Five easy pieces that make one think
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Nov. 11, 2011
True to its name, the University of Maryland's "Sugar High" exhibition hits visitors to the Stamp Gallery - even those who are walking by the little glass-walled space toward the student union's bustling food court - with a head rush.
Even from a distance it's hard to miss the giant, boulder-size ball of aluminum foil, lit from within by a fluorescent light, that dominates the space. During a recent visit, as undergrad tour guides shepherded prospective students around, people were murmuring in amazement.
Other works are subtler but no less impressive. The show consists of only five pieces by the New York-based installation artist Hong Seon Jang, but they pack a punch.
In addition to the aforementioned "Rock," the show includes a lacelike curtain made from hot glue and fishing line; an installation of cut-up magazines that have been affixed to the wall to resemble the kind of flat mushrooms known as tree ears; an almost architectural stack of several thousand sugar cubes that lends the show its title; and a landscape "drawing" created from clear adhesive tape.
It's pretty impressive stuff, down to that deceptively simple "Black Forest" drawing, which resembles a kind of X-ray, or a wooded vista seen through night-vision goggles.
But it's not just eye candy. Once the initial sugar high wears off, there's a rumination that lingers in the head, a sense of interconnection - for better or for worse - between man and nature, the forces of creation and destruction, the ephemeral and the eternal.
That's by design. The artist, who was born in South Korea, is interested in the Eastern concept that all energy flows in a circle. Scratch the surface, and there's an obvious ecological subtext: the theme of trash and recycling. But the work also hints at something deeper. By making lovely objects out of mass-produced materials not designed for aesthetics, Jang is, on one level, doing little other than what many modernist industrial designers have already done. What's the difference, then, between Jang and someone who makes chairs out of corrugated cardboard boxes or vases out of sawed-off wine bottles?
But the artist's work suggests hidden dualities beyond the physical. His shimmering "Rock," for instance, glows from inside like a radioactive geode in a sci-fi film, a source of seemingly magical power. The paper mushrooms of his "Fungus" installation contain hidden histories - pictures and stories - we can't access. "Black Forest" seems to look inside the very soul of a tree. "Sugar High" is, quite literally, a tower built from potential energy (sucrose). Even the curtain of glue, "Black Mirage," evokes a porous veil separating this world from the next.
Jang's work may be easy on the eyes, but it's hard to forget, for reasons that have nothing to do with good looks.
The Story Behind the Work
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Nov 11, 2011
It's hard to look at Hong Seon Jang's sculptural accumulations of foil, glue, magazines, sugar cubes and tape and not wonder about the massive effort that went into creating them. The artist makes no secret of how "tedious, repetitive and time-consuming" some of his art is. One sprawling installation of plastic zip ties, created last year for Minneapolis's Soap Factory art space, took four to six months of 10-hour days to assemble, according to Jang.
He wants viewers to think about his artistic process. That's because a key notion in his art is the role of human activity. How does what we do - expressed, metaphorically, through what Jang does - impact the world around us?