As an arts writer, I found Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art to be a surprising challenge. Unsatisfied with the lack of breadth in my own arts coverage, I intended to approach this exhibition as any other hip and orthodox contemporary art show. The problem is that, feeling oh so progressive and inclusive, I did just that.
One of the works I was drawn to was HaeHong Chang’s Black Project, 10-1 (2010), a nearly six-foot long bojagi, traditional Korean wrapping cloths that are the subject of the exhibition. The mostly black cloth is neither clearly abstract nor clearly figurative. Divided into either similar or identical segments, I could only process this piece as resembling a strip of film picturing what might be a tree. My brain scoured its archive for references to Bazin, Benjamin, and Eisenstein before moving on.
Moving from analog to digital, I was confronted with JungSook Ham’s Mold (2010), a palette of one hundred multicolored squares. Peculiarly, each of these squares has two seemingly random black threads streaking erratically across each monochromatic swatch. The perfect grid and glitch-like effect of the threads combine to give the impression of digital media, and my mind wandered to Lev Manovich, thoughts of algorithms, and acronyms such as CMYK and RGB.
None of my forced interpretations were readily apparent to me until I reached ChungIm Kim’s beautiful and slightly haunting Trance (2010). Her bojagi is comprised of 120 beige squares of industrial felt that bulge at their corners. From a distance, the silhouette of a vague natural landscape appears on the surface, which when examined up close, is revealed to be a screen print. Up close, one can also see dozens, if not hundreds, of thin black threads protruding from the seams of the textile. Intertwining chaotically with one another before ultimately draping down towards the floor, the threads resemble a spider web that’s been destroyed by an unassuming passerby. This synthetic yet organic look immediately reminded me of Eva Hesse, and it was at this point that I realized exactly how I had pre-determined my experience of the exhibition before I even entered the museum.
To place these works in the context of traditional art history or theory is not problematic; in fact, it can be productive. But what I noticed was not just that I tried to force the works of Wrapping Traditions into a context I understood, but that I effectively ignored those that I couldn’t easily read through an academic, critical theory framework. I viewed them through a lens I could easily digest, but this meant I was cognitively unable to experience most of the sixty-seven pieces in the show, and now remember nothing of them.