Feelings: from black, liplike seashells to busy hives, and from hollow pods to grasping hands, her latest exhibition To Be You, Whoever You Are proves just how expressive and versatile the material can be. ‘It was important to use these natural materials and fibres; I believe that nature is our home.’ That may be, and yet there is something unhomely-in-the-home about the tall scarecrow-ish rave in Gathering’s basement; for the first time in her practice Kang has created complete human bodies.
Ghost in the Weave
Soojin Kang makes organic forms from Mulberry raw silk. Her work at Gathering is moreish and mercurial. ‘I love the fact that this yarn, as a single line, is so fragile,’ the artist says, ‘but when you weave it, it becomes so strong that you can’t cut it with scissors. It can change into so many different kinds of characters. That's why I think I fell in love with this yarn; I can express so many different…’
"from black, liplike seashells to busy hives"
At first glance, the figures recall the ‘cordyceps’ from The Last of Us: all too fibrous, rogue and uncanny. Tube-mannish arms flail in some terrible psychic wind. ‘I wanted to scare the audience,’ Kang says, for ‘the audience to be surrounded by these ghosts, front, back and left and right.’ But then, starting from a place of fear, ‘actually, you realise that it's yourself’ – you, whoever you are. As if to underscore this move from otherness to empathy, all the figures are left open at the back, such that the viewer could crawl inside, wear them as a second skin and walk a day in their metal armatures.
"for the first time in her practice Kang has created complete human bodies"
The last time Kang worked with Gathering gallery director Alex Flick, at his previous space Unit 9, the artist also made works that grapple with otherness. At the time, Kang was pregnant with her son. ‘I was growing a human inside me, but I had never met him. I didn’t know his face, I didn’t know anything about him.’ Never starting with a sketch or a plan, instead relying on her subconscious to manifest through the repetitions in her process, the resultant works were three huge, ominous pods – certainly difficult to untie from the experience of pregnancy and the anticipation of motherhood. Also resembling vulvas, the works in Growth could have been recovered from some ancient fertility temple.
"I wanted to scare the audience"
Kang’s is a lived-in process, and these works take a long time to grow themselves. ‘First, I spin the natural fibres, then I dye them – and sometimes the dye reacts differently, so I create my own palettes, a bit like a painter would. The preparation actually takes longer than the making process.’ As for the making, ‘I just start with my instinct, and then somehow it ends when I feel like it’s finished. That’s why often there are open ends or there are threads hanging down.’ There is an unfussiness to these gestures – suggesting not everything in life can be tied up so easily, in fact a few loose ends are to be encouraged – and Kang’s figures appear frayed by time, but how much time is hard to say. They could be cousins of Pagan wicker men. Opaquely familiar, tactile and organic, they recall the hessian sacks and rope swings of an adventure playground just as readily as the protective shell of a peanut. In any case, the raw silk is so characterful that Kang’s ‘ghosts’ soon appear harmless. Endearing the viewer to them, the idea of a virulent and threatening natural world is succeeded by a more vitalising one.
"Opaquely familiar, tactile and organic"
‘Nature and humans are deeply connected, and we can't really live without it. We come from nature, and we are going to die there, too’. As such, To Be You, Whoever You Are could as readily be titled wherever or whenever you are: beyond empathy between individuals, Kang’s starting point for the exhibition was an exploration of totemism, sacred objects, emblems or even spirit beings that serve as the social glue of entire kinship groups.
Rather than draw on any one totemic tradition, ‘I wanted to create my own totem, my own ghost,’ Kang says. Not quite human, neither animal nor emblem, ultimately, ‘it doesn't really exist. That's why I left the body hollow – because it's kind of dead. There are no organs, no heart, nothing. But it is full of expression and emotion and feeling. You might be projecting your own loved ones or yourself.’
"I wanted to create my own totem, my own ghost"
Unavoidably, therefore, they are snakeskin portraits of the artist, too. ‘Actually, it's about me,’ Kang says. ‘I want to understand and have empathy with myself.’ These fibre snapshots are monuments to that search, and ultimately, Kang’s totems are inextricable from why humans began making them in the first place, to weave together our ultimately insurmountable differences and to cross the seemingly impassable membranes, ghosts with one foot in the land of the living. Like the artist’s prized raw silk, alone, we are fragile; together, unbreakable.
By Sammi Gale
Cover image: Installation view. Photograph © Grey Hutton, Courtesy the artist and Gathering