Introduction: no case to answer?
A striking trait of the work of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim, probably the first thing most people notice as they enter a show of their work, is its curious air of detachment. This isn't art that wears its emotions on its sleeve. Quite the contrary. Their artworks rebut most straightforward attempts at empathy. Instead of a clear face or posture, something with which one could readily identify, these works presents themselves as a series of puzzling constructions. The works are cool and witty, sculptural installations full of allusions, to which the makers often add punning titles and ironic comments. Such cool wit can certainly be refreshing, and I would venture a guess that a good number of visitors of Maass and Nayoungim's shows have not felt the need to look any further. They may have been well satisfied with the conclusion that these are artists with a well-developed taste for bizarre combinations of design, surface and texture in commodity-like sculpture and drawing.
On top of this, Maass and Nayoungim are not averse to a little misrepresentation, feeling that the audience should be able to take a bit of teasing. While most invitations to gallery shows show a photo of the exhibited work, they often lead their audience up the garden path. For a show in Helmond, The Netherlands, in 2005, titled "Fine for a Robot", they sent out invitations with a photo of the interior of a small supermarket in Seoul, while nothing in the show was visibly related to things Korean. Similarly, for a show in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2006, "Have Spacesuit — Will Travel", the invitation showed an aerial photo of Manhattan. The show, of course, contained neither photo nor spacesuit nor any reference to New York City or Manhattan.
And yet, however appropriate qualifications like cool, witty, distanced and absurd are, there is something in this work that does look back at the spectator and requires an empathic response. Dry and aloof as it is, there is also a certain stubbornness in the work, a specific and very oblique personality that is its core. The best way to find access to this hidden and convoluted message is indirectly, by considering it against a series of diverging backgrounds.
Inside the gadget cartoon
There is a cartoon from The New Yorker, reprinted in The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons. It pictures the interior of a shop, with customers looking at shelves and displays full of electronic equipment. A customer, an unassuming middle-aged man, says to a shop clerk: "All my gadgets are old. I'd like some new gadgets."
This cartoon may be used as map of the art of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim. It helps to find a way through the maze of puns, allusions and sculptural non-sequiturs that may be found in their work. What the cartoon shows, like so many other technology cartoons, is that people enter into all-too-human relationships with the computers, mobile phones and assorted equipment with which they surround themselves. People ascribe emotions and moods to the equipment they use, they know that things can either be helpful or selfish, lovable or spiteful. Even if every scientifically trained rationalist will gladly explain that such relationships are nothing but anthropomorphic projections, a relapse into animistic beliefs, such explanations don't make these feelings go away, quaint and one-sided as they may be. Gadgets are the most concise embodiment of these relationships. They dress technology in winning features, add a colourful touch, give it a face that is more attractive than the regular interface, and thus form a source of small private pleasures. To say out loud, as the New Yorker cartoon does, that these pleasures are bound to grow stale, and may then be replaced wholesale, is to give away their secret. If such technological gizmo's are like pets, the cartoon reveals that they will nevertheless be rejected before they have come to grow old, as their owners will have grown tired of them.
If the cartoon is to function as a map around the work of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim, the first thing it helps to find is that Maass has drawn a series of cartoons in which his own sculptures have guest appearances. The settings for these drawings are undramatic: an open field, a sidewalk, a playground, a kitchen,another field with a radar station. Several drawings show a generic modern indoor space, a modular ceiling held up by square columns, electricity outlets scattered over the floor, monitors standing on desks and tables. It could be an airport lobby, it could be office space, it could be anywhere. The main character in these cartoon spaces is a Bézier spline, a maze of triangles. In some cartoons the spline is almost crushed by a pillar-like block, in another it carries a household appliance, in others the Bézier spline sits in front of the monitor, or it is connected via cables and unspecified electronic appliances to a plaster landscape. Maass has lifted this cartoon character from the domain of mathematics: the Bézier spline is a computational procedure that is used to render surfaces of any shape. The procedure is standard in computer renderings of 3-dimensional shapes. It is an invisible presence beneath the surface of the characters in every computer game. The Bézier spline is a nonentity, but also a ready triangulation of any kind of anthropomorphic projection, any presentation of subjectivity.
