Laurie Kang uses and misuses photography, sculpture and installation to make works that continue to shift in response to their environment. By embracing flux, the porous boundaries of her objects challenge constrained form, and singular bodies. Our conversation began while Laurie was in residence at Interstate Projects and was expanded in the preceding months.
Martha Tuttle: Will you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?
Laurie Kang: I’m currently the artist in residence at Interstate Projects, a great non-profit gallery in Bushwick. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been making photograms every day, though not in a darkroom. To make them, I’ve been using parts from past and current works that are scattered in my studio, as well as debris from things I’ve digested like peach pits, orange rinds, egg shells.
Another ongoing project is a daily practice I started in 2013. It’s not actually done every day, but when I decide to do it, I’ll commit to the same iteration of the exercise on a daily basis until I decide to stop. It’s meant to be a fast, intuitive exercise, like drawing. Because I don’t make these works in the darkroom, the colors and tones that emerge from painting the photo paper are in continual flux.
Originally this practice started as really simple collages of rectangles I would make by tearing photo paper, but it’s since taken on many iterations. At some point I began painting onto the paper directly with darkroom chemicals. I also painted a lemon everyday for a while. Or I used my fingers and scraps of fabric doused in chemicals to make impressions of movement and touch.
Although there are general rules that I set for myself- use an 8x10 inch sheet of photo paper as the container, for example- with each new iteration, I’ll also change the parameters based on my gut feeling. The relevance usually comes later.
I’m also currently working with Octavia Butler’s scriptures from her sci-fi religion Earthseed. I’m planning a dinner and exhibition around it at a project gallery in Toronto, The Table, which is a table in the artist Brittany Sheppard’s apartment. I’m making all the vessels for the dinner with clay and the food served will highlight fermentation as a way to engage thinking about the entanglements of matter and body. I’m still developing a reading of Butler’s texts that will be performed collectively at the dinner as well.
MG: The processes you’ve developed are so distinct to your practice. What inspires the way that you make?
LK: I think the idea of misuse guides a lot of my making. Or creating a kind of slippery space where the materiality of mediums can speak more, and the traces of my own interactions with them are made evident. I’m not interested in presenting anything as though it’s neutral or disembodied.
For instance, I make the photographic works in whatever light conditions my studio has at a given time, rather than constructing them in a controlled dark room. Most of these pieces remain unfixed and stay continually sensitive to light and environment. These chemical-body images are then basically an expedited version of the world - of constant changes and becoming in sensitive development with other things and beings.
MT: Is your background in photography?
LK: It is, kind of. I started art school in studio arts so I was doing painting, sculpture, fiber, and photography. Midway through undergrad I found myself more attracted to photography, maybe because of its rules and the possibilities I saw for bending and expanding these rules. It seemed like the most rigid form I could learn and then also distort.
But I didn’t so much abandon other mediums as much as integrate them alongside photography. My background in sculpture has certainly informed my interest in the physical and material constructs of photography. I don’t identify strictly as a photographer, sculptor, etc.- I see myself as weaving between and across mediums.
MT: What is the relationship between your photographic processes and your sculptural forms?
LK: I would describe both as being body-centric. With the photo-based work there is a physicality and emphasis on the present moment; the fact that they are currently in-development as someone encounters them shifts awareness back to the body in relation to how the work is encountered in a state of change. With sculpture and installation I want to make space for this awareness as well, the contingency of the body in relation to matter, form and perspective.
I think of my photo work as a kind of cross-species collaboration between myself, the paper, chemicals and whatever objects I may be bringing into the image space. We are contaminating each other and changing together. A lot of my sculptural work also develops in direct response to the space in which it is made, or where it’s intended to be seen, and my work often doesn’t feel realized until it’s installed in a way that has taken the space into consideration. I also like to think about space itself as a body.
MG: Can you talk specifically about how your “Spine” pieces change over time, and engage this continuous becoming?
