Nayeon Yang has received plenty of recognition and awards for her art, but her most valued work couldn’t make $1 at an auction.
That’s because she works in performance art, with a focus on making emotional connections with her participatory audiences. Earlier this year, the Buckeye Civic Engagement Connection gave her the Maya Angelou Award, a creative arts prize recognizing individuals that “combine words, art and actions to stir souls, energize bodies, liberate minds and heal hearts.”
Yang, a graduate student of fine arts in the sculpture department, said she has come a long way artistically since her upbringing in South Korea.
“I was really depressed when I was in Korea,” Yang said. “I dropped out of high school. I was looking for something I liked to do. I just couldn’t find it.”
She was not interested in what she calls “Korean institutions in the ‘90s.”
“The education system precisely focused on how to get a better grade to go to a good college, which I wasn’t really interested in,” Yang said. “I just wanted to talk about stars, do some drawing, read poetry and watch movies. Korean high school students usually spend their time from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at a school, or private institution, studying.”
Yang eventually took a qualification exam the same year to obtain certification that recognized her as a high school graduate.
She came to the Los Angeles at age 24 to try to break into the art world. After studying at Pasadena City College, she moved to Chicago following a visiting to her sister there.
“I would visit her and think ‘this is a great space to be in,’” Yang said.
Her sister was studying design and frequented museums and art galleries.
“When I visited a contemporary art museum for the first time, I had no idea there were so many art genres,” Yang said. “I started to learn the meaning behind art.”
At 27, Yang decided to go back to school and later graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Yang originally began expressing herself artistically by painting, before exploring other avenues.
“I would say that I am a interdisciplinary artist,” Yang said. “That means I do performances, installations, videos and paintings.”
Yang said her inspiration is her personal experience and transforming that experience into a social art experience.
“All of my work comes from my desire to communicate with others,” Yang said. “I am trying to figure out who’s next to me, who’s around me. I get to learn about people while I do my projects.”
Yang has completed some notable performance art exhibits publicly.
“I kind of try to create that kind of environment where we have to communicate,” Yang said. “That’s why I’m really interested in participatory art.”
In 2009, Yang performed “Hear.t.ea.” First, spectators were invited to write a sincere letter to someone they love on her nude body, with ink. Then, Yang washed her body in a tub filled with warm water, where the letters were dissolved. She filled cups with the water, and passed them out to the crowd.
“Emotion that was kind of unspeakable became a physical element that could be transmitted into the body,” Yang said.
Yang says she likes to use her art as a tool to make others aware of themselves.
“When you’re looking at something like washing my body in a hot tub, that’s just something to look at,” Yang said. “But when I ask you to drink that water, you have to think about it. ‘Oh wait, that’s the water she just washed her body in,’ that’s kind of disgusting, but you’re aware of your body and what you want and what you don’t want.”
Though her body is often on display, Yang said she is just a conduit, not the subject.
“I don’t think my body is a work of art, you happen to be a part of art,” Yang said. “My body is not something to look at, but a tool to communicate.”
“Using her own body, as well as strongly-scented props and prompts to her audience, she aims to encourage passive audience members to become active participants in her performances,” said Amanda Gluibizzi, an associate professor in the Department of Art and History of Art, and Yang’s MFA thesis adviser. “I think engaging the public is difficult, as so much contemporary art is made so personally — but I also think it’s incredibly important. Nayeon’s work belongs to a long history of public performances, which are actuated because they are performed publicly.”
In 2013, Yang put together “Stay with Me: Membranes of a Space in Time.” For this participatory installation, Yang had participants blow into latex balloons and write their name on a tag attached to the balloon. Almost 80 balloons were set on the floor at her studio in Vermont, and the participant’s names were listed on the wall.
Spectators were forced to maneuver through the space with the balloons on the floor.
“Through this installation project, I attempted to represent ephemeral yet present lives,” Yang said.
“Performance art is particularly engaging because often, the spectators become accomplices to the artist,” said Merijntje van der Heijden, deputy director of exhibitions and curatorial practice for the Arts Initiative at OSU. “For many performance artists, including Yang, the audience completes the work, making them essential to its success.”
“Participants and audiences are on different terms in my projects,” Yang said. “I’m trying to figure out how to combine these terms together so there is no separation between participants and an audience.”
Yang is currently in the process of putting together shows to perform in Columbus. She will give a performance in the nude at Millworks Art Studios on Thursday. It will focus on the “authorship of your body — how we observe and exhibit our bodies,” she said.
“I think it is time to show my work here, especially since I noticed there is kind of no performance art in the city,” Yang said. “I find art as my language, it is my visual language.”