Artist, installation artist and kinetic artist YANG Junguk. These are a few titles referring to the artist. Since, while not always so, the things he makes often move, take up space in galleries in irregular ways, and in any case appear in the forms of physical sculpture, the description is actually not that false. However, it is somewhat unsatisfying as if it failed to completely express YANG’s ‘job.’ We may have hastily subsumed him into the realm within art, though the visible is not everything. This is understandable because the objects we encounter in galleries are merely a tiny part of what YANG Junguk has fabricated, and the main body is actually imaginary stories holding their ground like a giant shadow. In other words, the stories are created first and the remaining sculptural elements are elective results derived from this, with his works being incarnations of the stories’ dramatic situations or characters. Therefore, if one looks at the process of his artistic thinking and development, it would be fair to say that YANG Junguk is in fact a storyteller emphasizing narratives.
Life’s Moving Rhythms
YANG Junguk’s stories, which are developed upon careful observation of ordinary life, always unfold centered around people. Observations and imagination regarding a certain person become the foundation, or situations arising from people interacting with one another are depicted. Recently YANG has presented the series 〈Standing Works〉(2015-2016), 〈Signboard for Some of Store〉(2017- ), and 〈Things that Do Not Sleep and Delivered Every Time〉(2017- ), which further focus on the characteristics of each individual and a fictional personal history. If the artist’s previous works constituted a type of improvisation, his recent series are composited like one-act play.
Regarding these three series, the artist says he “worked out the rhythm that began from the work in three ways.” They are images of people we can easily find in our surroundings, people who work hard and move about, but are still helplessly drifting along with fate while in disunity with the world – someone who has spent an exhausting day, someone who is chasing a simple but earnest dream, and someone who suffers from aching but very common misfortune, et al. To these people, who are simply lumped together as ‘petty bourgeoise’, YANG Junguk attaches individual detailed and earnest stories to bestow upon them concrete life. He creates stories about what occupation a certain individual had in the past, what happened for that individual to leave the trajectory of their dream life, and why he or she squeakily leads their life with such movements and patterns. It thus becomes convincing that these people’s life rhythms were of a sense acquired through life, as opposed to being innate. YANG’s art, which considers one’s ‘attitude’ toward life through vocational habits, simultaneously explores life’s ‘mechanism’, and life’s precariousness ultimately applies here as a universal principle. However, that precariousness is experienced in a very individual and specific way. The irreversible flow of time, improvements in technology, unfortunate accidents, or slight failures that have occurred due to someone’s request make today’s daily life different from that of the past, and move and transform life. In the larger context they may constitute generally similar modes of life, but to the individual this is a change in qualities akin to alchemy. When facing the artist’s fabricated stories saying ‘everyday life still goes on’, the viewer assertively empathizes with the message, and forms an amplitude of imagination in the realm of experience, which is inevitably different for each individual. For instance, when a viewer believes that a wooden stick sticking out in YANG’s Signboard for Some of Store #11 (2017) is ‘a devoted hand petting hope’, it is partially due to the artist’s intention, while it is also because everyone understands those earnest wishes, if only to some extent.
The Structure of Similarity
The forms YANG Junguk makes with strings hanging in a confused tangle, a besmirched wooden stick, and even green duct tape actually do not visually match the external appearances of genuine people or objects. They are optional and arbitrary, like when a child with a few stones becomes seriously absorbed in his or her playing house. Nonetheless, naively enough, we perceive his narratives as told when viewing his installations. “Oh my, yes, that’s true. Isn’t the way it is standing just like someone with a tray serving food?”, “There’s a deer here. Hey look, there’s even a bear over there.” The reason one helplessly falls under YANG’s spell is because viewers intuitively accept resemblances as implied meanings rather than understanding them through the extent of figurative similarity. This is related to the correspondence relationship Walter BENJAMIN would have called ‘non-sensuous similarity.’ He freely uses figurative languages and literary languages in a mutually complementary way to deliver stories and seeks sentimental sympathy in the relationship.
In YANG Junguk’s works, literary language is usually presented as sentence-style titles or short texts appended to his installation pieces. Particularly, Standing Works and Signboard for Some of Store are anthology series in which each series has a large theme in common but the main character(s) keeps changing. While the works lack continuity between them, they are formed so that an episode is completed within each piece. What makes this possible is the individual texts given to each piece. If one views only the external appearance, he or she may tilt their head to one side and say “What is this?” However, if they read the text they will automatically nod their head and withdraw their suspicion. What connects the triangular composition of text, installation and narrative here, while filling in the gap between matter and non-matter, is the viewer’s imagination and recognition of ‘resemblance.’ However, this resemblance is about how much the narrative, as a synthesis of figurative and written language, resembles actual life, rather than signifying its consistency with external forms.
By the way, the format changed in Things that Do Not Sleep and Delivered Every Time which YANG newly presents this year. Whereas there was an independent story telling about someone’s life in each piece before, the story begins from a piece of writing and the installation pieces consecutively multiply in the new series. While the repertoire of how the individual A’s daily life has turned into A′ has not changed much, the artist has erased the tragic and dramatic aspects into which viewers could easily fall. Instead, he expanded his realm of interpretation and imagination and it relies on suddenly, unconsciously rising fragments of memory. Together with this, whereas the viewer previously had a tendency to become immersed in the works while treating them like human beings, now viewers are led to keep an objective distance while perceiving the works as objects. The works’ time, too, which used to flow from the past to the present, now started to flow toward the future. Rather than stopping at speaking of today while reminiscing about the past like Standing Works and Signboard for Some of Store , Things that Do Not Sleep and Delivered Every Time defers to a day to come, with the anticipation of ‘what will be delivered next time.' Such changes cause one to vaguely infer that YANG might be seeking a transition of style from one-act play to full-length play. We don’t know how the story will unfold in the future because we are still at its beginning stage. By the way, do not unfinished stories which are left open but have the potential to expand resemble life’s uncertainty? The problem is how conjunctly this story can be built up and whether that structure can be presented visually.
The Korean word ‘saram’ (person) is a noun that derives from the verb salda (to live). If the stories of people and lives YANG Junguk works with move us, it is likely because of the universal intimacy that the common denominator of ‘to live’ offers to us. Even if each assumes a different method, or because the methods differ, subject matter for stories abound. If this life’s storyteller, YANG Junguk, has told us short stories til now, I carefully await the day the artist, who is facing a turning point in his practice, will tell more consecutive and grand stories, the stories that leave reverberations as deep as those of operas and epics in the future.
KIM Sora is a curator based in Seoul. She majored in political science and diplomacy, and studied aesthetics in France. She previously worked at Amore Pacific Museum Of Art, and is currently curator at the OCI Museum of Art. She writes and curates.