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Viewers could smell Haena Yoo’s most recent show, The Oriental Sauce Factory at Murmurs gallery, before they could see it. Yoo’s exploration of scent and liquid is ongoing (her recent show, The Birth of Venus, at P.Bibeau in Brooklyn, contained sculptural, liquid amalgams of cosmetic skin products and rice yeast). But Sauce Factory was an uncanny, liquid-circulating installation formally modeled from both Yoo’s father’s sauce factory and the “desire motors” imagined by Duchamp in his 1915–23 work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass).
While odor permeated the exhibition, viewers were shielded from the full pungency of the installation’s centerpiece. The Milky Way Table (all works 2021), a swampy fermentation station of brewing sauce, was encased by a sealed plexiglass box. The mixture of meju (fermented soybeans), saltwater, jujube, oregano oil, elderberry, magnesium oxide, and over-the-counter American drugs released vaporous tendrils from eight small holes at the top of the box. An initial hit of soybean and kombucha. Soft overtones of rot. Sea mist. Oily scalp. The viewer watched the production of a fermented sauce as it percolated through various machines and was dried, filtered, and packaged to be sold as L’Oriental. Set out on top of boxes, bottles of the generically labeled sauce ranged in flavor and title, from Spicy to Floral to Authentic Oriental, making it ambiguous, ultimately, whether L’Oriental was for tasting or smelling.
In the lone video work, Checkmate, installed toward the back of the gallery, an AI-generated American male voice from an advertisement narrated: “It’s brown, savory, dark, black, yellow.” Meanwhile, a bottle of soy sauce spun onscreen along a conveyer belt facilitated by the laboring Korean women at Yoo’s father’s sauce factory in Eumseong, outside of Seoul. The same words could also be used to describe Yoo’s show. These are also all qualities of otherness that whiteness tells immigrants they cannot possess, but their products of labor (in this case, bottled condiments) can. Otherness is olfactory, after all. To be savory and yellow in America is to scrub the stinky sweet musk of foreign foods from one’s black hair as if it was possible to rinse the shame of alienation away.
Upon visiting The Oriental Sauce Factory, I found myself yearning to connect with Yoo in another olfactory environment (maybe at a temple, maybe over pickled foods?)—stinky imbibement feeling appropriately immigrant. Having just moved to New York, I settled for connecting with Yoo over FaceTime from my Chinatown apartment while she was visiting Los Angeles from Seoul. We discussed her recent show, scent as a primary medium, the Atlanta spa shootings, herbal remedies, and Western biomedicine.
stephanie mei huang: How did your Duchampian sculpture, the Bride, function in the work?
Haena Yoo: I was interested in the idea of “desire motor[s]” described by Marcel Duchamp in his work The Large Glass, as well as the desire machinery that [Gilles] Deleuze mentioned as subjectivity in capitalistic society. As a way of combining the logic of Duchamp and the manual of a sauce manufacturing factory, I built Bride Machinery as a desire-driven sculpture operated by a motor containing saltwater with meju dissolved in it.
I wanted [my version of] the Bride to be more like a preindustrial, Asian agricultural machine that contains the source and power in herself… and this liquid [sauce] is fermented throughout history, time, and space while it flows, [and is] filtered, transformed, and contained somewhere. The whole manufacturing process starts from the Bride, but when it ends up at the bottling/ packaging station, the power and structure [of the system] can shift them or flip them up. These ideas reorder a use-value from ancient agricultural methods in an absurd way, by dissolving contemporary health products. Here, the Bride as an ancient agricultural heritage has, again, been largely stripped by “bachelors” of big franchise companies, the patriarchy, Western centrism, or cheap mass production, with the limited information that they have—just like labeling her with the name of L’ Oriental.
But, also, the Bride Machinery has a gesture, implying her labors, constantly working and making her exertion—urine, sweat, odor. According to Duchamp, her motor, the desire motor, runs on self-secreted love gasoline: “The Large Glass has been called a love machine, but it is actually a machine of suffering.”1
The bride in my work is hanging from a rope in an isolated cage, or crucified, doing her labors, making her excretion; in contrast, the aluminum cast bachelors remain below, left only with the possibility of churning, agonized masturbation perceiving her orgasm.
smh: You speak about how the fermented is the feminine and the machine is the masculine. How do you see the fermented as specifically a form of feminized labor?
HY: Yeah, that’s a good question. I see the fluidity in the installation as the source or identity of the Asian female. I was more focused on the Asian female identity because sauce-making and manufacturing are basically the domestic work of females. The liquid as a living organism or substance in the main installation [The Milky Way Table] shows the mold and spawns growing, the color and smell changing, the dissolving of all kinds of pills and soybeans. This whole process is the fermentation and the labors of entropy, just like giving birth. This femininity is flowing throughout the system, operated by a motor or the fog machine and [the] containing vitrine, as the whole capitalistic system is already set up as the platform in which we live. The living organism is maintained inside of the container, breathing in and out itself.
This entropy could make a special sauce or rotten liquid, as the female identity goes into society. They may have sort of matured in the process or been tortured, exploited by the system.
smh: Is meju usually made by women?
HY: Yes—moms, grandmas. And that’s all really very traditional—female laborers. It happens in their homes as a group, with neighbors or friends or family. They make it together, and it’s really like kimchi. They make it at home with their peers, traditionally.
smh: Meju and other fermented foods have a reputation for being somewhat stinky, something that’s associated with minority cultures and non-white cultures. And so, how does the palette resist?
