The Crazy Optimism of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries

An exhibit at the Asian Art Museum lays bare the Web Art duo's mystery, obstinacy, and storytelling prowess.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ “So You Made It. What Do You Know. Congratulations and Welcome!” (Photo by Jonathan Curiel)

On a recent Sunday morning, a mother and her toddler wandered into Young-Hae Chang’s and Marc Voge’s video exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. As the mother chased her rambunctious offspring around the darkened gallery, she looked up on occasion, and here’s what she saw: Words like “No” and “Fucking Passport” and “Your Head, How Strange” that, every two seconds, were careening off two big movie screens.

The words told stories — epic stories about refugees, random airport searches, love, and other subjects — and they were set to quasi-bossa nova and other pulsing, moody music. The exhibit’s title, “Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries Presents: So You Made It. What Do You Know. Congratulations and Welcome!”, hinted at the works’ humor, style, and freneticism — but the seven packaged videos, which run for an hour, should really come with a warning that says, “Please watch these works from start to finish. You wouldn’t drop into the middle of Star Wars, would you?”

No, you wouldn’t. And just like Star Wars, Chang and Voge’s videos develop likable characters who face long odds. You root for them as government agents break down their doors, as they settle Mars in pursuit of utopian splendor, or as they express deep feelings for another person.

But unlike Star Wars, the visuals of Chang’s and Voge’s videos are 99 percent words — an odd throwback at a time when pictures, photos, slick animation, and other striking visuals are the dominant features in media and the art world. Adding to the old-school foundation of Chang’s and Voge’s videos: They use a distinct Monaco typeface, and employ single-framed backgrounds that range from completely white to that of a one-angled scene. Chang and Voge have been making the same kind of videos for 20 years. They’re obstinate that way — but why mess with success? To critical acclaim, they’ve shown their work with some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate in London, and the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Still, the Seoul duo’s work — with its searing and poetic language, itinerant dark humor, and quick succession of frames — can seem over-the-top for people who aren’t used to such idiosyncratic art. The United Nations Development Programme, the U.N.’s global development agency, commissioned Chang and Voge to create a work around Syrian refugees –—but then de-commissioned it after seeing the work, which became the title video in the Asian Art Museum exhibit.

The artists are coy about exactly what happened, but it seems UNDP disliked the work.

“A while ago a representative of the United Nations Development Program invited us to make a work on the Syrian refugee crisis,” the artists say in an email interview with SF Weekly. “Then, after seeing the result, So You Made It, he seems to have rejected it.”

In the five-minute video, whose words are set against a brick wall as snow falls here and there, a narrator tells Syrian refugees that “people will be hostile to you” in the West, that “you’re the low man on the totem pole, but you probably already knew that,” that “everyone loves to hate someone. … It’s human nature,” and that the refugees better “get used to the bad jokes” in the West.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ “So You Made It. What Do You Know. Congratulations and Welcome!” (Photo by Jonathan Curiel)

So You Made It is making its world premiere at the Asian Art Museum, where Chang and Voge spoke on opening night — but with conditions: They prohibited all recordings — video or audio. On YouTube, they white out their talks so viewers can hear their words but not see who they are. Chang and Voge don’t want their photos taken. They create a deliberate air of mystery around their work. Chang is a South Korean artist and translator who has a doctorate in aesthetics from the University of Paris I. Voge is an American poet. They’re apparently a couple, telling SF Weekly that, “We felt that if we worked together, instead of having separate, possibly competing, careers, we’d be happier together.”

On their website, yhchang.com, they make most of their art videos available for free, but there’s no way for viewers to pause or stop them. Chang’s and Voge’s videos are done in a seemingly simple Flash program. “We’ve always felt, since the beginning of Net art, that interactivity was overrated — necessary on the internet, not very satisfying in Net art,” they say.

“That said, although you can’t pause or stop our work, you can click away from it. In that sense, it functions like all art — at a certain point, you turn your back and walk away from it.”

People were doing just that at the Asian Art Museum, but they were like the distracted mom: art-goers who came in at an odd time and never got into the works’ rhythm. The museum has put the exhibit in a major gallery space, with large floor pillows for people to lounge on as they watch the two screens, which are as big as art-house movie screens. (The first screen shows the work in English, while the second screen shows the same work in other languages, from Korean to Arabic.)

Wa’ad, an 18-minute work about a Palestinian astronaut who lives on Mars with other astronauts, is making its North American debut at the Asian Art Museum — and it’s a dizzying piece of space-age fiction that imagines a near future where religious and cultural prejudices disappear, at least in space. Communicating with friends on Earth, the character Wa’ad philosophizes about the openness that is possible on another planet — and reveals her sexual relationship with an Israel astronaut. “Our mission here is to start over,” Wa’ad states, before revealing that the astronaut team’s extracurricular activities have led to a pregnancy.

Many of the seven videos, despite their tough subjects and frank talk of inhumanity, end with a kind of crazy optimism. Asked if they have any thoughts on the U.S-North Korea war of words, the duo says, “We don’t have any print-worthy thoughts on much of anything, let alone the surreality of North Korea and the U.S. president. We have incoherent musings — we call them emotions — that we put into art.”

Marc Mayer, the Asian Art Museum’s Senior Educator of Contemporary Art, who organized the exhibit, says the duo’s work “are monologues masking as dialogues. … What I find most dynamic is that they take really complex stories that start to unravel and show the ambivalence and the ambiguity of how the world works. And that sense of uncertainty is really dynamic in the work, and I haven’t seen too many artworks that function in that way.”

Mayer also says that the work “is kind of like having a relationship with a person even though it’s an artwork. Some people are sarcastic. Some people are difficult.”

And some people are shy. That’s how Chang and Voge describe themselves. They put their work out there, and it gyrates and fulminates with ideas that are topical and funny, but the couple prefers to stay in the background. They’ve written thousands of words for people to inhabit. Each one syncs with a musical note. Each one blares out for at least a second and then gives way to other words. The swear words are there for a reason, and so are the words of passion and hate. Like breadcrumbs in a children’s story, they lead to events that can be downright unpleasant or utterly rejuvenating. Take the bad with the good, Chang and Voge seem to be saying, and laugh and love if you can along the way.

“Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries Presents: So You Made It. What Do You Know. Congratulations and Welcome!” Through Oct. 1 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St. $10-$15;
415-581-3500 or asianart.org.

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