Young Joon Kwak and Doomsday

May 5, 2010

posted by caroline picard

Last weekend I rode my bike down to Hyde Park to check out Young Joon’s show, “Tears From My Pussy.” It was raining a little bit, not a serious rain, but a spring rain with skies that spit intermittently–just enough to let you know that it has the capacity to pour down at any given moment. Grass was bright and vibrant and when I got there–to the U of C’s Doomsday building–I locked my bike to a tree on a  slope, slipping a little in the mud.

The Doomsday is an inobtrusive brick house full of ramshackled charm. I think someone told me it’s on 57th Street. It’s at the end of the road without any houses, surrounded by grass–as though avoided by developments. It appears like an old grandparent, warm and benign, sitting on the outskirts of the University Campus. Certainly it doesn’t look like a building that belongs to an institution. Nevertheless it was there that Einstein and his cohorts developed the atomic bomb. The University of Chicago was one of the first places to develop a self sustaining nuclear reactor, and the Doomsday Building housed the infamous “End-of-World Clock.”

On December 2, 1942, scientists at the University of Chicago produced the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in a nuclear pile constructed in a squash court beneath the West Stands of Stagg Field, the University’s athletic stadium. This experiment, crucial to the control of nuclear fission, was one of several research projects at sites around the country, each concentrating on some task critical to production of an atomic bomb. All were administered by the U.S. Army under the code name of Manhattan Engineer District, or Manhattan Project.

With all that history it’s an intriguing site for an exhibition.  At the opening students hung around the back steps discussing the regret that college officals admitted in public statements about allocating funds towards the atomic project–in other words the students who have been using the building as a studio for the last year are constantly aware of their context. Given Young’s background in idiosyncratic exhibition venues, (what with The Green Lantern, his help in The Phonebooks and of course the work he’s done at NoCoast (where he’s founded the exhibition program)) choosing such a building to install his final show seemed no small coincidence.

What I loved in particular about the Doomsday building is how it references the domestic home/house/apartment gallery on the one hand, while also functioning as a kind of veteran bruise, emblematic of a science that incurred countless deaths and imaginable terror. Particularly when everyone present in the space was relaxed and casual, comfortable on the site (one which they must frequent often), just as anyone must negotiate an everyday relationship with the past, even incidents of trauma whether personal or historical.

Winding up stairs, getting a little lost, I eventually found myself on the second floor where Young had a series of sculptural installations in three small rooms.  The primary medium was black leather, black hair, spray paint and black dukt tape. The landing, a kind of common space, contained one sculpture, bulbous on the top with a variety of orifaces of different sizes–they reminded me of old-timey Mr. Magoo/Dr. Seuss phones that one might use on a ship between decks–and funneling to a point, where all the weight balanced on the floor. The piece was shiny and dripping with matted black hair. Attached to that common room, a second room contained a variety of sculptural installations including my favorite, a piece that came out of the wall, as though having busted through the dry wall, the wall itself peeled back from the opening, revealing underneath a round leather with straps, masking tape, hair, out which came a very long hairy tail. In a room beside that one, everything was covered in black, a black hole of a room, it smelled sickeningly like paint fumes and focusing my attention on the present. The room, while small, was disorienting with a glory hole of light.  In the room beside that, there was an unstretched stretcher, black hair wrapped around it and a light positioned underneath, casting shadows against the back wall. This last room, I thought, referenced painting, its absense–the painting as a light that cast a shadow (a meta painting) not a physical/traditional canvas.

entering the very very dark room

inside the very very dark room

The work  felt furtive to me, not in its physical form, but in the emotive/psychogeographic space  it created. I experienced a constant low-grade stress in the environment, looking, for instance, at the sculpture that might any moment topple over while also presenting so many black, exploratory caverns. Or the black room in which I’m not sure where I stand. The smell of paint that overwhelms the senses. Or, even, the tail which seems at rest for only a moment before it might suddenly come to life and break down the wall, if not the whole house. The work resonated with the historical significance of the house which, from the outside, looks so passive and quaint. Meantime inside its attic it harbors a brilliant and poised unrest.

Also, and perhaps most of all, this clip (which I’ll post in a few hours along with some additional photos of the show), in which graduating collegues discuss how and when to move to New York while Young puts the final touches on his tail.

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