On ViewFranz Kaka
June 29 – July 18, 2020
Biking away from the mood ring-hued photograms in Laurie Kang’s exhibition Her Own Devices last week, I thought about skin, its relationship to intimacy, and how that may be shifting. Pre-COVID-19, material surfaces—and oftentimes immaterial ones—were frequently compared to a human epidermis. Whether or not a concept can be characterized as “porous” or “permeable” has been a popular subthread in recent academic and art historical discourses. Now, in summer 2020, talk of skin has turned increasingly literal as washing hands, wearing gloves, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding physical contact with all but one’s pod mates have become the norm.
In Her Own Devices—an installation featuring 35 unique photograms—Kang refocuses attention on skin and permeability in a way that feels simultaneously gentle and insistent. Created during an early 2020 residency at the Banff Centre, the images reveal high-contrast, diaphanous outlines of mesh firewood and onion sacs. Installed in Franz Kaka’s partly underground Toronto space, the photograms are arrayed across three adjacent walls in a semi-enclosed nook. The backgrounds crossfade from swampy greens to rusty oranges and from warm clementines to coral pinks and, finally, to warm, purple-tinged browns on the far-right wall, with the sac silhouettes glowing in shades of lemony, almost chemical, yellow and white. The 20-by-24-inch prints are arranged in a grid that wraps around the wall, diminishing—stepladder-like—on the right.
Scattered across the floor are yellow onion skins—part of a work titled Glean (2020). Some of the skins are filled with clear silicon and others with a ruddy sand that recalls the construction site sand used in Kang’s solo show Beolle at Oakville Galleries earlier this year. The fragility of the augmented onion skins is counterbalanced by the density of Spit (2016–2020), which reminds viewers of the inevitable imperfections of flesh and the bodies it enwraps. A roll of mottled pigmented silicone previously used as a work surface, Spit lies tautly bound by clear stretch wrap at the gallery entrance. The secured, yet floppy, folds of the tongue-colored silicone offer perhaps the most direct visual link to the themes of layered memory and experience that recur throughout Her Own Devices. Whereas the unweighted onion skins seem liable to float away, the sluggy repose of the silicone is a reminder of the ways in which layers can accrue, impressing themselves over time upon what lies within.
Kang has collected netted produce and firewood bags for years. Her long-held fascination with objects that hold or carry other objects imbues the resulting photograms with an unexpected intimacy—as if we are privy to the artist as she queries her own predictions. The self-reflective energy of the show is further underscored by its semi-spontaneous origin. Pre-pandemic, Kang anticipated curating an international group show at Franz Kaka; however, as the circumstances evolved and mounting such a show became untenable, she eventually settled on a pared down solo installation. Kang’s decision to show Her Own Devices (2020) reflects an inward turn for the artist, who often works with photography, sculpture, and installation to consider bodies via industrial materials.
The 35 photograms in Her Own Devices correspond to Kang’s age at the time of their making, though she did not create the works with an exhibition in mind. The images detail the lacy crosshatched patterns of commonly used plastic sacs, with bisecting lines appearing variously sharp and gauzy—and the grids both perpendicular and warped—depending on the sacs’ state of disrepair and arrangement on light-sensitive photographic paper. As one might anticipate, encountering these hyper-familiar objects rendered so intentionally—and in such close and graceful crops—brings attention to their ubiquity and, by extension, their formal success. As carriers, the bags work so efficiently that we rarely notice or appreciate them. Rather than lean overeagerly into an analysis of reliance, Kang thoughtfully juxtaposes the quasi-invisibility of quotidian design with a layout that requires viewers to experience for themselves a space of semi-containment vis-a-vis the photograms’ proscenium-style presentation.
The implicit reminders within Her Own Devices that bags, cases, skins, and other carriers are always implicated in broader chains of cellular, material, and conceptual linkages—and that our human selves are likewise Russian dolls forever engaged in carrying and being carried, containing and being contained—feels highly relevant right now. Skin has surely always been a vehicle of contagion and regeneration, and an erstwhile symbol of permeable boundaries. In the current moment, however, touch itself is intensely charged with connotations of risk and tenderness, vulnerability and care. Against this sociocultural and biological backdrop, the intellectual and material delicacy of Kang’s work calls exigently out, inviting viewers to consider what they may knowingly or unknowingly carry—or be carried by.
Kang often refers back to “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” a short essay written by Ursula K. Le Guin in 1986. Inspired by Elizabeth Fisher’s carrier bag theory of human evolution (Women’s Creation, 1975), Le Guin proposes a theory of the novel as an antiheroic form, building off Fisher’s suggestion that receptacles, and not weapons, were the earliest human tools. Le Guin writes: “We’ve all heard all about all the sticks and spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things, but we have not heard about the thing to put things in, the container for the thing contained. That is a new story. That is news.” With Her Own Devices, Kang returns attention to this news—the news that organisms and objects are indeed always holding and carrying and enmeshed in layered responsibilities, limits, and potentials. If skin has become overburdened of late with metaphysical associations, Kang deftly refocuses our attention to the small and large skin-like structures that do the often uncredited task of holding.