Catalog text of Exhibition « Sweet Home »
Kunstverein Graftschaft Bentheim, Neuenhaus, Germany
Raimar Stange, Berlin, 2011
At present, there are about 11,000 homeless people in Berlin. In Paris, where Ha Cha Youn now lives, there are a presumed 15,000 homeless. This is an age when the prosperity of society is growing in nearly every European country, even as social benefits are consistently being cut at the same time. Thus, the gap between rich and poor is widening ever more drastically. Fewer and fewer people are able to find a home in such neo-liberal constructions.
In the exhibition “Sweet Home” at the Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim, photographs of trees may be seen, which show filled plastic bags hanging from the branches. Ha Cha Youn’s photo series “Consigne”, 2005, documents one of the desperate survival strategies of the homeless in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, where the artist herself lived for seven years. More precisely, these photographs show the bags and pouches the homeless use for storing what possessions they have left, hanging them up in the trees in the park when they are not being carried in order to keep them from being seized by the police. These photographed ready-mades are typical for the kind of work the artist does at the moment. Here, she combines strategies witnessed in her other artistic work, for example in “Rue Muffle”, 2005, or portrayed in a different form in “Container”, 2011, also being shown in the “Sweet Home” exhibition. In “Container”, a work specially conceived for this show, the visitor enters a garbage container via a ramp. Inside, among other things, we see bags and suitcases, these containing all kinds of everyday objects that look like cast-off household junk. This ‘assemblage’ in the garbage container, as suggested in the context of “Sweet Home”, comprises those last possessions of the homeless, things that now begin their desolate journey to the dump.
In these works by Ha Cha Youn, we must pay attention to the careful balance and intended borderline between a mere collection of material and a claim for being sculpture. The plastic bags affixed to the trees, namely, have taken on qualities of being both an installation and a sculpture due to their staged assemblage in airy heights. And the same thing applies to the personal belongings that have been stashed away in the “Container”. This aesthetic dimension is roughly redolent of the art of Nouveau Réalisme of the 1960s. Furthermore, in this group of works, there is an intriguing tightrope walk between poetry and protest. Not only do the photographs remind us of the precarious everyday life of people living and subsisting at the fringe of society, they also have an inherent moment of poetic beauty due to their aforementioned aesthetic dimension. This oscillation between accusatory documentation and an art of enlightenment prevents the photo series from seeming flat, and wards off mere inflammatory directness – without ever losing the critical edge of its socio-political perspective.
By focusing on the situation of the homeless, Ha Cha Youn not only makes a theme of the fate of these outsiders in our supposed welfare societies, but as a Korean living in France, she also deals with the issue of not-being-at-home in our globalized world in general. This becomes all the more relevant now at a time when we witness a worldwide increase in the number of people emigrating from their countries of origin: And this not only causes fluctuations on the job market, so often referred to as ‘mobility’ to make it all sound harmless, but it also results in an increase of so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ as well.
The Korean-born artist studied first in France and then in Germany, though as mentioned above, she now lives in France again today. Thus, Ha Cha Youn is herself a good example of a “nomad” existence. In “Sweet Home”, she places the feeling of being ‘foreign’ that stems from her own personal life alongside the plight of the homeless. At once a certain parallelism emerges, even as the artist contrasts the two.
On the one hand, she compares both forms, revealing them as being outside the ‘native’ cultural life, whereas on the other hand, she does not overlook the fact that her own existence is not characterized by the same social hardship as that of the homeless persons. In the exhibition, she confronts the aforementioned works “Consigne” and “Container” with the performance “Planting Rice”, 1988, the video recording of which may be seen in “Sweet Home”. This performance took place during her studies in the northern German university town of Braunschweig. On the stone floor of her studio, the artist at the time ‘planted’ rice, which is known not to grow in Germany. The foreignness of this plant was additionally emphasized by the fact that this particular rice was made out of newspaper, i.e., it turns out to be completely artificial, making its taking root, of course, much more difficult. What is decisive is that, in this performance, and unlike with her most recent works dealing with the homeless, Ha Cha Youn does not primarily look at ‘foreignness’ from economical or social viewpoints. Rather, she views it as a dualism between one’s own culture and a foreign one, as well as one between nature and artificiality.
Thus “Sweet Home”, with its choice of such differing works, manages to reflect upon both economic and cultural estrangement.
Translated by Elizabeth Volk
1. Concerning the problem of taking root in foreign cultures, see: Nicolas Bourriaud, Radikant, ed. Berlin 2009.