The map now shows a convoluted landscape. There is, undoubtedly, something gadget-like about a good part of the sculpture of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim, and their sculpture exists both inside and outside the cartoons. They have also made and shown a plaster Bézier spline, covered with chocolate frosting. But this gadget/character, the Bézier spline, is itself only a mapping procedure. While as a mathematical procedure it is faceless, in its countless digitized applications, computer games and TV cartoons, it wears many faces and is endlessly engaging. The cartoon map becomes self-referential here, it turns back upon itself. Perhaps it is shaped like a topological Klein bottle, the three-dimensional version of the Moebius strip, where inside and outside are identical. Our subjective and empathic responses may be found simultaneously inside and outside the gadget.
Against the background of art history, the work of Maass and Nayoungim is both a celebration and a re-evaluation of the readymade. The "sock dryer" they made in 2004 is the best example of this. It's a rather intricate piece of woodwork, two by two meters square, with three layers of wooden feet-shaped planks sticking out of each side. The top layer of 'feet' is wearing half-long green-and-white Nike socks. A fashion-aficionado might see this piece as an evolution that came out of of the clothes dummy. In art history, the obvious reference is Marcel Duchamp's 1914 'Bottle Rack', a contraption that would originally have been used to dry wine bottles, made famous by Duchamp's gesture of signing it as his first ready-made. The sock dryer appears to twist the arm of the bottle rack hard enough to turn it inside out: it is overly friendly, playful, cosy and cute where Duchamp's piece bristled with metal points, and it is painstakingly handmade whereas Duchamp's was shop-bought.
Some of Maass's early works are like recipes for Do-It-Yourself readymades, work to do in your kitchen at home: potatoes and cucumbers, carrots and zucchini, carved and dovetailed like pieces of timber, then added together to make squares and circles, even a house frame that might adorn a kitchen counter or festive dinner table. Other pieces are even more elementary: rolls of white toilet paper, carefully stacked to form towers, columns and plinths; arrangements of shop-bought pre-sliced toast, set on a tabletop, then carefully photographed. For a show at the Parisian École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts he went so far as to paint 400 square meters of wall in a World War II camouflage pattern. His work appears to stretch the idea of the readymade so far that it will envelop all and everything.
To understand this playing around with readymades, it is worthwhile to have a look at the wider historical background of this artistic strategy. When Pablo Picasso chose, 100 years ago, to stick a piece of real chair caning into his 1907 "Still Life with Chair Caning", he decided that the difficult artistic labor of creating a bit of trompe l'oeil in paint was superfluous, since machine-made chair caning was perfectly functional. Duchamp's more drastic use of readymade products as art completely replaced the skilled and personal handwork of the artist by the impersonal and intellectual game of shopping and selecting. His preference for the ready-made object reflects his fascination by the machine; it has been considered as an attempt to bring art up to date with the rapidly industrializing cities of the early twentieth century, connecting it with the decisive factors that produced man's material surrounding, such as Ford's assembly line and Taylor's new regime of efficiency.
Many later developments in art are a continuation of this search for an adequate response to industrial development. In the 1960's, Robert Morris was among the artists who felt that sculpture had to move not only beyond artistic craftsmanship, but beyond objects per se. He wrote that "The notion that work is an irreversible process ending in a static icon-object no longer has much relevance. [...] This reclamation of process refocuses art as an energy driving to change perception." And he explicitly related this to contemporary industrial developments: "An advanced, technological, urban environment is a totally manufactured one. Interaction with the environment tends more and more towards information processing in one form or another and away from interactions involving transformations of matter. The very means and visibility for material transformations become more and more recondite. Centers for production are increasingly located outside the urban environment in what are euphemistically termed "industrial parks." In these grim, remote areas the objects of daily use are produced by increasingly obscure processes, and the matter transformed is increasingly synthetic and unidentifiable. As a consequence, our immediate surroundings tend to be read as "forms" that have been punched out of unidentifiable, indestructible plastic or unfamiliar metal alloys."
