Photography, lately, is obsessed with apologizing for itself—for its unavoidable, othering power dynamics; for the vulnerability that accompanies visibility. At least this is true for many artists with so-called “photo-based practices,” whose work imagines photography for the gallery as distinct from that for the page, often incorporating 3D elements or unconventional displays. Writer Maggie Nelson recently suggested that artists today tend to assume their viewers have already been traumatized, by images and otherwise, and therefore, rather than expose audiences to the harsh realities they’ve already seen, many of today’s practitioners offer instead various forms of care or relief. All this makes the gorgeous installations by Toronto-based artist Laurie Kang, whose works are best described as self-critical photographs without images, seem like a logical reaction to the issues of our time.
You would be forgiven for not realizing that Great Shuttle (2020–21), Kang’s installation in the 2021 New Museum triennial, involved a photograph at all. The term applies literally, but not obviously. Giant, floor-to-ceiling sheets of film hung from a metal drywall frame adorned with a drooping silver flex track of curving “vertebrae” that appeared spinelike. Kang’s work partitioned one section of the sprawling show, meanwhile recording its light with unfixed film that remained sensitive throughout the triennial’s three-month run. By the end, the rust-colored celluloid bore stripy patches that looked either burnt or sun-bleached. Though the work ostensibly indexed part of the triennial, this photographic record hardly claimed to represent it. Changing with each day’s light, the non-photograph instead flaunted its own instability. During a virtual studio visit, Kang said she wasn’t interested in “dominating the material by putting an image on it,” but rather wanted to allow the celluloid to “blush and bleed.” She also hoped to remind visitors of their own fleshly subjectivities, revealing their shadowy reflections in her shiny surface.
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Kang often uses light-sensitive materials to create sculptures, or repurposes found objects as photographic apparatuses. For her exhibition “Earth Surge,” on view last year at Helena Anrather in New York, she scattered forty-two oversize stainless-steel bowls across the gallery floor, chaotically yet delicately, where they worked like a camera’s mirror and lens, offering distorted reflections of the objects they contained. Peering inside, viewers saw aluminum casts of various goods one might find in the Chinatown markets filling the sidewalks outside. Cast-aluminum anchovies, cabbages, and lotus root slices rested in pools of pastel silicone, several colored that same faded rusty red as the film in the New Museum installation. Here, the color refers to a photographic chemical, but the material isn’t light sensitive. In addition to the metallic casts, dried organic materials—hibiscus flowers, fish bladder, mung beans—were littered gracefully in bowls sitting alongside silvery hats that reflected the natural light coming in through the gallery windows.
It behooves photo-based artists to explore their medium’s materiality, since outside the gallery, photography has become primarily digital. And though Kang, who was born in 1985, offers some of her generation’s sharpest commentary on photography, her medium is not her only subject. Although she’s intent on resisting the essentialized exoticism that non-white, non-male artists are often pressured to perform, she’s also skeptical of the notion of a universal subject matter. Accordingly, her works bear numerous gentle, poetic, autobiographical traces. The titles Great Shuttle and “Earth Surge,” for instance, both refer to acupuncture points: Kang is currently studying the practice, and one of her Korean ancestors was a prominent acupuncturist during the Joseon Dynasty. The Great Shuttle point is located near the top of the spine, and gets its name from a weaving tool; Earth Surge names a point on the sole of the foot. Further alluding to acupuncture, small magnets hold up the photograms displayed in both installations not by their four corners, but instead are arranged deliberately at different points on the surface. The photograms—camera-less images made on light-sensitive paper—depict woven patterns that reference the Great Shuttle, and like the museum “wall,” they too are unfixed, changing throughout the show’s duration.
Kang’s autobiographical allusions are deliberately vague, sometimes wholly illegible: one bowl in “Earth Surge,” for example, contained dried Cordyceps fungus—amber worm-shaped mushrooms used in traditional Asian medicine—set inside a silver paint can. The paint can sat in amber rubber that pooled at the bottom of a bowl, and the rhyming reflections were simply stunning. The bowl referred to Kang’s immigrant grandparents, who picked worms in Canadian fields, carrying them in paint cans strapped to their legs. Other “still lifes” are driven more by formal interests. Whether revisiting her ancestry or reworking elements from older installations, Kang is fascinated by what she calls “the larval quality of materials.” Her goal isn’t metamorphosis, but rather, perpetual germination.
This article appears in the May 2022 issue, pp. 48–49.