm of imagination to attain the higher stages of abstract thought. Despairing of the limits of human knowledge, she is paralyzed and unable to create. Believed to be a spiritual self-portrait of Dürer, this work can also be seen as representing the struggles that many artists, including Hwang, undergo; to reconcile tangible, worldly interests with those from a higher realm. Dürer has, for Hwang, assembled in this work many aesthetic and practical concerns that are equally important for her as an artist. “Although there are lots of criticisms about that engraving, I thought that the scene, filled with things in the world, soaked with worries, is beautiful.” The relationship between the world of science and the world of art that Dürer accepts, are meaningful for her, but while Dürer strove to attain “perfection” in his work through geometry, Hwang’s relationship to these disciplines is quite different. Hwang believes that even if their theories or properties may be beyond our comprehension the pictures in science/technology books can be understood by us visually as signs or symbols, or as the artist states, “figures in books are beautiful enough to be understood with shapes determined by our inner aspect.” In her series of drawings, Melencolia (Law of Number) the artist has depicted natural phenomena, scientific symbols, fruit, flowers, architecture, and more. Combining a variety of images on one page Hwang creates a pictogram for us to decipher. We may have no understanding of what they actually “mean” but we recognize them as images and what that represents to us in the world. Just as in the Dürer print, these drawings combine images of objects that are clearly from the real world with images that are open to interpretation and serve as symbols or metaphors for larger, universal truths.
Even when she makes drawings without recognizable imagery, Hwang’s work also serves as metaphor. Though her work may be informed by the world around her – redevelopment of the city, earthquakes, weather patterns, homelessness – the work is not about a specific issue or event, but about how these affect us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. The work asks us to navigate the territories of body, mind and soul. Giving herself specific parameters of height and width Drawing Average Rate, is a large drawing created directly on the wall in an empty store. Made by dragging pastel over the rough surface over and over again until the color is heaped on and the pastel is disintegrated; one can feel Hwang’s labor intensive gesture of drawing, the movement of her body and the accretion of time it took to complete the work. The accumulated piles of pastel shavings/powder on the floor are not only evidence of time and the physical process of making, they are cosmic dust fallen into the room from the window Hwang constructed to help transport us into another dimension. In the series A4 Drawing the artist layers and layers charcoal on paper slowly and deliberately over a long period of time until the paper becomes thick and shiny with the substance. Once again, not only do we feel Hwang’s method of creating, and the time it took her to do so, we also understand this work as a portal or black hole transporting us into another realm. “When I draw a4, my colleagues frequently ask a question of ‘What are you thinking when you draw such lines?’ This would have meant that they wondered whether I got bored to draw numerous lines until the paper got wrinkled. Someone asked ‘Don’t you draw a line while watching TV?’, but I do not watch TV while working, I watch the heaping graphite on the paper, and the enduring tension and friction between the two, and even the space above the paper which is gradually filled with drawing. That was really a joyful task.”
The true alchemy in Hwang Soo Yoen’s art is the transformation and transcendence that she creates in those who view the work. She assists us to recognize that the “world is so beautiful and at the same time it’s ugly” and that the imperfection we see around us leads us to a greater understanding of who we are.
 This interpretation of Melencolia I is taken from the object text on the website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.