Haegue Yang’s fantastic beasts descend on Tate St Ives 

Haegue Yang’s fantastic beasts descend on Tate St Ives 

The South Korean artist dazzles Tate St Ives visitors with otherworldly robotic creatures and tributes to 20th century art greats in a show of perfect chaos

St Ives, the charming Cornish port town and artist’s mecca has just experienced an invasion. This year, it’s not the herds of art-hunting, sea-seeking tourists, but creatures of an altogether more otherworldly variety, conceived by Berlin-based South Korean artist Haegue Yang. 

In her largest exhibition in the UK to date, ‘Strange Attractors’, Yang transforms both the new top-lit gallery in the Tate’s new building and the sea-facing gallery in the original building into her new world. Through new and recent work in a broad range of media, Yang explores ‘geometry, abstraction and the aftermath of modernism’ with a heady dose of playfulness and puzzlement. 

For Yang, the starting point was mathematics: complex patterns of behaviour in chaotic natural systems. ‘The exhibition considers humankind’s universal venture to live within chaos and unpredictability,’ Yang explains. Here, seemingly disparate ingredients make for a sapid repast – from pagan cultures and their seasonal rituals to historic (and imaginary) encounters with artists such as Li Yuan-chia, and former St Ives star residents Naum Gabo and Barbara Hepworth. 

Installation view of ’Haegue Yang: Strange Attractors’ at Tate St Ives, 2020. Photography: Tate (Matt Greenwood)

If Yang’s theatrical Reflected Metallic Cubist Dancing Mask doesn’t leave your jaw a little closer to the floor, Sonic Intermediates – Three Differential Equations certainly might. A trio of artificial straw-clad robotic creatures wheel around on casters in what looks like a collision of Star Wars, a pagan ritual and a Haas Brothers’ creation. Whether they’re dancing, preparing for combat, or engaging in some form of elaborate courtship ritual is anyone’s guess. 

In this piece, Yang doesn’t just allude to her artistic influences, she acknowledges them tête-à-tête, which allows for something of a game of who’s who within each work. One takes Hepworth’s ‘pierced forms’ to a new dimension. Another, pivoting on its central axis, seemingly in giddy excitement, is surely a reference to the kinetic tendencies of Naum Gabo (whose Tate St Ives exhibition preceded Yang’s). A third creature, slightly stumpier than its comrades, holds a broom, echoing the self-portraits of Li Yuan-chia (the Chinese artist Yang devotes the entire opening of her exhibition to), themes of domesticity or perhaps a timely nod to looming Halloween festivities. ‘The artists are finally brought together in this sculptural trio where visitors are invited to view these great artistic minds as an open-ended collective, of which we become part,’ says Yang. 

Above: Installation view of Haegue Yang Sonic Intermediate – Parameters and Unknowns after Hepworth 2020 at Tate St Ives, 2020. Photography: Tate (Matt Greenwood). Below: Non-Indépliables, nues 2010/2020. Courtesy of the artist; photography: Nick Ash

Non-Indépliables, nues, comprises a series of laundry drying racks (a recurring motif of Yang’s) enveloped in winding electrical wiring, adorned with light bulbs and again, on wheels. This is a prime example of Yang’s ability to liberate domesticity from its conventional constraints and elevate everyday household objects to new heights. 

Yang also takes Cornwall’s landscape ancient architectural heritage as muses, namely the church of St Senara. In Mundus Cushions – Yielding X, Yang puts her own spin on traditional church kneelers, in a series of eight hand-crafted cushions on a raised plywood pew. Here, Yang extracts traditional religious symbolism and abstracts it into her new blend of sacred and secular. ‘During my site-visits to St Ives, I felt so exposed to nature and the local cultural and sacred landscapes of the region. Sentimental, melancholic, even romantic feelings overwhelmed me, which I channelled into the new works within the show,’ Yang reflects. Non-Linear and Non-Periodic Dynamics, a new wallpaper piece, channels Cornwall’s temperamental natural elements. ‘The images in the exhibition reference the windy, foggy and wet weather of Cornwall and also the community traditions, beliefs and labour around water.’

The show demonstrates Yang’s knack for combining industrially-produced objects and labour-intensive craft with spirit and mystique. This is an exploration of postmodernism, and Tate St Ives’ long and deep-rooted relationship with it. It’s open-ended: the deeper you probe, the less clear things become, but intrigue is Yang’s stock-in-trade. ‘Strange Attractors’ induces responses as eclectic as its creator’s influences: endearment, discomfort and as the title promises, a very strange attraction. §

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