Summer Kim Lee considers what to carry and what to shed, even in moments of disruption and upheaval.
Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.
For her 2020 exhibition, Her Own Devices, at Franz Kaka in Toronto, artist Lotus Laurie Kang asks, “What do you carry? What do you care for? What do you hope to build and burn?” In sculpture, photography, and installation, Kang works with the form and function of carriers—of objects used to contain, hold, and gather other objects. She brings us to the limits of our desire for protection and preservation, tenuously adjacent to a hope for transformation that risks destruction. For Kang, to carry and care, to build and burn, are not contradictions: what you carry can help you build something new, and what you burn is not disposed of, but re-made and dispersed in another form. Kang considers how in an uneven moment of disruption and upheaval, we are made to reflect upon what we want to take with us and what we cannot keep.
Included in Kang’s exhibition is an installation from 2020 with the same name, consisting of a grid of thirty-five photograms of mesh sacks that were used to carry firewood and onions, which Kang herself had collected over time. These sacks were placed on top of photographic paper and exposed to light, creating images of woven patterns, contrasted against backgrounds of blood reds, tarnished yellows, burnt oranges, and coffee-grind browns. The sacks’ visible fraying fibres, with holes, tears, and pulls, gesture toward these sacks’ quotidian, reliable durability, as well as to their strain, vulnerability, and deterioration.
Images: Lotus Laurie Kang, Her Own Devices, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Kang wants us to mistake these sacks for skin, as containers for objects and also for bodies. The photograms freeze a moment of unravelling, when what is made to hold itself together is no longer tasked with holding something else, and instead, is left to its own devices. To say so might make it seem like the photograms depict a moment of emptiness, of sacks disintegrating and falling out of use, and while that might be somewhat true, they also take on a different kind of life, as uncanny abstractions of the rough, textured microscopic surface of skin. The photograms nudge us to wonder what we hope to hold in our bodies and what we might shed in the process.
Meanwhile, Glean (2020) is on the ground, laid out as an array of papery, brittle onion skins. Some skins hold sand and others hold a cloudy white silicone, like milk. They lie there like little cups or the open palm of a hand, except less intentional in their shape and more like concave objects left outdoors that happened to catch water after rainfall. They are contingent, provisional, complicit forms, made to play a certain role only by accident, perhaps out of need. The sand and silicone might be unintended cargo or a happenstance gift. They fill the forms they inhabit at the same time that they draw our attention to what is gone, what had been there before, now taken out and peeled away. What can we glean from what remains?
Images: Lotus Laurie Kang, Glean, 2020, onion skins, sand, silicone. Courtesy of the artist.
Kang’s Glean brings to mind artist Zoe Leonard’s Strange Fruit (1992–97), consisting of several empty fruit skins sutured together with thread and zippers laid out on the floor. When I saw Strange Fruit at the Whitney Museum in 2018, the part of the museum space that contained the banana, orange, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado peels was roped off—viewers were prohibited from walking among such fragile things, disrupting their peaceful rest. Leonard created the work in the midst of the ongoing AIDS crisis, taking up sewing as a practice of mending and mourning. In her sewing practice, repair reached its limits in the face of loss over time—the skins had already been removed away from the bodies they were tasked with protecting. Leonard stitched together cut pieces of fruit skin that eventually dried out, decomposed, rotted, and shrivelled, caving in on negative space. Like Leonard’s hollowed-out forms, Kang’s Glean holds what might be grasped in the face of loss, for in retaining the trace of the onion’s shape, they still hold other things, like a memory. They prompt us to glean whatever shape or impression we can of who and what had been with us before, as a keepsake.
Kang drew inspiration from Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1986 essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which, citing Elizabeth Fisher’s “Carrier Bag Theory,” suggests that “a recipient,” not weapons, were the earliest human tools: “A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.”1 For Le Guin this is less about getting the story of human evolution right, and more about altering the stories we choose to tell, where people do not just heroically, and violently, slay enemies or beasts, but alternatively “put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people.”2
Le Guin does not account for the ways that the use of containers as the measure of being human can uneasily invoke liberal ideals of individualism, property, possession, and ownership. But Kang’s preoccupation with containers does not guarantee that what we wish to keep with us will stay the same and ours alone—that what we take will not blow away, disintegrate, leak, or decompose. As sacks and skins, Kang’s containers are precarious and porous. They cannot always own the things they hold, the things they hope to carry and care for. They leak and absorb materials like our bodies do, and for us, this can sometimes feel like exposure, desertion, and defection, breaching deep-seated liberal longings in our midst that would have us strive to keep our composure and composition, as self-possessed, pure, and whole. Kang’s study of containers, then, is a study of skin as that which holds us and perhaps reluctantly betrays us, too.
Image: Lotus Laurie Kang, Molt (New York-Lethbridge-Los Angeles-Toronto-Chicago- ), 2018–23. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Courtesy of the artist.
Kang’s installation, Molt (2022), looks like layered, intersecting rows of floating, modular partition walls made of shining, glossy skin. Except rather than dividing up portions of space, they fill it. Large sheets of light-sensitive, unfixed photographic film hang from light tracks, like linens on a clothesline hung out and waiting to dry. Some sheets are long enough that they roll up on the ends, curling like a scroll, while other sheets are shorter, wavering just above the ground. The film, which Kang also refers to as “skins,” is meant to be worked with and handled in a controlled darkroom, and is used in lightboxes for ads at bus stops or in magazine kiosks. However, for Molt, first shown at the Horizon Art Foundation in Los Angeles, and in a different iteration as a year-long installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Kang prepares the film by exposing it to the lighting of different environments over time, causing it to change multiple colours. When placed in the installation, the film’s colours continue to change depending on where the sun is at what time of day, on when and where film meets light.