A favourite artist of Nayoungim and Maass is Fluxus artist Robert Filiou, who in 1963 dropped a sponge in a bucket of water "to celebrate one million years of art", which is certainly one way to go beyond the object. A more biting example of Filiou's work is his proposal that neighbouring countries exchange their war monuments. Nayoungim, by the way, likes to tell the anecdote that Filiou worked in the same office as her father, when he worked for the United Nations in South Korea. Family history and art history meet in an appropriately unplanned way.
If we continue to correlate the developments of industry and those of art and sculpture, we have to relate the works of Maass and Nayoungim to the "postindustrial" era, in which design, packaging, marketing and advertising are more prominent than the actual manufacturing. The term "superindustrial" would be more to the point here, since in fact more and more of life is industrialized and becomes part of what anthropologist Marc Augé calls "supermodernity", in which people and goods circulate faster and faster, creating more and more places and objects that are not characterized by their belonging to a culture of a fixed time and place, places which Augé therefore calls "non-places". In those non-places, the traveller and the tourist can switch between "the passive joys of identity-loss, and the more active pleasure of role-playing". The Bézier splines and the gadget-sculptures of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim are the non-objects for these non-places. Their work is a version of Dada that is, like a sponge, saturated with supermodernity.
Non-objects for non-places: warped flow
Against the background of Augé's supermodernity, the riddling aspects of the work of Maass and Nayoungim are no longer simply idiosyncratic. When Maass uses a photo of himself on vacation, posing with a rented light motorbike somewhere in Malaysia, as an invitation card to a gallery show, in supermodernity that simply demonstrates what Augé has called "the archetype of the non-place", namely the traveller's space, where attempts at cultural empathy are regularly reversed "as if the spectator in the position of a spectator were his own spectacle". The puzzling shifts from Seoul to Helmond, from Manhattan to Antwerp also document the non-place.
And if the Bézier splines in their work may be called non-objects, so may other sculptural pieces: the gold-covered architectonic structures, the electroplated aluminum crystal-like shapes, the gold-glazed china turds, the unruly assemblages of incongruous elements, the silhouettes of Cray supercomputers, the wooden replica of a satellite, the flea-market find of a batch of '70's pea-green barbecue plates stacked in a vaguely Swiss-cuckoo-clock-like wooden pagoda, the dumbbell with pimple and piercing. In a recent show in Lokaal 01 in Antwerp, Belgium, Maass and Nayoungim mounted seven of their gold-glazed china turds on a wall, arranged to form the constellation of Ursus Maior (the big dipper); in other shows, in 2000 in Bremen, Germany and in 2001 in Tokyo, Japan, Maass included "Brain" from the cartoon series "Pinky and Brain", a "genetically modified super-intelligent laboratory mouse whose only function in life is to seize world dominance by a variety of means".
If, as Helen Molesworth has written, Duchamp and other Dada-related artists, through their avoidance of genuine artistic handwork, or through their ironic mimicry of work, "constitute a set of management techniques for how to live, as an artist, in a critical way, amid the endless permutations, twists and turns, and baffling contradictions of capitalism" , then capitalism is also ironically mimicking art. After all, industry in consumer nations has become, or strives to become, "creative" industry . Perhaps the fact that Nayoungim was raised in South-Korea, and Maass in West-Germany, is relevant: these are places that derived a good deal of their national identity from forced industrialization, where place and non-place, industry and creativity are as intertwined as it gets. Their life in recent years as travelling artists, moving between residencies in Norway, Japan, Germany, France, South Korea, Holland and Belgium certainly does hover somewhere between the existence of the labor migrant and that of the multinational top executive.
