At first glance, Haegue Yang’s Can Cosies, a recent addition to MoMA’s collection, seem daintily delightful. They are soft (even squishy!) to the touch, colorful, and quirky, as seen in the knitted design of the sleeves. But pick one up and peek under the cover and you are instantly reminded of the mundane object in the work’s title—they’re really cans of tomatoes.
Born in Seoul, Korea, Yang works in a variety of mediums, but is known for intricate, often large-scale sculptures and pensive installations that employ not only common household materials, such as Venetian blinds and light bulbs, but also commercial products like clothing racks and canned goods. Such works express her own preoccupation with formalism and human emotion, almost forcing the viewer to confront and experience what only seems to be an artfully composed heap of nonsensical debris. Sallim (2009), conceived for the Korean Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale and also recently acquired by MoMA, is a sculpture that loosely re-creates the kitchen in Yang’s Berlin apartment. It is constructed of steel frames, casters, yarn, an acrylic mirror, cables, dishes, and a scent emitter that releases whiffs of commercially manufactured aromas of everything from freshly brewed coffee, French bread, and hot apple pie to vomit and dinosaur dung. The work blurs the line between what is considered private and public space, and offers, as the artist states, “the experience of living with comfort and discomfort.”
Yang’s focus on the coexistence of comfort and discomfort alludes to her own bicultural reality as she shuttles between her two homes, Seoul and Berlin. She seems to have settled nicely into life in Berlin, even adopting the minute interjections so characteristic of German, including ach so, a statement of understanding similar to “I see” in English. And in sifting through memories of her time in Seoul, Yang fondly recalls being surrounded by the “loud sounds and large dust showers” caused by heavy industrialization and massive trucks zooming over unpaved roads. For Yang, the challenge lies in establishing a home between two cities that feel both comfortable and foreign at the same time.
Can Cosies, then, may be interpreted as the artist reconciling with the disquieting aspects of life by knitting wraps for canned tomatoes, ultimately creating feelings of comfort. The cans, dressed in their snug outfits, are transformed from what we think of as ordinary into something that rouses a completely different emotion and reaction, even though they are still ingredients you’d keep in your pantry. They’re no longer plain, hard, and dense; instead, they seem like happier and, well, cozier, versions of regular cans. With this sense of playfulness, Yang invites us to re-familiarize ourselves with objects so familiar they’re often overlooked.