Imagine if the 20th century had concluded with modernism and minimalism becoming totalitarian aesthetic doctrines, dominating every facet of human activity and eradicating any semblance of ostentatious ornamentation. It would be a grim reality in which design theory pursued purely pragmatic ideals, resulting in absolute efficiency and the prohibition of decoration: no nail polish, no Grand Designs disasters, no Christmas lights.
The ornate and the abstract can be perceived as oppositional qualities. The prior evokes adorning ourselves against any survivalist logic, the latter a process of simplification tending towards a purely white wall. In Ornament and Crime (1910) the Austrian architect Adolf Loos wrote [somewhat hyperbolically] that “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use”. It was his belief that valuing elaborate objects, cloths and architecture created unfavourable conditions for workers and craftsmen, undermining their value and eroding their free time. He was probably right, but at a cost. By seeing the ornament as a crime and the modernist (read abstract) as moral, we place them at ends of an imagined spectrum, barring a chance of rapprochment.
Luckily, we do not live in such a dictatorial world. We live in a world where artists such as Haegue Yang can work to repair the rift between these two poles. In her first Latin-American solo show, at Kurimanzutto in Mexico City, Yang demonstrates three visual material linguistic languages that she has developed to contest the criminality of the ornament. The first an example of the minimalist decorated ornamentally, the second sees the ornamental made industrially, and the third combines the standardised with patterned craftsmanship.
Camouflaged by a lenticular vinyl pumpkin monster face, the naturally lit, barn like, space at Kurimanzutto becomes something of a cave, a forbidden space, for unnatural formations. Central, two identical cuboid forms, a stalactite and a stalagmit, mirror one another. Sol LeWitt Upside Down – K123456, Expanded 1078 Times, Doubled and Mirrored (2015), is in fact a homage to the minimalist artist, adopting his sculptural diction, permutations of faceless wooden cubes. Yang has adorned the forms by adding aluminium venetian blinds, an accent or umlaut emphasising the word or changing it all together.
This is non-ironic appropriation, questioning the idea of the original, the relationship between the one and the rest, yet making no attempt to undermine LeWitt’s crown. The venetian blinds transform but do not defeat the structure. A decorative flourish, they add a feminine tone, light passes through them though the densest places are almost entirely opaque. They feel solid, yet float effortlessly from a framework of LED tubes. The blinds hint at the ornate, at expense, yet their sleek silver keeps within the canon of minimalism and carries with it reminders of office environments. In all its contradictions it is undeniably delicate; lingering in the room is the potential of a crumpled mess, a child could turn it into shambles given five minutes.
Spaced around the Sol LeWitt Upside Down are numerous creatures, fractions of Yang’s ongoing The Intermediate (2015-ongoing) series. Seemingly made from organic materials and copious amounts of straw, these ‘figures’ harken back to the human impulse to give our psychological inner-selves an external form. Proportionately they resonate with body-ness, yet are abstracted and bulbous, noticeably hinting towards the Venus of Hohle Fels (circa BC 33,000 – 38,000). The exhibition features four of these pieces, alongside three wall-mounted and two ceiling-hung snake-ing variants.
Their construction, bundled and bound in bales, speaks to the ubiquity of straw in craft traditions and the construction of homes. While referencing South Korea traditions, the choice of material resonates with almost every culture, unified by a historic application of straw, although, on closer inspection the straw is artificial, the plants too, and the vegetables, even the block of fermented soybeans, all fake. By employing this falsity Yang conflates century old traditions with the production methodologies of the 20th century. Each figure is a child of our ornamental and modernist leanings, the product of a love affair between differing dispositions. They are hybrids stuck between different eras, beautiful monstrosities, or idols to our reliance on modernity’s provisions.
Completing the show are two murals in opposing corners of the room. Framed abstract drawings are connected to one another by a series of geometric vinyl triangles, which together, crawling over the walls, create an impression of a mountain scape or mineral deposits within the cave. The pictures employ a mix of envelope security patterns (the squiggles, letters, dots etc. that line the inside of envelopes in order to obscure private information from prying eyes), Yang’s specially designed graph paper, sandpaper and origami paper. With flourishes and the occasional human-esq feature, the images recall the abstract pioneer Hilma af Klint, an artist who mixed the occult with the abstract.
Again, this set of works re-introduces the ornate to the abstract. The materials Yang has become fascinated with, industrial and meticulously standardised, speak of modernity’s exacting control over production, the OCD of a century. Yet the way these minimalist materials come together speaks to older traditions and religious craftsmanship, another mathematical proof against Loos’ ideological separation.
Beyond its individual parts what Ornament and Abstraction achieves is a sense of completeness. Bound together by the occasional unifying component, the gate-keeping, grinning pumpkin face at the entrance and five odour emitters spaced throughout, the exhibition succeeds in being coherent yet diverse. Each piece speaks on some level to counter the notion that modernist design and craft traditions cannot co-exist. By painting the white cube (that famous symbol of modernist abstraction) grey, and blocking out the natural light, an environment that is creepy and simultaneously homely is created. Within this zone, this quiet space of contemplation, the three sets of work live together like forgotten relics, products of a human tribe who found a common ground between folk craftsmanship and industrial production.
Elliott Burns is an independent curator, exhibition production-er, writer, ex-artist, sometimes photographer, occasional teacher, approximate art technician, able bartender, decent cook, events co-ordinator, budget organiser, spreadsheet handler, competent admin-er, and happy copy-editor.
Since graduating from MA Culture, Criticism and Curation at Central Saint Martins he has worked exhibition production on Art Night, a one night contemporary arts festival in central London, and co-curated What Do You Meme?, an exhibition of meme culture. Recently he has co-founded Off Site Project, an online exhibition space.
Haegue Yang: Ornament and Abstraction is on at Kurimanzutto, Mexico City from April 1 – May 6 2017
Featured image: Ornament and Abstraction (installation view) (2017), Haegue Yang, Image credit: Omar Luis Olguín, Courtesy of the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City.