Because their art is located at the intersection of art and industry, it is able to register two opposing interior currents of aesthetic feeling, two opposing forms of psychological flow. As art, made and exhibited for no other purpose than contemplation and enjoyment, it takes part in the ancient tradition of aesthetic experience, the empathic and inspirational sense of well-being that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has characterized as a state of mental flow. But it also registers the fact that a great part of the material culture of supermodernity produces another kind of flow. Cultural critic Raymond Williams has explained the stream of programming of TV with the same term "flow". Williams uses the term to describe the uninterrupted sequence of decontextualized stories, images, places, people and musical sound that characterize TV broadcasting. Creative industry installs this flow throughout supermodernity; every object, every space is designed, personalized, shaped for a certain effect. The concepts of the consumer industry are more present in daily life that the concepts of advanced art: "While one does not necessarily have to have an aesthetic relation to artworks, one can very readily have aesthetic relations to entities which are not art and to the artfully designed, packaged, and advertised merchandise that surrounds us on an everyday basis in particular."
The work of Maass and Nayoungim is a series of objects that have been shaped and warped by these two opposing flows. The cute sarcasms, the gleeful childishness, the melancholy and ironic incongruities of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim combine an avantgardistic sensibility with a sensibility for this industrial flow of meanings. Their art incorporates the absurd but psychologically highly effective narractives of B-movies, the immortality of Elvis Presley and the products of the toy industry as well as the cool detachment of the artist who has learned the traumatizing lesson that personal empathic responses are the modified and manipulated as effectively by the industry of supermodernity as they are by an inspired artist. The outcome is a readyness to fall back on comedy and parody, to undermine any too official discourse, even — especially — when this undermines and frustrates the artist's own position. Asked, for example, to provide a descriptive summary of his work, to accompany a series of his drawings in the magazine Issues in Contemporary Culture and Aesthetics, Maass handed in a photo of himself, with the caption "I can sing it, if you want me to!" The photo showed him, sitting naked in a too-small bathtub with a wet towelette folded on his hair, the very opposite of the coolly contained avant-garde artist, for all the world like a soft, cute and malleable guy, like those anthropomorphic bath sponges that are shaped like a frog or a duck. When taking part in an exhibition with the title "What to do when nothing happens?", Maass pushes away the art-historical demand to categorize the present by taking the question literally, giving his own contribution the title "I'll think about it later, I promise". What to do when asked to explain "warped flow"? If the term sounds like an attempt to get a grip on the aura of supermodernity, it also sounds like the data produced by a "flowdetector", an intergalactic gadget out of "Star Trek".
Augé, Marc. Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. London: Verso, 1995.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Maass, Gregory S. "5 drawings (Erosion, sublime, pornography, cyborg)", Issues in Contemporary Culture and Aesthetics 10/11 (April 2000), pp. 261-268.
Allure. Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Akademie, 2005.
Family Album, 1989-2005.
No place: Caustic Window, 2005.
Mankoff, Robert (ed.) The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons. Princeton, NJ: Bloomberg Press, 2000.
Molesworth, Helen. "From Dada to Neo-Dada and Back Again", October 105 (Summer 2003), pp. 177-181.
Morris, Robert. Continuous Project Altered Daily. The writings of Robert Morris. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.
Ngai, Sianne. "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde", Critical Inquiry 31 (Summer 2005), pp. 811-847.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies, An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.
Williams, RaymondTelevision. Technology and Cultural Form. London and New York: Routledge, 2003 (first published 1974).
 Robert Morris: Notes on Sculpture, Part 4: Beyond Objects. In: Continuous Project Altered Daily, The writings of Robert Morris, pp. 68-69. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1995.
 Augé, p. 103.
 Augé, p. 86.
 Molesworth, p. 181.
 The term "creative industry" has become a buzzword in recent years through Richard Florida's bestselling book "The Rise of the Creative Class and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life".
 Ngai, p. 812.