LK: The Spine pieces, like many other works, are made by immersing scraps of nylon fabric in darkroom chemicals, both ‘developer’ and ‘fixative’. It’s a fabric that often sits tightly against the skin, conforming to and with the body so it’s akin to a second skin. I make the work horizontally, with the paper on the floor, dragging, splashing and moving the fabric across the paper. The gestures aren’t pre-determined or controlled and the nylon/’skin’ is quite floppy and hard to control anyways. It’s a skin-on-skin process where the both the paper and fabric are porous surfaces.
I let them dry where they’re made, which sometimes takes a few days, and they’ll develop according to whatever light and environment conditions they’re in. They don’t get fixed, a process that would stabilize them, so they remain in continual development.
I’ve worked in 6 different studios over the past few years. Where the windows are, what kind of light and what direction it comes in- humidity, heat and coolness are all variables that change from space to space, marking the work specifically. Seasons make the work different too.
The chemicals also are a factor. Sometimes I’ll use really dirty chemicals, and the choice to refresh the batch is always really hard, I’m always asking myself - “Do I really want to let go of these dirty chemicals?”
The work is unstable as well as the variables that produce it – my studio is a bit of a sloppy science lab in that way. But for me, instability is the sliver space that can open to alternative ways of viewing and thinking. It’s the crack in reality where new forms might emerge.
MG: Do you document the changes?
LK: That’s a really interesting question that I get asked a lot, and but instinctively I choose not to. When I think more directly about it, I realize that choosing to document at one moment or another might impose an attempt to singularize the work, which would go against its inherent multiplicity. Documenting and/or charting their changes would kind of betray the politics in the work by fixing them with some sort of truth despite how the work may have shifted and are shifting. I’m into embracing the present-ness within it now.
MG: The spine as an image and an idea is very present throughout you work. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you came to think about the spine and how you’re thinking about it now?
LK: Some of my past work was based around my research and attraction to this flatworm called turbellaria that live underwater and are invertebrates and intersexed. I started watching videos of them mating, and they were really fascinating because of the questions they brought up around binaries. While mating, entangled with each other in their spineless state, they are moving constantly between gender binaries, simultaneously trying to penetrate each other. I was looking at them as neither-nor rather than either-or and this fluidity was emblematic for me. The way they can move with things, meld to them, respond directly through their structure-less state, in a kind of refusal of definition, was useful for me in thinking about my interaction with materials.
This idea of spinelessness became symbolic of many metaphorical possibilities – a complete restructuring of the body as we know it, an ability to be fluid, less formed, to be able to meld more intimately around and with other things/beings. Becoming spineless, like the flatworms, or beyond that even; a fictitious proposal to reformat how the human body is constructed from the inside out.
With the “Spine” pieces, I was using the image space as both a site of discharge and absorption of spine leakage. Since it’s all unfixed, there’s an active growth happening with the spilled spines.
With my more recent installation, Line Litter at Franz Kaka [Toronto, 2017] the spine images were attached to photograms I made that depict a lot of debris in-formation. I wanted to highlight the relationship of the human body’s present conditions to the promiscuous histories and exchanges with other species throughout our evolution, and the symbiotic bacterial relationships taking place in our bodies that are needed for our survival.
MG: These works, the ‘spines’, are vertical images composed of individual pieces held together by a central axis. There are small gaps between each of the rectangles that break with the continuity of the images. Could you talk about those gaps?
LK: I think the gaps are the in between spaces. The in-between being the space that is the least stable, but the most active. It’s a transformative space where things are coming into and out of each other and themselves. I wanted to keep this space present within the work, while also thinking of it a kind of hollow vertebrae. Seeing the wall, and the aluminum bar holding the images (the spine holding a spine?) was a way of allowing the structure that holds and supports the work to become a part of it.
I’m also interested in weeds, as another kind of invertebrate body, because weeds grow in between things. They adapt but also infect. They’ll grow through the cracks of sidewalks, they’ll find their way in between everything. In a way that makes them an ultra-sensitive body because adaptations like these require a very fine attunement to a surrounding world!