Kang calls her process with photographic film “tanning,” bringing to mind the sun tanning of human skin and the tanning of animal hides to make leather.3 Both processes involve an impingement on the body’s surface, a certain requisite of harm. When human skin tans, it is the skin’s production of melanin to block out UV radiation, as a defence mechanism against further injury. Hides have already entailed the death of the animal from which it has been removed, and from there, it is subject to a laborious, chemical process of changing the skin’s protein structure so that it becomes more durable as leather. We might then think of Kang’s skins in Molt as tracing injury by withstanding the harshness of uncontrolled light, as evidence of a loss of surface and skin necessary for new growth, for another life cycle.
Kang has discussed how she “misuses” her materials.4 In an interview with Amy Jones, Kang explains that by not using certain materials “the right way”—whether photographic film or sacks, bowls, or food items—she requires the viewer to see these materials differently, not wholly reducible to their function yet grasped through their form, “in their raw state.”5 “There’s a vulnerability or volatility in that,” she states.6 We might think of Kang’s materials as potentially damaged and wounded too, conjuring an uneasy familiarity with our own bodies’ affectability and susceptibility to harm, closely felt upon the barrier of skin. For in looking at Kang’s skins, one might see the dark greys, blues, and yellows of a fresh or healing bruise turning into the fleshy pink tones of skin scrubbed raw that then bleed into the darker reds of a rash or a scab. As unfixed photographic film, the material’s surface remains in flux, and this transformation is one that entails the gaining of new colour as well as the loss of what came before—the shedding of skin, of colour, of light and dark.
Image: Lotus Laurie Kang, Molt, 2022. Horizon Art Foundation, Los Angeles, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
In addition to the sun, there is air, which causes the film in Molt to tremble and waver, like skin responding to touch. We might only notice their slight movements if we hear the sound of chimes that Kang hung to accompany the sheets of film. The chimes are made of cast aluminium and bronze of lotus roots and fish, echoing the frequent use and presence of cast aluminium food items like Asian pears, anchovies, peach pits, cabbage, and ginseng throughout Kang’s work. What appears most often is the lotus root. Dried out or cast, they are threaded together into wind chimes or mobiles, nestled into the industrial parts of an installation’s frame, wedged like a foot into a house slipper, laid out on a gallery floor or else placed within stainless steel steamers and bowls. In her interview with Jones, Kang explains her relationship to lotus root:
I grew up eating it, and it’s a form that feels embedded within me; my psyche, my body, my physicality. The lotus root is the root, as much as it is the flower, the mud, the water; all the things around it that nourish it—it’s also a filter, a thing which other things pass through, porous. I found these engineering studies that demonstrate that the abundance of holes in a lotus root enable it to withstand more pressure under water.7
I think of lotus root as that which has taken root in Kang. What she ate for sustenance remains anchored in and to Kang, submerged and able to withstand the pressure of a psyche, a body, so much so that “Lotus” became her name: another container, akin to a home, what you need and what you are called by those who know you, who are familiar. A name distinguishes oneself from another, as proper to oneself, in relation to, yet separate from, someone else. Yet, lotus root, as Kang’s namesake, is an object whose form and function does not afford such distinction and propriety. It cannot be weighed and dragged down by bounded bodies and subjects. With all of its holes, lotus root has no clear inside or outside, no boundary. As an all-encompassing form, lotus root is humble but also ambitious and assertive in its insistence on being a root as well as “the flower, the mud, the water,” and in its inability (or refusal?) to demarcate what it keeps in, what it lets through, and what it lets out.
Lotus root might not be able to carry other objects like sacks or skins, but in their porosity, lotus roots filter and retain something of Kang’s memory and the stories she wants to tell in her work. “Both of my parents are immigrants, and my familial history is very ‘unstoried,’” Kang tells Jones. The paternal side of her family had to flee North Korea and resettle in South Korea before the Korean War, and for their safety, they had to leave all their belongings behind. “I don’t have access to the stories of that ‘behind,’” she says, “They don’t talk about that time and my father doesn’t remember his childhood. […] Overall very few memories have remained intact, shared or passed down. I feel like my interest in emptiness or holes exists because that’s just the place from which I began. I didn’t begin with a bag full of stories but with a bag full of holes.”8 The question of what do you carry, then, is a fraught and impossible one. Sometimes the stories you want to keep, as carriers of memory and inheritance, cannot stay with you. Instead, they pass through, filtered and partially obscured with gaps, composed of unravelling textiles and shredded skin. For Kang, though, the holes should not be fixed or filled. The holes—and what seeps through them—make the story into something well-worn, and also new.
Summer Kim Lee is an assistant professor of English at UCLA. She is completing her first monograph, currently titled, Spoiled: Asian American Forms of Hostility and the Damage of Repair. She has published work in Social Text, ASAP/Journal, Post45, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas, GLQ, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The Nation.
Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee.
1. Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (1986),” Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (New York: Grove Press, 1989), 166.
2. Le Guin, 168.
3. Deborah Vankin, “How artist Laurie Kang ‘misuses’ material to create tactile, carnal installations,” The Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-04-04/horizons-inaugural-artist-laurie-kang.
5. Lotus Laurie Kang interviewed by Amy Jones, “Chisenhale Interviews: Lotus Laurie Kang,” https://chisenhale.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Lotus-Laurie-Kang-at-Chisenhale-Gallery_Interview.pdf.
- Fri, 13 Oct 2023