At first glance, simplicity may seem to define her work, but simplicity is merely a thin veil over an intricate and thoughtful process resulting in an alluring and seductive body of work. Ran Hwang uses buttons, or threads, with pins to produce provocative images of urns or vessels, of birds and of the Buddha both as installations and as objects on their own. Her practice speaks to the meditative nature that a repetitive process inspires where the experience of the work cannot be separated from its materiality and how it is made. In her most recent series, Hwang reflects on the urn or vessel. As she explains, “Containers can be empty or serve to contain something. Like our bodies, they can be filled or emptied.” Her works can be seen as a contemplation of impermanence and mortality. The strength of Hwang’s work is in its process and the resulting immediacy and resonance with the viewer.
Hwang constructs the complex textuality of her works with simple, known objects, such as buttons, pins and threads, and, by recontextualizing them, they are transformed and seen anew. Because they have been removed from their recognizable, functional context into an unconventional one, they create a visuality that is tactile, and call upon a mimetic knowledge that becomes re-experienced in their presence. Her objects offer a familiar site in which to delve deeper in order to generate reflection, and even wonder. For Hwang, contemplating and representing a larger wholeness bring a sense of peace. The process of constructing these works is an object of meditation for Hwang. However, the results have a synergy, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Time becomes palpable in a way unlike works of painting, as the mechanism of creation lays itself bear. One can imagine the time expended to hammer the pins and buttons and to weave the thread, activities which indicate an enormous undertaking. Yet, a viewing of her works does not reveal the beginning of their construction nor their end. They embody a mystery between what is known and what is unknown, and also a mystery of how either of these can be discerned with any certainty.
One way to approach Hwang’s work is by considering the Buddhist ideas of the interdependence of form and emptiness, in other words, form is emptiness, and emptiness is nothing other than form. In the case of Hwang, this concept can be seen in the interdependence of negative and positive space. The self (body and mind) depend on all that is not-self, just as the urn’s form depends on the space around it. Similarly, an urn’s usefulness depends on the interplay of form (urn) and emptiness (inside the urn). The importance of the buttons is crucial: each button is unique and yet its placement and the role that it plays in the mimicry of the urn determines the success of the work.
Hwang hammers pins into a solid surface and manipulates positive or negative attributions of space. In [negative threads], the shape of an urn is created from the outline of pins. The pins and the threads lead the viewer away from the centre of the work and the threads help to create the background, demarcating the space that makes the absence visible. On the other hand, in [positive buttons], the pins and buttons create the form of the urn, while the use of multi-sized buttons helps to create depth. The reflections off of the surfaces of the buttons illuminate the depth of the urn but also tease the viewer to determine what is within the urn. As Hwang mentions, “In the Asian tradition of Taoism, there is a theory of enriching by emptying. My urns exist with both enriching and emptying.” Her art has the potential to communicate a kind of peace if the viewer engages in a contemplation of not only the urn’s dependence on emptiness but also the self’s dependence on and identity with non-self, and thus on the interdependence of all.