Dematerialization and the Fashion Mystique:
Collages and installations by Ran Hwang
Robert C. Morgan, Ph.D.
Among conceptual artists active in the early seventies, considerable attention was given to a phenomenon known as “the dematerialization of art.” Dematerialization referred to art in which the traditional object was absent. Instead of presenting a material object, the artist proposed an idea, often accompanied by a typed or written statement, a photograph or diagram describing the intention.
Among artists working today, the term dematerialization has acquired a slightly different meaning—a new connotation that is not entirely contrary to the object. One can trace this shift in meaning to the “postmodernist” eighties when artists appropriated mass produced images and objects in their work in the form of a cultural representation. In this context, the altered images and installations of Korean-born artist Ran Hwang offer an important meaning within this trajectory. Not only are her works a legitimate expression of her personal and feminist concerns, they also present the concept of dematerialization in a new light. Neither strictly conceptual nor retro in style, Hwang reveals the inherent connection, which is also a contradiction, between spiritual meaning and fashion.
This relationship is quite unusual, particularly from a Western perspective where the two are rarely, if even seen as having anything to do with one another. Most often, Hwang divides her work between Buddhist icons that she constructs as flat images using buttons, needles, punctures, and thread, often directly on the wall, and figures of women who represent both the seduction of Hollywood (Marilyn Monroe) and fashion models, such as those photographed by Helmut Newton. Without rehearsing the many examples of her Eastern spiritual icons – such as “Give in Charity (2004),” in which a larger than life-size Bodhidharma sprouts an antler on the right side of his head -- or “Emptiness” (2004), a floor piece where the venerated figure is pierced by a wooden beam, I will focus instead on another more recent installation in New York, entitled “Women in Love.”
For this exhibition, Ran Hwang appropriated a photograph of a sexualized model from the fashion industry that the artist has montaged in relation to a large stone head of the Enlightened One. Together the two images give the impression that the model is holding the large head of Buddha above her own head. The work is typically constructed on the wall using white buttons. The iconic (and ironic) encounter is not only ambiguous and without resolution, but deftly mysterious and discomforting. In an unpublished statement the artist explains that her work is “a critique of the present situation in which Eastern cultural icons are being superficially idolized and overtly commodified without deep interest, understanding, and learning.”
Hwang sees the fashion girl as an icon from the contemporary western world that cavorts mischievously with the Buddha’s head. In doing so, the artist questions the meaning of a sexualized woman who “plays the object” while, at the same time, plays with a spiritual icon that—in a very different sense—is also an object of desire. Within this conflict of signs, Hwang reveals how commercial advertising is capable of making a superficial comparison that is untrue on a deeper level, yet retains the power to psychologically persuade the viewer that it is real. Thus, the ability to “convert” the viewer through the allure of advertising is built around the presence of a conflict where no easy resolution is offered. So what alternative is left for the viewer?
This question leads to one of the most important aspects in Ran Hwang’s art – namely, that the very process of constructing these conflicted images is a form of meditation. For example, most followers of Zen Buddhism who practice meditation are familiar with something called a “koan.” The koan in Zen Buddhism is a kind of puzzle that functions as a catalyst in assisting the practitioner to get into a meditative state of mind. The term was originally derived from ordinances given by Zen masters in early temple life, back in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These ordinances, regarding the practice of meditation, were widely employed both in Korea and Japan.
While the paradox between spirituality and fashion in Ran Hwang’s work may be conceptual in origin, it is also a clear manifestation of the Zen koan. According to the Zen scholar (sensei), D. T. Suzuki, the koan has no rational answer, no easy resolution. Yet, at the same time, it is founded on an ability to experience a contradiction not as a cynical anecdote, but as a means of enlightenment. I believe this holds the key to understanding the profound meaning that underlies Hwang’s collages and installations.
As we observe the boxed, multi-colored buttons and threads that reveal themselves inside the silhouettes of alluring female stars and models and then glance over at the shining buttons that dematerialize the image of Buddha before our eyes, we may get a sense of a contradiction coming into focus – not as the absence of an object, but as “an intentional object” that stays within the mind as a clear icon of the present. The practitioner of Zen does not ignore common everyday desires, but passes through them in order to achieve clarity – a purity of mind known as Samadhi.
Ran Hwang’s work is a visual koan built on a contradiction that lingers within the mind of the beholder. Just as the one who plays with the stone head of Buddha, Ran Hwang presents us with a powerful suspension of opposites where the real truth of the matter goes beyond any rational resolution.
Robert C. Morgan is currently a Fulbright fellow and visiting professor at Chosun University in GwangJu, Korea.