Shortcutting having nice things by having representations of nice things; KITSCHY
Written by Marina may
“I don’t know if people should constantly be contemplating the history of the objects around them… but…” Rachel Youn does.
And one look at their extensive CV, which boasts twelve (count ‘em TWELVE) exhibitions the past two years, shows that they clearly do a lot of reflecting on the world around them.
“I get hooked on things. I will notice something and keep finding it again and again.” Youn says. “I feel like I always have five or six different bodies of work in my head.”
They want to allow themselves to go down the roads they find that lead to different experimentations and expressions of making. “The fun part of making.” Which has lead Youn away from being self-described “anxious” maker, to one that is consistently taking risks with their practice. One could argue that this 23 year old is quickly becoming one of the most conceptually diverse and prolific artists in St. Louis.
Perhaps Youn’s most striking innovations come from their soft sculptures that toy with ideas of artifice. In their studio, an almost fleshy, stuffed Corinthian column lays, by design, impotently on the floor. Devoid of its assumed historical might and power, the column becomes re-contexualized and diminished in it’s flaccid state.
They examine the weird, tacky “things we do” — Like Neo-Colonial architecture, guest towels, fake rocks, marble laptop cases — and interrogate why. Why do we manufacture environments to present to others, but also to ourselves?
One concept that helped spark this line of inquiry, was the idea of “Duplitecture.” Youn describes this as a “phenomenon that’s happening — mainly in Asia — where they will directly copy architecture.” It’s basically a Disney World kind of thing, a facade, in the suburbs of an entire city. For example, Paris or Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“It’s strange to know you’re living in a replica of a city, not a city that’s authentically born. This theory was projecting that perhaps in Asian culture, replication demonstrates skill an and attention to detail.”
They translated this to the column, shown at their show Palais de Plastique in 2017, and into an environment that questioned the validity of the beauty industry for their piece in the show Mane n’ Tail. In this work, Youn expanded into a multi-sensory experience, with three fake rocks, a play mat, and screen. One of the rocks emits artificial “daylight,” another spews jasmine scented Fiji water, and yet another broadcasts recorded snippets from the backs of shampoo bottles played over a track of nature sounds. The rocks were placed on foam bamboo printed mats, which are typically used as a cushioned surface for yoga or children’s play areas. On the wall a large soft “Oriental” silk screen draped lazy downward. Titled NATURASCAPE: Self Care Simulation this work questions the ways in which the beauty industry is packages and distributes concepts like “care,” “zen,” and “natural elements” in an entirely inauthentic, and highly problematic way.
Most recently, they’ve “been taking walks through Korea — via google maps” when they noticed something odd about the way in which the views are digitally stitched together to form a cohesive picture of another place.
“I was looking up at the sky — because you can pretend like you’re craning you neck — and there was this (fissure) multiple images meeting up, and that’s when the glitches happen.” They incorporated this concept into an brilliant blue oculus, encapsulated in a key-pattern derived from a Korean bowl, for an installation on the ceiling at Parapet Real Humans.
This concept of revealing artifice carries into the way in which they speak about the inspiration behind the found objects they incorporate into their work. For example, the shiatsu foot massager Youn purchased from Craigslist for their piece The Second Friend of Winter, they refer to as an artifact.
“I spend a lot of time on Craigslist looking for the detritus of suburban life and the weird crap that people buy when they have extra money to spend.” Youn says.
“I wanted to highlight the artificial nature of the artifacts. The way in which the foot massager is spinning emulates the feeling of thumbs massaging flesh (as is done in shiatsu massage techniques).” In this way, they are evolving their practice to explore the performative nature of the piece, a natural extension into kinetic sculpture that furthers the artificiality of the manufactured environments.
But perhaps the crux of their investigation into the strange collections of replicas and “things inspired by other things,” comes from a residual feeling of otherness and coming to terms with identity in America.
“Being born and raised in America, my view of Asia is through my family or this weird replicated way.” Youn states.
“Something that subliminally affected me, that I didn’t really realize until i was making the body of work I’m making now, was the way in which my parent’s home was organized. My dad — bless his heart — My home was super cluttered. He had a lot of books and stuff like that, but he loves going to Hobby Lobby and Costco and discount home goods stores, and buying objects that they sell that aren’t authentic but I don’t know if he understands that they’re not. So we have this fake bust of Bethoven, and a mini Venus de Milo. Having these kitsch representations of western culture really stressed me out in a way that I didn’t understand. Looking back, it is and was my dad’s way of convincing himself like he belonged to this culture. I think I carry that into my work — wanting to belong to the dominant, American culture. Your home furnishings are for showing off to other people, but also showing off to yourself. That’s kind of at the root of what I’m making.”
Youn’s work lies at the intersection of identity and artifice. Their work both celebrate and shatters the thin veneer that separates the public and private self. From their most recent use of Google Maps to the soft objects, they examine areas of discomfort, and allow their work to settle in between the fissures of digital images and ingrained in the OSB under the laminate.
Though the subject matter on the surface appears to deal mainly with objects and their relationship to kitsch, one can extrapolate their upon their existence as anthropomorphic forms. These objects question cultural commodification, colonialism, and the complicated relationship between immigration and assimilation into American culture. Ultimately, they ask what it means to be authentic, and how every day, we make concessions to our identity, as we navigate what that “identity” even means.