Culture Shocks

Culture Shocks

Yuni Kim Lang’s massive, hair-like sculptures explore issues of identity, belonging – and the ties that bind.
Yuni Kim Lang Hair Sculpture

Comfort Hair Mapping, 2013 

Tim Thayer, courtesy of the artist

Yuni Kim Lang, a 30-year-old textile artist based in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, has an intimate, if complicated, relationship with hair.

Born in Seoul to Korean parents, she is endowed with the thick, black, shiny locks that are both a sign of her identity and a symbol of the weight of cultural assumptions that have been imposed on her.

A self-described “third-culture kid,” Lang spent many of her formative years in China, where her father was an executive for Samsung. Educated at international schools in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing, she learned to speak both Chinese and unaccented American English. Returning to Korea over the years, Lang was singled out, sometimes teased cruelly, by other children.

“It’s a very traditional, homogenous society. Even though I looked the same, they knew I was different. I couldn’t fake it.” At the same time, she remembers being told that she shouldn’t act a certain way, or speak her mind, because it wasn’t considered “ladylike” in Korean culture. “And always, these endless lectures by my mother and grandmother that I must never, ever, cut or dye my hair, because it’s what makes me ‘special,’ ” Lang recalls.

Although Lang felt more comfortable as an expat among other expat students in China and later in New York – where she moved in 2004 to attend Parsons School of Design – she never shed her feeling of being an “in-betweener”: someone who isn’t entirely at home in any culture. “Even at art school, the Korean Americans shared a popular culture I wasn’t part of, and they found me confusing. I never felt authentic.”

Although she had wanted to pursue fine arts at Parsons, Lang’s parents insisted she choose the more commercial field of graphic design. After graduation, Lang embarked on a jewelry design course at the Fashion Institute of Technology, leaving after a year for a job with the commercial jewelry company Nadri, which she found creatively unsatisfying. Soon thereafter, Lang met her husband-to-be, Alec, and they moved to his hometown of Bloomfield Hills – fortuitously, also home to Cranbrook Academy of Art. Finally free to approach art as a conceptual expression rather than a commodity, Lang decided to explore her fascination with sculptural work relating to the human body, and she earned her MFA in 2013.

For the first assignment, her professor, Iris Eichenberg, encouraged students to grab any material they found inspiring and just start making something. “I went to the hardware store, and immediately fell in love with this cheap black polypropylene rope,” says Lang. “And I started making these knots, not knowing what I was doing or where I was going.” Although knotting is a traditional Korean handcraft, it was nothing that Lang had ever studied. However, other students assumed she must have learned it at the knees of her relatives, and that her medium was surely expensive black silk shipped from the homeland. “Part of me wished I could say yes! But this person you’re looking at, who looks so Asian, with the long black hair, that’s not my story. But I have other beautiful stories to tell.

“So I taught myself how to make these knots, in order to be able to go in and cut them up, unravel them, and stitch them into weird, lopsided, irregular things. Because that’s who I am – an amalgamation of all these different cultures.”

The Black Knot pieces are both sculptures and jewelry – chokers, necklaces, brooches, epaulets – although many are too cumbersome to actually wear. “I’m not interested in making jewelry per se,” says Lang. Like her hair, the pieces are burdensome but beautiful, and were a kind of warm-up exercise for the initial Comfort Hair sculpture (2013), which was born as Lang was struggling to come up with a project for her graduation thesis.

The more she worked, the more she ruminated, an activity enabled by the repetitive, meditative process. “I’m by myself – binding, knotting, tying, cutting, embellishing – and finding some relief in the sheer accumulation of all this mass, which ended up as a huge volcano shape. At the same time, I’m feeling so many emotions starting to well up.”

The meaning behind the mass of knots wasn’t fully clear to her – nor did the piece even have a name – until after graduation, when the pressure was off. “One day, my son, Charles [now 6], crawled right into the sculpture, and it clicked: This is my hair! It’s so clichéd, but in America, this is what represents me: my thick black hair. So I put my own head in there, and I found myself going back to it, crawling into it, wearing it, and asking myself, ‘What am I feeling?’ ”

A Korean artist friend asked her if the piece was a reference to the gache, the huge wigs once worn by Korean women to convey prosperity and social status (and banned in 1788 by royal decree as contrary to Confucian values). “And I realized that, yes, all of these cultural associations that were ingrained in me were coming out.” Referring to an instance where the weight of a gache killed a 13-year-old bride, breaking her neck as she stood up, Lang says, “That story hit home with me. In some ways, I thought, ‘That girl is me.’ I was born wearing a metaphorical gache on my head. It didn’t matter how much I didn’t identify with the previous generation of women; it was my destiny.”

Soon Lang cut the sculpture apart, creating three Comfort Hair pieces that could be reconfigured endlessly, using photography and people to transform the static sculptures into a dynamic, narrative medium. In Nest, the model assumes a fetal position inside the hair, clutching a braid – lifeline or leash? In Woven Identity (2013), three generations of women are connected by the mass, which unites and restricts at the same time.

Lang agrees that the very title, Comfort Hair, reflects these ambiguities, and that it is hard, in the context of her heritage, not to hear some reverberation of “comfort women,” the euphemism for the Korean women used as sex slaves by the Japanese during World War II – an extreme example of the perils of female objectification.

Of course, whether you’re Korean or Chinese or French or Swedish or Nigerian, for a woman, hair is imbued with mystique. A staple of both fairy tales and super-models, abundant, well-tended locks are a sign of youth, fertility, beauty – and by extension, female worth – and a reminder that Lang’s explorations are at once specific and universal. And still, she finds the obsession with hair a bit puzzling.

“Why does it weigh on us so much? Why does my mom, or people I don’t even know, care so much about this stuff on our heads that’s actually dead? I mean, how does something that’s not even alive hold so much power over us?”

Deborah Bishop is a writer and editor in San Francisco and a frequent contributor to American Craft.