“Bathroom Classroom” — HaeAhn Woo Kwon with Isabelle Pauwels, Amy Lam, Kirby Chen Mages, IBanJiHa (SoYoon Kim)
by Jacob Korczynski
Instead of making a solo debut with the gallery that represents her, HaeAhn Woo Kwon recast her one- person show as a collective encounter and effort. This entailed Kwon inviting four artist peers to collaborate by making their own additions and responses to the exhibition—one per week. All the contributions took familiar fixtures from the two sites identified in the exhibition title as material. Despite marked differences in the artists’ five approaches, they all act against metaphor: specific objects retain their form and function, allowing for the contradictions and clashes that Kwon’s proposition entails.
Throughout the exhibition, hard and shiny surfaces abounded for potential inscription by the unstable medium of dry-erase markers: a working sink, two stacked Rubbermaid bins, a shower base, two squat toilets, a free-standing mirror. Unlike some of the other artworks that entered, exited, and returned to Franz Kaka over the course of the five-week duration, the readily wiped remained at the ready, open to the artists’ writings that proliferated upon them. Two drawings on paper by Kwon formed by the thick and certain lines of chisel-tip permanent markers were also anchors, appearing in the same location adjacent to the gallery door in all versions of “Bathroom Classroom.” Although Squatty Face (2021) and The Piss Sea (2021) appeared on one of the few porous materials in the exhibition, even these were overlaid with lustrous plexiglass frames—slick against splashback.
Acting as the opening iteration of “Bathroom Classroom,” the contribution by Isabelle Pauwels was anchored by her signature medium of video. Taking the opaque verso of the free-standing mirror as its projection screen, Die Madam Keek Raar and Women Like Me on T.V. (2021) is a query into the uncertainty of identity—its temporality pulled along by way of language that shifts between hard-edged fonts and handwriting. The latter extended itself into the gallery space through the most idiosyncratic surfaces in the exhibition: two crumpled sheets of dry-erase adhesive. The first, Cathy from the Bank (2021), leaves its account illegible, given that it is wrapped around one of the gallery’s overhead fluorescents. The sheen from these lights upon the second sheet, titled Masters of Finance (2021), belies how unwieldy both surfaces are, with irreversible wrinkles from their backing glue once again obscuring some, but not all, of Pauwels’s writing. Here, she humorously recounts an interview with a US border guard who confused her MFA with the graduate degree of the work’s title. The visceral sight of the loosened surface made me wonder how it could be torn free from the pedagogical authority of the whiteboard—the imagined action puckering the finish through force, chemicals pushed deep below nail beds.
During my first visit to “Bathroom Classroom,” all the contemplation without contact among the tactile objects left touch unfulfilled. This was relieved briefly the second week by way of an invitation to don Blue- tooth headphones that continually broadcasted Amy Lam reading her text Pink Outfit (2021). Combining her practices in performance and writing, it appears as one component of an assemblage produced in collaboration with Kwon titled Two Big Children and a Child (2021) that also encompasses a circle of grey industrial carpet, an uncovered nursing pillow, and a typed transcript of the text. In contrast to the evasive narratives of Pauwels, with Pink Outfit, Lam lucidly unpacks her text in segments: a Parisian landlord’s strategies of gentrification, overconsumption of bismuth subsalicylate, an act of lying by authorities in a conflict-resolution meeting, the psychology of a mono-chrome outfit, the last time she herself lied, another apology on the news accompanied by light denial, the scientific measure of desire. Her accumulation of discrete experiences and encounters next to one another took my thoughts into its spaces in-between. Toward the end of Pink Outfit, she reports: “A piece of metal bent to become a tube. The surface is also the interior, there is no core, only surface and liquid rushing through. Persistent surface, unending, unperturbed surface.” The wireless headset permitted mobility as I walked around and ran my hands across the mass-produced materials. Her words resisted assembling into a cohesive image, as I registered and then severed her description from what I felt and saw before me.
While many of the objects present through the different iterations of “Bathroom Classroom” were scattered throughout the space, the contributions of Kirby Chen Mages largely collected on the floor around the perimeter of the gallery. Like Lam, Mages announces her additions via text, most prominently on a free-standing white bifold cabinet door, which introduces another plane for writing. Alluding to a woman whose door (much like the one in the space) becomes unhinged, Lazy Susan (2021) is a text inscribed backward in dry-erase marker on both sides of the facing panels. The cognitive consequences of flipping the individual letters in the mind to comprehend the writing are complex, greatly slowing comprehension by breaking the sentences into words, the words into letters. Further discomposition permeates the panel on the right, the text opening up in the middle, space growing between the words, the certainty of the Latin alphabet transmogrified as the letters appear to trickle down toward the floor, either intentionally by Mages or obfuscated by the warm hands of visitors.
IBanJiHa’s austere contribution eschewed written language altogether—gone were the texts added by each of the previous artists that guided my earlier encounters. Gone, too, were the cryptic glyphs in black dry-erase marker that collected inside the working ceramic sink during the three previous weeks. The assemblage of the bathroom fixture stacked upon dishwashing bins that appeared in the earlier iterations by Pauwels and Lam continued to actively circulate liquid in a slightly different configuration, retitled Speaking Fluently (2021). As it had in the previous weeks, an upturned plastic bottle functioned as a reservoir, and a microphone was installed below instead of a faucet. Nearly a month in and I still didn’t know if it was amplified or not. In the absence of words, the room tone rang louder.
Kwon herself concluded the cycle, recomposing her own assemblages alongside the contributions from each of the previous artists. And yet, reading it as a summation would be not only restrictive, but wrong. The mutable arrangement of these objects and actions in the closing week, as in those previous, had not accumulated in order to persuade. There is no total: only opportunities for tangible change. In-between the impenetrable surfaces of industrial objects things could be another way—and they are.