Sculpted Narratives: Artist Rachel Youn Uses Humor to Deflate Cultural Assumptions
“My life for the past two years has moved faster than I can keep up with it,” says St. Louis visual artist Rachel Youn, one of the three recently announced winners of the Contemporary Art Museum’s 2020 Great Rivers Biennial award.
Youn is just 24 years old and a recent graduate of Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts Bachelor of Fine Arts program. In the two years since graduating, they have presented work at an astounding clip, participating in more than 25 group and solo shows and co-curating Ferguson art space The Bermuda Project. Their work is on display in “Wild Wild” at Monaco on Cherokee Street from Aug. 9 through Sept. 6.
Youn, who is Korean-American and the child of a pastor, had a nomadic childhood in Philadelphia, Kansas, Missouri and New Mexico. “I was just a nerdy, quiet kid who loved drawing … I loved cartoons,” says Youn. In college, they took a sculpture class on a whim, discovering a medium that tapped into their natural sense of humor and showmanship. Much of their work invokes an element of ironic surprise. What looks like a sculpted marble pineapple is actually soft and squeezable like a stress ball. A plastic palm frond that fans an empty lounge chair is operated by an electric massager rather than a cabana boy.
Through their work, Youn interrogates surface-level assumptions, asking viewers to reconsider what is artificial and authentic in the narratives that surround our cultural values and identities.
Just a few days after they found out they were selected as a Great Rivers Biennial awardee, Youn spoke with ALIVE about the humor that shines through in their work, the intersection of art and identity and the personal narratives that lie at the heart of their sculpture.
ALIVE: There’s a great element of surprise to a lot of your art, particularly your soft sculptures. They have a sense of humor to them. Is it your primary intention to make people laugh?
It’s a result that comes from my work, but not really one that I go into it planning. It’s really hard to make work thinking “I want this to be funny,” because then it’s really all about the joke. If the joke falls flat, then that can go badly. The soft sculptures that I made are really referencing everyday life when you find objects or materials that are not behaving the way that they’re supposed to.
A buzz phrase I use in my work is “material expectation and betrayal.” It’s really funny when something you expect to be rigid is flaccid, and it gives a personality to that object. If you ever see a sign that has fallen down, it’s kind of sad. Even though it’s just a piece of metal, there’s something really endearing and vulnerable about it. That feeling is something I try to reproduce in my work. Last summer or the summer or before, it got so hot in Arizona that trash cans were melting. Plastic things were just completely falling apart. Which, one, is very environmentally concerning, and, two, looking at these pictures of really dilapidated objects, you have sympathy for them. It’s weird because there’s a way for people to identify with things in an emotional way.
ALIVE: I was thinking about that same idea yesterday while watching animal videos online. Humans are just so good at projecting our feelings onto other things. In a way it’s ridiculous that we’re able to project feelings onto a melted trash can, but it’s also beautiful that we can empathize with a hunk of plastic. It’s better than having no empathy at all.
Totally. It’s so funny when people say, “Oh, that dog is smiling.” Is it actually happy? I don’t know. Some of my plant massager pieces are referencing times when I’ve been out and about in nature. For example, there was a time when I was out fishing on the lake in Forest Park where lily plants rise out of the water. A gust of wind blew them and they shook in this way where they looked really happy. [Laughs.] It made me happy, but I was just projecting onto them.
ALIVE: It seems like much of your work uses defamiliarization as a tactic. You ask us to look at familiar things in a new way by presenting objects that are warped or cast in an unexpected texture. What’s the thought process behind those pieces?
A lot of those pieces connect to that idea of object betrayal, where you expect something to be one thing, but it has a mind of its own. I started taking an interest in this after school. There was one particular moment that comes to mind. I was hanging out with a friend who had Ikea furniture, and he had been resting a glass of water on one corner of a piece of furniture, which made the veneer curl up. I don’t know why I didn’t understand the concept of veneers up until then, but I thought, “Holy shit, that’s not wood?” It was so jarring to me. It’s actually recycled material with this very thin sheet of surface-level wood over it. That really sent me down this spiral thinking about materials that try to look like something else. I started to pay attention to it more, and it’s everywhere.
