• Yuner Gao

All those Important Handles that have long been Neglected


Installation view, courtesy of the MoMA, copyright Denis Doorly


I still remember the first time I saw a rainbow. Days of rainy weather finally ended, I looked up to see a beautiful rainbow in the sky. Later, I learned physics that this is because there are water droplets in the air and the sunlight is refracted and reflected. If there is one thing in the world that is most easily taken for granted, it is probably air. Air is everywhere, but we ignore it. As a medium in nature, Had it not been for the wonders, my tiny self might hardly have been aware of the existence of air.


And in the human world, there are many overlooked mediators. For example, when people from different countries communicate, the interpreter on that stage is often ignored. Or take a handle as an instance, it allows us to enter and exit different spaces. Inspired by the handles, Yang set up the exhibition entitled Handles in the MoMa's Marron Atrium, which features six sculptures activated daily, dazzling geometries, and the play of light and sound, to create a ritualized, complex environment with both personal and political resonance.


Installation view, courtesy of the MoMA, copyright Denis Doorly


Handles are points of attachment and material catalysts for movement and change. Yang’s installation considers this everyday interface between people and things. In her opinion, when a person approaches or maneuvers a handle, there is a consequence. Handles turn things on and off or open and close something. They are fundamentally intermediary objects. It took her a couple of years to arrive at how crucial the handle is.


On the walls, steel grab bars are mounted amid an iridescent pattern, and put to functional use in her sculptures. These monumental works come in distinctive shapes: some are inspired by the work of early 20th-century figures such as artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp and mystic philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff, and others use open-source designs for door handles to produce freestanding bodies at once futuristic and prehistoric. Mounted on casters and covered in skins of bells, the sculptures generate a subtle rattling sound when maneuvered by performers, and recall the use of bells in shamanistic rites, among other sources.


Installation view, courtesy of the MoMA, copyright Denis Doorly


As Yang said, she wants the handles to “imply beings who are between borders or distinct belongingness.” In Handles. it is to see the tendency to be non-binary. And in her own identity, there is a non-binary tendency. “For instance, I obviously appear European or even German as soon as I arrive in Korea. Outside of Korea, I present as Korean. I try not to be reactionary when I encounter those opposing and even random social perceptions. Rather, I need to maintain this reality as a truly empowering non-binary one.”


Walking through the atrium, you can also hear the faint common birdsong. The natural ambient noise of birdsong, which also permeates the space, was in fact recorded at a tense political moment in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea during the historic summit in 2018. Reporters strained to hear the private conversation between the two nations’ leaders, but their audio devices only picked up the chirping of birds and the faint click of cameras.


Installation view, courtesy of the MoMA, copyright Denis Doorly


The birdsong could be the mysterious condensation created between the given fact and its hidden significance, because it conceals and reveals at the same time. Huang said: “I was in one of the big crowds observing this live broadcast for over 20 hours, far away in Berlin. At one point, the two leaders wished to talk in private, so you could just hear the ambient sound. I separated the visuals from the audio, then extracted the audio down to these 30 minutes of secret talk. What remained was the seemingly ordinary sound of flourishing nature due to the scarce human presence in the highly militarized zone.”

This is a time of blurred boundaries. In some ways, it may be a good thing that standards are no longer uniform. However, it also adds to the confusion. Which category do you fall into? Or does you have the same awkward and neglected status as the handles? If that's what you're thinking, check out this exhibition. The exhibition is open until February 28h.


Don’t miss it.