Young in Hong is a Bristol-based artist whose work is inspired by South Korea’s recent political and cultural history. Her latest solo exhibition, The Moon’s Trick, is on display now at the Exeter Phoenix. Her work is a mixture of embroidery and sound installation which takes inspiration from found photography of urban scenes, events and protests in a post-war Korea.
The three room exhibition begins with Rhythmic Flowers, a medium-scaled embroidery work on mesh fabric. Loose threads hang down from the piece and Hong has placed a series of gemstones over the work, tracing three points together in a triangle. The slightly dishevelled appearance and the plastic gems gives it a home-made feel, reminding the viewer of Hong’s own labour in making the piece. The choice of embroidery, traditionally a female form of craft, references women’s industrialised labour.
Two non-descript white sketchbooks entitled Prayers Book, which sit atop a plinth, are the thread that ties the whole exhibition together. A glance at these reveals a lot about Young in Hong’s process; obtaining photos of street scenes, protests and political moments, tracing patterns and lines over these which she will later use to produce free-machine embroidery pieces. Hong translates faces in a crowd and urban infrastructure into a few empty circles or parallel lines, reworking them completely, transforming them into different media. The insight into how Hong reworks these photographs helps to really ground the embroidery work later in the exhibition.
Potentially the most striking work of the entire exhibit is 2014’s Burning Love. It’s impossible to take your eyes of it as you enter the second room of the exhibition, a vast tapestry filling the space from floor-to-ceiling. The saturated acid yellow and flame red, which mix in with vibrant white, all make the piece look like a heat map or volcanic ash pouring down the middle of an urban street. In reality, the figurative inspiration was a photograph of a candlelit demonstration in Seoul that took place back in 2008. The incident received barely any media coverage at the time, so the artist has painstakingly worked all the protestors into a sea of dots on a heavily embroidered canvas, giving it the time and attention it deserves. Yet the anonymity of Hong’s subjects, appearing as a thousands of tiny repetitive stitches, seems to allude to the censorship of Korean people.
Three more textile pieces appear in this room, including The Square Saddened from 2016. A much more modestly scaled textile work, that repeats the post-modern urban landscape of Burning Love but with much cooler sludge greens and cerulean, rather than raging fire. It creates the feeling of a clinical, unfeeling urban sprawl.
The final room of the exhibition feels entirely different from the previous ones. The outer walls of the room are filled with Hong’s textile works and an installation is placed in the centre. These two elements form her 2017 piece Prayers. The monochromatic embroidery pieces in this room feature tiny but thick black lines on bare canvases, completely abstracted from their origins. The pieces are mostly blank and non-descript, their sparse spacing throughout the bright white room of the gallery gives an understated effect. Staccato and disjointed piano sounds fill the room and at times sound like a horror movie soundtrack, building tension and leaving an uneasy feeling.
Looking Down From the Sky, a series of works embroidered on silk, is also displayed in this last room. Unfortunately, it was somewhat trapped behind the physical installation of a sewing machine. Hong has produced an interesting pairing effect in much of the exhibition, the two Prayers Books that show her traced images next to found photographs, the two cityscapes which face each other, and the embroidery pieces of Prayers accompanied by the sound installation. These doubles are perhaps an allusion to the two Koreas which remain divided since the war.
The exhibition labels explain that Hong wishes to trigger moments of complete absorption which make the viewer feel as if they can access a different level of perception. She abstracts her primary references of photographs and events to such an extent that her pieces appear to exist in their own unique sphere completely void of context, creating a sense of alienation. However, her work remains most compelling where some of the photographic referent remains, as in her stunning large embroidery pieces.
The Moon’s Trick will remain at the Phoenix until 22nd April, and forms part of an ongoing Korea/UK season which features a series of cultural events, exhibitions, performances and workshops that showcase the work of Korean Artists.
– Sarah Roberts
Featured image source.