Something I focused on in my thesis work was marble veneer. It became this design trend to put marble everywhere, but not actual marble, just the image of marble. I had a marble phone case, and people put sticky contact paper marble onto their kitchen countertops. Marble is a particular interest to me because it’s such a historically loaded material. It was used to build the Parthenon. I went to Florence, Italy, and it was everywhere. But those places are closer to the source. I thought the trend was really pastiche and kind of kitschy, not just the use of marble, but the way cultures emulate the look and feel of historicism. Even the White House or the Supreme Court buildings in the United States are based on Greek and Roman structures, which really says a lot about the cultures we praise and look up to.
ALIVE: It sounds like you’re thinking a lot about facades.
What was really revealed to me as I made this work was that I grew up feeling like a replica of something else. It comes from being Asian American and not having a connection to my roots in the same way other people do. When I was growing up in American culture, I was really trying to fit in and, in a way, trying to emulate what other people were doing as a way of fitting in. A lot of that meant forgetting my language, my mother tongue, and trying to act white, which is hilarious because that never works. But it was a defense mechanism, or survival mechanism, as a person of a non-dominant identity. I felt really bad about it the whole time. There are parts of me that wanted to embrace my whole culture, and parts of me that wanted to erase it so that I could more easily cope. Kids call each other “copycats” and “fake” all the time, but whenever it happened to me, it really hit me hard. That’s why I identify with objects or things that on the surface are trying to be something else.
ALIVE: The idea of erasure is very strong in the work you created for the “Re/Constructing Identity” group show at The Sheldon Art Galleries, where you presented images of Korea with partially erased people or objects.
Those pieces were really me using Google Maps and Google Earth to “visit” Korea. I’ve never been there, but that’s where a lot of my family lives. There’s part of me that’s really afraid to go to Korea. In the diaspora narrative, there’s this idea that if you go back to where your family is from, you’ll find home. But I don’t think I’m going to find home. I’m very much an American and would be identified as such by everyone in Korea. And so using this digital tool was my way of exploring this place but not actually being present. There was a protected layer over me, in a way. Of course, I ran into a million glitches with Maps and started documenting those, as well.
ALIVE: Does gender play into your work at all?
It totally does, but I have a hard time articulating why. I’ve never never felt super comfortable with femininity. Some people know from birth that they’re not a woman or man. It wasn’t really that for me, but I didn’t feel good or safe being identified with being a woman, especially an Asian woman. I think a lot of Asian women experience subjectification and racialized sexual harassment.
Gender has always been fluid for me. I like to play around with it and be in that gray area. I think that plays out in the fluid or the queer parts of my work. I have a soft column that’s supposed to be a rigid, very phallic, Western structure. I completely took that structure away from it and had it become its own thing. That piece in particular took on a life of its own. I started having to transport it places and carry it. I filmed a video with it and it became this body, this sad but in a way truly authentic body. I totally identify with it for that reason.
ALIVE: It seems people tend to expect art that grapples with concepts of gender to be art that has recognizably gendered imagery, but it feels like you’re thinking about gender in a more subtle, intersectional way.
A lot of artists of color or non-white-guy artists want to make work about ourselves and our identities, because that’s something that’s really crucial to us. But you don’t want to get pigeon-holed at the same time. I tried it—I tried making work about gender and sexuality and race in a way that felt almost like I was colonizing my own experience, or like I was trying to sell it to a white audience in a way that was falsely poetic or sad. The aesthetics were all over the place. I realized that wasn’t going to work for me. I started making work that felt true to me, that was funny or stupid-looking. After making that work, I realized that is my identity. It’s hidden under layers of other ideas and things, but it is truly about me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Featured image courtesy of Rachel Youn.