Matchsticks, used motherboards and computer chips, pins, buttons, and animal excrement might not strike you as ideal raw materials for an artist, but contemporary artists know no material bounds. Unconventional materials in art run the gamut from the weird to the wonderful: Chris Ofili famously incorporated elephant dung into his paintings; El Anatsui constructs ravishing tapestries from used bottle and tin can lids; David Mach creates sculptures from thousands of matchsticks, then sets them on fire; and Ran Hwang transforms buttons, beads, and pins into monumental installations.
For Hwang, the process of painstakingly constructing images of blossoms, vases, birds, and Buddhas from thousands of individual pins and buttons is inseparable from the work. It is a form of meditation relating to the artist’s Korean heritage and Buddhist upbringing, in which she projects an outline onto the wall, draws a line in its place, then methodically fills the image with materials.
Hwang’s upcoming exhibition, “The Snowfall of Spiders,” at Leila Heller Gallery, will transform the gallery space into an exquisite virtual garden, featuring six new works that explore the life cycle and elements of Zen Buddhism, including a multimedia installation suspended from the ceiling. Composed of Plexiglas panels with embedded silver pins and paper buttons interlaced with sparkling crystal spider webs, the work displays a video projection of a snowy forest, which morphs into red cherry blossoms that are then consumed by black spiders—in effect offering an eerie and poignant metaphor for earthly cycles. Addressing universal themes with commonplace materials, and transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, Hwang reminds us of both the miraculousness and fragility of life and art.
“The Snowfall of Spiders” is on view at Leila Heller Gallery, New York, Feb. 20th–Mar. 22nd, 2014.