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Haegue Yang examines the bell as a medium and symbol at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Investigating the bell as a multidimensional and multicultural form, the artist creates an atmosphere of ritual through a site-specific installation—Sonic Droplets - Steel Buds.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Apr 10, 2023

As part of the present edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, titled In our veins flow ink and fire, curated by Shubigi Rao, conceptual artist Haegue Yang is presenting a newly commissioned installation at Aspinwall House. This installation is a continuation of works titled Sonic Sculptures, which incorporates bells as the primary material form. Yang's work at Kochi Biennale primarily engages with sculpture and installation, often employing ready-made objects, and mass-produced items—organic as well as synthetically manufactured material. The work currently on display at Aspinwall House, titled Sonic Droplets - Steel Buds, takes over an entire room, consisting of over 100,000 bells, the artist’s largest bell work to date. The site-specific art installation is also juxtaposed with a printed wallpaper that surrounds the room with images of medical technology with an abstracted scene of digitally rendered fire and landscape. In conversation with STIR, Yang speaks about the themes she explores with this work and how it fits into her wider practice.

Originally, bells were featured as a form of ornamentation in Yang’s earlier Light Sculptures series (2006-13). With the bell as a recurring motif within her practice, the artist elaborates on the aspect of ritual and spiritualism related to the form. "Both physical and sonic, bells are rather unusual materials in the tradition of fine art. However, they are omnipresent in various rituals. So while our associations with bells might differ, anyone has access to bells. In the last 10 years, the Sonic Sculptures have developed into a comprehensive series consisting of free-standing, wall-mounted, and suspended art sculptures with more than 300 pieces so far. But until now I have not been able to create a room-filling installation made entirely of bells," says Yang.

Audience and installation view of Sonic Droplets - Steel Buds at Aspinwall House, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022 | Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022 | Haegue Yang | STIRworld
Audience and installation view of Sonic Droplets at Aspinwall House, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022 Image: Courtesy of STIR

Retaining an interest in the specificity of the site, Yang highlights the fact that the bells were all fabricated in India itself, whereas previously they have always been made in collaboration with a German fabricator. The bell as a culturally and ritualistically symbolic ornament, device, or technology can be considered across several significances that arise out of specific cultural, religious and spiritual practices. Bells take several forms, varying in size and material.

The audience interacts with the sculpture to make sounds at Aspinwall House | Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022 | Haegue Yang | STIRworld
The audience interacts with the sculpture to make sounds at Aspinwall House Image: Courtesy of STIR

Investigating the materiality of the bells, one can see that they are made of steel as the title of the work states. Bearing similarity in form and sound to the ghungroo or bells that are worn on dancers' ankles in classical Indian dance forms such as Kathak and Bharatnatyam to emphasise the choreographies, one is also able to locate the sound within the cultural landscape. The notation of sound in relation to ritual, practice and performance can be seen through the Korean artist’s installation, where one considers the linkages between signal, utterance and resonance. Particularly, Yang finds herself interested in the persistence of the bell as a medium and symbol. Elucidating her inquiry, she emphasises the "aural natures of multiple ritualistic practices whether spiritual or secular.”

Yang says she is inspired by these traditions that have often been marginalised but continue to hold symbolic and ritualistic significance. Speaking of her interest in the ritual form, she tells STIR, “Bells with their rattling sounds have been used in diverse ritualistic practices ranging from European pagan customs to Korean shamanism and many other religious or folk traditions to intercede between the human and spiritual realms.”

Within Yang’s sculptural installation, we can see the bells composed into long threads from ceiling to floor, intervening in the space's architecture as it stretches between pillars, as room dividers or curtains to create four sections within an otherwise open space. Movement is a key consideration within contemporary art, as Yang shares, "Movement is an interesting subject for me because it encompasses different dimensions: physical, emotional, sociopolitical, as well as spiritual. And I wish to approach movement without reducing these dimensions. If I am honest, I had been sceptical about the activation of sculptures at first, since I was concerned about a potential disruption in the audience’s contemplative mode. However, activation has become a crucial element in the presentation of Sonic Sculptures in my exhibitions since then.”

View of wallpaper titled Incubation and Exhaustion installed at Aspinwall House, seen through the bells | Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022| Haegue Yang | STIRworld
View of wallpaper titled Incubation and Exhaustion installed at Aspinwall House, seen through the bells Image: Courtesy of STIR

The wallpaper piece titled Incubation and Exhaustion (2018) creates scenes within these sections to a seemingly theatrical effect, an immersive, ritual-based cultural form, in its own right. Originally produced for an art exhibition at La Panacee-Mo.Co, a museum in Montpelier, South of France, the artist describes the work as presenting her "eclectic investigation" into the local Occitan culture and an exploration of high-tech industries in the region.

Speaking to the significance of the wallpaper as a form, the artist says, "Wallpapers have always been a method for me to engage with non-familiar territory, and in the process, I have learned a lot about the various aspects of each region. I have produced 12 wallpapers so far. Each of them presents a fantastic new world with floating objects against gravity, yet are based on many local references.” With a blend of references between local motifs to the present-day looming figure of technology, Yang simulates an interface between human existence and spirituality that attempts to capture immersion as a state of the present. Melding seemingly conflictual worlds, the artist creates a scene from a contemporary churn that refuses cohesion and yet contains multiple, fantastical narratives.

View of wallpaper installed at Aspinwall House, seen through the bells | Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022 | Haegue Yang | STIRworld
View of wallpaper installed at Aspinwall House, seen through the bells Image: Courtesy of STIR

Read more on Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022, which is on view till April 10, 2023, in Kerala, India.

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