HY: As we know, a smell can bring forth memories. It is cultural material. In my work, I started off by fermenting scents from the microorganism in the vitrine, smells like kombucha or soybean-paste stew. These are recognizable to some people. But then it changes into a weird, strange smell from nowhere. In the beginning, some people might say it caused nostalgia, [but] over time you can’t really tell what it is. This kind of uncertainty or unpredictable stage as a performative quality is what I wanted to see in my installation. It’s like a commentary on what happened in real life [these] past two years.
Smell was the most powerful material that I was working with in my show, which never really had happened before, because [while] I had these kinds of [olfactory] elements, the visuality was more dominant. But here, if you’re not experiencing the smell, then you can’t really comment on the [show]. Things are really bound by the smell or odor.
smh: I think it’s really powerful what you’re doing with smell. You’re saying it’s a cultural material. Otherwise, certain smells are not elevated in this way—smells that are always experienced in restaurants or at the Asian supermarket. And so bringing them into this space and making art viewers all experience this arresting smell is very affecting. How do you think smell is more effective than anything else as a material for you?
HY: For most of my installation, I use various different materials or immaterialities, some of which were borrowed from minoritarian cultures. It’s an orchestrating process, and it provides an element of defamiliarization. It gives me the chance to take on these cultural forms and interrogate them about their meaning within society.
When I visited my dad’s sauce factory in Korea, the smell was the most distinctive material that I confronted at first. It was the compelling and dominant presence in the factory, and I felt like it was a whole other world. But after a while, I got used to it and didn’t really mind being inside the factory. I wanted to drag that experience into this installation.
I think smell is really important [in the work] because it represents the collision of desire and control in the system being decomposed or fermented. It brings an odor and that’s why the viewers are haunted by it. This kind of unpleasant or feminine smell baffles us. And it’s undiscerned; even though it’s a cultural affect, it’s unpredicted or uncontrolled. That’s my main intention, wanting to emphasize reality. It also gives me a little bit of [a] powerful sense, when [the smell is the] dominant presence. It’s invisible but aggressive. Like, oh, here, Asians! We’re contained, discriminated against, but very smelly. Watch out—[it will] immerse you. Attack you back.
smh: Ssanghwa-tang, a traditional Korean herbal medicine, makes an appearance in your meju blocks, while over-the-counter drugs such as Benadryl and Aleve brew in a fermented reservoir. Amidst Covid-19 and an increase in anti- Asian xenophobia and political demagoguery, how have you seen your relationship to Indigenous/traditional and conventional Western medicines change?
HY: I love herbal medicine… and my mom was really into it. It has been common already in Korea. They take herbal medicine from the Chinese acupuncture hospital. And during Covid-19, before the vaccine came out, we were really panicked. Some people were more into making homemade versions of herbal medicine to improve the immune system and sharing it with neighbors and family members. I thought it was cute, but also desperate. Most people were aspiring to find the right medicine or ideology to prevent getting sick from Covid-19. Maybe the vaccines or some pills that I purchased from Western drug stores here are medically better-proven. I don’t know. We’re taking both. I’m taking both the herbal medicine and the Western medicine, just hoping that it will help me. And I think [it] was kind of random. I can’t really say which one [will] work out or if it can work out differently individually. Rather, I see these pills as a panacea, appeasing all hopes and desperations, that I’m willing to take.
smh: Right. It’s a hybrid concoction, just like your sauce.
HY: Exactly. My ambivalent feelings towards [the] two kinds of medicines [are] why I play with the randomness and make my own medicine or magical sauce. And these are [the products of] my research and my explanation on [medicine] just as an ordinary person. I really can’t say what is right—[it’s] very controversial. So I wanted to take that position [of] my struggle, my conflicted or ambivalent feelings. I think this is what the main fermentation table is really about. I’m making the sauce.
smh: That’s so great. I also, of course, want to talk about the guns. I have so many feelings around these works in particular because the Atlanta spa shooting was really emotional and heartbreaking for me. In your show, I feel like that is the last room that the viewer will probably enter: soy-dyed rice paper pistols, a revolver, and a rifle with newspaper headlines that read: “8 Dead in Atlanta Spa Shooting,” “Attack on Asian Woman in Midtown.” I was sort of seeing the soy-stained paper as almost tear-stained paper, like the Bride’s tears.
HY: Yes, the guns are displayed as a punctuation of the show. I was upset by all the kinds of racism that have happened lately. Last year, I was in Seoul, but I got to see many friends who came back to Seoul from London, New York City, and L.A., because of [all the] racism and what they witnessed. I haven’t experienced any in person, but could feel this huge fear… And it was really breaking my heart again. I researched the most common guns used in America—pistol, revolver, and rifles. I took three models and made them into paper guns, titling them I’ve gone to look for America. Folding the papers, making [them] into origami guns, which are not functional, was like a ritual process to me—just like you said, it is presented with the tears, as a memoir to remember them. You know, we don’t forget what happened.
Haena Yoo, an artist born in South Korea, works between Los Angeles and Seoul. Yoo makes installations constructed with found materials, video, sound, and smell, exploring themes of labor, identity, and global capitalism.
This interview was originally published in Carla issue 27