MT: Worms and weeds are alike in the way they are both extremely receptive to the environments that they are in.
LK: Yes. I see everything as sensitive matter, so in the studio, I try to exploit the inherent sensitivities of materials, especially the industrial ones. So they can’t be just so, in a way.
MT: When you are making your work, and thinking about the relationship between your pieces as bodies and the bodies that engage with them, do you think about your own body? Or is the focus more on a generalized idea of the body?
LK: The body is an active variable in any making or viewing; it will change the way the work is made, and how it is viewed and will also inevitably differ from one viewer to another. In my work, my body is an affecting apparatus just as in science labs the apparatus that measures or produces is a part of the result.
I certainly think about social constructs around race and gender that affect my being and making, and what it means for me to make the work I do as a person of colour. I want to expand how one thinks or talks about these constructs in art making from a perspective that aims to undo them from the inside out; I think my ways of addressing these issues is more nuanced, but inherently and materially relate to ‘otherness’. I’m thinking through the practices of how we categorize both human and nonhuman bodies. It’s an actively evolving subject matter for me…it’s a hard question!
MT: I mean your answer is great, it’s a complicated subject.
LK: I’m still metabolizing it all!
MT: Who are the artists or thinkers who are helping you in your conversation?
LK: Karen Barad has been really influential, her writing around quantum entanglements and intra-action. Also lately Octavia Butler, she’s been on my mind a lot. I’m reading Lillith’s Brood, which talks about humans being rescued by this quasi-alien species, but this species has different forms of communication, of touch, of sex, of appearance, of thinking beyond binaries. They kind of cohabitate with the humans and create what you could refer as a cross-breed. And there’s both resistance and acceptance to that. In her other books she invented a fictional religion called Earthseed, which has been blowing my mind – it’s the closest return to religion I’ve had since my late departure from Christianity in my early 20’s. Donna Haraway’s new book- Staying With the Trouble - has been especially interesting to read alongside Butler’s. Haraway talks about tentacular thinking, and in Lillith’s Brood there are so many sentient tentacles. The connections feel poignant. Trinh Minh-Ha’s as well - reading about the constructed ‘other’, the interchanging relationship between inside and outside, from the perspective of a racialized body, have been very powerful for me.
Charlotte Posenenske was probably one of the first artists I really fell in love with. Her sculptures are a very aware of a body, though she works with industrial forms. She eventually quit making art, and wrote an exit letter saying that art couldn’t enact social change and did social work for the rest of her life.
My friends’ and peers’ practices excite me most; people who I’ve grown to know and shared with, and have deeper experiences of their work because of this.
MG: One last question - do you find a big difference between your relationship to the work in the studio and when it leaves you?
LK: My studio is a really active site, there are often multiple bodies of work emerging at the same time. So although separating the kin is tricky sometimes, I try to trust that there are skins that are left behind, sheddings that will affect the future work.
Putting the work in-situ activates it in a way that I can’t always realize in my studio. The most loving and laboring part is in the studio but when it leaves and is realized it feels like the work can turn ‘on’.
This can be a huge relief, and it’s like thank you what’s next! Something new will happen now.
MG: Sheddings affecting future works- parts of older pieces enter into new ones, like generations.
Laurie: Yeah, they all still speak to a constant regeneration. Anytime someone asks me about spines I have to talk about the worms. I can’t just start from spinelessness. There’s a lineage to it.
Laurie Kang (b.1985) completed a BFA at Concordia University and an MFA at Bard College in 2015. Her work has been shown in Toronto at The Table, Franz Kaka, the Loon, the Power Plant and other venues, in the U.S. at venues including In Limbo in Brooklyn, LVL3 Gallery in Chicago, and in Europe at Painel Gallery in Porto, Portugal, and in Vårberg Sweden. Kang has received several grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and was recently in residence at Interstate Projects in Brooklyn, NY. She currently resides in Toronto, Canada.