For her first solo exhibition in a US museum, Seoul-based artist Suki Seokyeong Kang debuted a project centered on historical Korean conceptions of the grid as a spatial and social structuring device. In the traditional Chunaengjeon (Dance of the Spring Oriole) choreography, for example, the borders of the hwamunseok reed mat, with its crosshatched warp and weft, constrain the movements of a solo dancer; in the classical musical notation system jeongganbo, instructions for motion, vocals, and timing are marked inside a grid. In a 2016 conversation with Lili Nishiyama for ArtAsiaPacific, Kang proposed that these systems of organization form “a micro-society that makes its own territories, own voice, own movement.” This exhibition, “Black Mat Oriole,” invoked such geographic, cultural, and personal groupings through a similarly abstract language of installation, film, and gesture, strongly influenced by the artist’s training as a painter. Perhaps reflecting that education in Seoul and London, Kang expands and integrates ongoing conversations about the grid that have been important to Asian and Western aesthetic traditions, without prioritizing or repressing one or the other.
Visitors entered the two-room exhibition through heavy black curtains. The first, darkened gallery contained a three-channel video projection showing wide to close-up views of a room with black walls and a black floor, in which performers gently engage with Kang’s smooth, spotlighted, monochromatic paintings, frames, and sculptures. Two performers carry slim, frame-like objects across the room. Another treads across the surfaces of paintings arranged in a grid on the floor. Yet another sits inside a small, low-profile box frame, arms wrapped around bent knees, and uses her bare heels for leverage as she carefully drags her body across the floor. The friction is audible, part of a soundtrack that recalls the spare, rhythmic scores that punctuate traditional Korean dance.
Visitors passed through another curtain into a white room, which contained an installation of hwamunseok in addition to assemblages of altered found objects and stacks of abstract paintings whose faces were not visible—all organized in a loose grid with axes diagonal to the gallery walls. Some of these elements were recognizable from the video, whose soundtrack was distantly audible, a sensory reminder of the actions just witnessed. Kang designed parts of this installation to be “activated” (her term) by performers according to a strict scheme of gestures. One configuration of movable parts included three cylindrical drums: one wrapped in yarn of brown, gray, and green earth tones; another powdercoated in robin’s-egg blue with circular holes punched into it; and a third whose salmon-colored surface looked to have been sanded down in sections to reveal a silvery-gray material. Pale wooden wheels, mobilized and anthropomorphized in the video, formed this stack’s feet. In other configurations, pastel wooden and metal frames were hinged together, some with attached backs that let them function as boxes (as in the video), trays, or screens. On the underside of some of these rectangular metal boxes were bright blue, round plastic bumpers, scuffed from wear, evidencing occasional weight-bearing or dragging. When opened out, these geometric forms recalled both Minimalist structures and the folding screens that form the backdrop of the traditional Chunaengjeon, as seen both in the video and in the performances staged during the exhibition.
Though each live and recorded set of actions hewed to predetermined rules of engagement, the objects’ capacities for motion and reconfiguration suggested that they might nevertheless exceed the established parameters. The precarious-looking, double-human-height tower of small canvases presiding over the room served as a physical record of Kang’s daily painting practice, which, like her choreography, adheres to a strict system of (brush in hand) bodily movements. Yet the canvases’ visible edges, painted with loose, colorful grids comprised of rough, washy bands and drippy stripes, looked defiantly unruly in contrast to the smooth, nearmonochromatic surfaces of the other objects in the room. Like the other variations and embellishments on the repeated forms of drums and frames, these differentiations in mark-making again signaled a certain freedom within limitations.
In a US museum, Kang’s work is inevitably contextualized by the Western-canonical essay “Grids,” 1979, in which Rosalind Krauss imagined the modernist icon as operating, in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological terms, as a myth: a structure that subtly holds together opposing cultural narratives, seemingly eliding (through repression) the tension between dominant and less powerful values. Kang’s various explorations of the grid are also explicitly tied to social microcosms. Yet her expanded painting practice, the whispered undercurrent of this show, explicitly negotiates these tensions, performing integrations of Eastern and Western materials and beliefs, even exceeding disciplinary boundaries, to push against the imposed limitations of our increasingly obstructionist moment.