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Muddy Reviews: Haegue Yang Strange Attractors, Tate St Ives

Gloriously fun and chaotic, Haegue Yang's exploration of the domestic, cultural and spiritual responses to the natural world is a definite conversation starter.

Berlin-based South Korean artist Haegue Yang has been taking the art world by storm and her largest exhibition to date in the UK opens at the Tate St Ives on 24 October. We wangled a sneaky preview, obvs – here’s your potted guide.

Strange Attractors, or the “unexpected structures towards which chaotic systems tend to evolve” bursts out of the very walls of gallery 6. 

After months of lockdown and then dutifully face-masked, weaving past tourists, socially distanced queues and following the Tate’s impeccable one-way system through the permanent exhibitions, Yang’s sculptures are certainly unexpected structures. 

Gone are Gabo’s dark walls and shadows (although his influence lingers, of course). In their place is a light filled kaleidoscope of shapes, colours and references. Playful crafted creatures – The Intermediates – one of which reminds me somehow of Boris – stand in a sort of face-off underneath jingling jellyfish like structures, created entirely out of meticulously strung bells.

Fluffy robotic beings – or are they sculptures – on wheels are a homage to a trilogy of artists – Li, Hepworth and Gabo – demand further inspection, or stroking (which I resisted). You can tell which one is Gabo by the kinetic movement and segmented head.

And it’s all presided over by the most enormous vinyl dominating the entire end walls, created entirely out of stock imagery. You’ll never look the same way at Shutterstock again.

It’s all gloriously fun and chaotic, and that’s both metaphorical as well as physical (and literally too, the title of the exhibition is a reference to chaos theory). In her curation of the exhibition, working directly with Yang, Tate Director Anne Barlow invites us to consider our spiritual cultural and artistic responses to the natural world and mystical and geometric landscapes.

Haegue’s work combines disparate ideas, universal concepts (such as folk and craft techniques) brought to life with objects that are unexpected, at once ancient and contemporary. It’s the opening of a bizarre and Pinter-esque conversation, where there is at once no answer, and a hundred thousand what’s and why’s, all being shouted at once.

Cornwall is represented too of course, in the waves and movement of water, the wild coastal and ancient landscapes in which St Ives is set. In a visit to Cornwall in 2018 Yang visited Zennor, just down the road.

She, like many, was drawn to the legend and the church of St Senara. This manifests in a series of eight hand crafted kneeler cushions created using traditional needlework techniques – rising up on a plywood X, reminiscent of a church pew and honouring the Cornish coastal communities. It’s a theme that repeats over and over – the spaces in between, ancient symbols and use of everyday objects to reflect patterns and mathematical concepts. 

Walk back into gallery 5, as you probably walked straight through it without even realising, such was your desire to get to the main event, and you’ll find works of Li, Hepworth and Gabo. Hepworth and Gabo need no introduction to a Cornish art fan, but Li was less familiar – I’m told he exhibited the other two’s work at his Cumbrian gallery.

Artists often allude to inspiration so it’s refreshing to see Yang more explicitly acknowledging her influences, and gives some more context to the Sonic Intermediates – Three Different Equations – the aforementioned fluffy wheeled robots, one of which holds a broom. Perfectly themed for opening in halloween week and echoes Li’s self portraits, helpfully hung alongside some other modest pieces.

If gallery 6 is a blurring fairground ride of energy, movement and chaos, just wait until you reach gallery 8. Usually the sea view curved gallery frames Porthmeor beach like a sculpture, all curves and reflections in the windows. Now, it’s covered by a sort of mesh layered curtain, in which the geometric shapes almost obscure the sea – Covid stopping the fans from allowing the curtains to create the waves instead. 

Your reaction to the main part of gallery 8 will largely depend on how much of your life you spend doing laundry though. I’ve two kids and we live by the beach. I spend a lot of time hanging wet clothes. Barlow described the delicate ethereal figures that Yang set out to create being built after seeing her aged grandmother in hospital, skeletal and depleted. Drying racks are a motif of Yang’s work, elevating the concept of mundane domesticity to sculptures “transmitting energy, light and shadow”. I could see her point but I’ve gotta be honest, the thought flitted through my head more than once that I could do with one of those racks at home, and on wheels, too, genius.

Haegue Yang Strange Attractors Tate St Ives (24 Oct 2020 – 3 May 2021)

Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, Cornwall TR26 1TG

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