The quasi-figural sculptures featured in Soojin Kang’s “To Be You, Whoever You Are” (on view through June 17, 2023) precipitate an atmosphere of anxiety. Created over the course of just a few months, they radiate strong emotion, bearing witness to the intense energy of their making. Kang, who lives and works on her family farmstead in Germany, uses fiber as a sculptural medium, extracting dyes, then hand-dying and weaving silk, jute, and linen yarns into flesh-like coverings for her welded metal armatures. These forms may take the shape of an almost complete human body, an isolated limb, or an abstracted and enlarged organ or body part.
There is something otherworldly about Kang’s humanoid sculptures. Sentinels of time and space, they double as bearers of the unconscious, channeling the unexamined, the unseen, the unresolved and sparking a momentary meeting of minds that establishes a dialectic between Kang’s experience of making and our experience of looking. Alone or in groups, the figures (and they are mostly human figures of one sort or another) are partial, broken, or incomplete. There is a specificity about them—gesture, gender, and emotional countenance—that, at the same time, gives way to a more universal sense of shared suffering. We may understand them as visionaries or oracles, but they come marked with evident spiritual and emotional upheaval, pain, and discomfort, however experienced. Significantly, the figures have no mouths; muzzled, they cannot articulate. The skin of rough fabric is woven or bound directly onto and across the metal frames, which are girdled and lack any genuine sense of movement. Often the backs remain incomplete, opening up an unwoven space that, in Kang’s words, provides viewers with “the space to have empathy. In the space of hollowness.” The undefined nature of that space, neither inside nor outside, allows it to become a shared space of mutual understanding. This emotional accessibility, a rawness blending strength and vulnerability, is underscored by frayed edges, knotted threads, and instances of unraveling. Kang’s sensitive aesthetic allows for a single thread to hang freely from an eye, nose, or fingertip, suggesting tears, mucus, or blood. Such vulnerabilities make these almost ghoulish figures human. As Kang has explained, she turned to familiar bodies around her (she mentions her husband in particular), gauging weight, size, and scale to create forms that would feel comfortable to her.
The time and labor required of the artist to work in this way is worth noting. Repetition becomes meditative, as Kang, through her process, connects to her Korean heritage (and its fiber traditions) while operating in the contemporary world. Some viewers will find that her expressive aesthetic nods almost imperceptibly to artistic predecessors. Slender necks recall Giacometti, elongated hands and almost lacerated torsos gesture to Chaïm Soutine, while tensed digits point to Dürer. There is lamentation and supplication. Whatever the references may be, Kang has created uniquely empathetic art, allowing visitors a space for reflection and thoughtfulness.