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Who: Ran Hwan

What: “Untethered,” an immense wall installation of birds created with thousands of pins, buttons, and thread

Where: Massachusetts

Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams

Unless they are freed from the fabric that binds them, pins, buttons, and thread — the most utilitarian of objects —

RAN_HWANG_INCEPTION_GALLERYare largely disregarded. It usually takes a snagged sweater, fibers gotten loose, or a pair of suddenly button-less jeans to fully appreciate the humble but indispensable materials.

Not so for Ran Hwang. The artist, a native of South Korea who has studios in Seoul and New York, recognizes the necessity of the ubiquitous objects, and she demonstrates and elevates both their utility and their beauty in her work. Hwang’s latest project, an immense wall installation titled “Untethered” on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, is indicative of much of her work. Intricate and delicate, the piece stretches 140 feet along the wall, featuring birds made of some 50,000 buttons, even more pins, and miles of magnificently colored threads in hues of red, pink, and white.

Hwang said she works with ordinary objects because she finds meaning in that, just like human lives, items such as buttons are common but nevertheless remarkable.

“As buttons are always with us, attached to clothes, they are precious and important, just as human existence is,” said Hwang, who created a similar large-scale button and pin piece, depicting a bird confined by bars, for a multi-artist exhibition at Mass MoCA in 2013. “We recognize the importance of human existence once an individual person disappears, such as we feel the importance of a single button when we lose it unconsciously.”

Five phoenixes and five eagles take flight in “Untethered,” complemented by dozens of small birds hanging from the ceiling. The mythological birds are made up of thousands of vivid buttons placed on pins, painstakingly hammered one by one into Plexiglas, while the eagles are made of metallic strings threaded between pins.

Hwang first drew the eagles on paper and then projected them to trace the outline on the wall. Following the outline, she hammered pins — with barely a centimeter’s gap between most of them — to the wall, completing the process by meticulously connecting the pins with thread. She created most of the birds at her studio, but made the biggest eagle in the exhibition on-site, which, even with the help of her assistants and Mass MoCA staff, took 15 days to complete.

Hwang likens the long, repetitive creative process to Zen-like meditation, and considers it paramount to her craft.

“My work is based on and initiated from the process of meditation and self-healing. I think it is the most important part of my work and my whole art practice,” she said. “Every moment of the installation process should be meaningful and consistent since an action of hammering a pin continues to the next pin and the next. . . . It’s repetitive, meditative, ritualistic, and therapeutic.”

With “Untethered,” such an approach has resulted in a palpable sense of liberation.

“I thought of the genuine meaning of freedom when I created the work,” said Hwang. “I conceived of confined soul, untethered mentality, soaring spirit, and internal freedom through visualization.”

Still, though, the piece conveys containment as much as freedom. Attached to the walls by the threads and pins they are made of, the birds of “Untethered” are contained to the narrow architecture of their gallery, grounded though they appear to be soaring. Hwang embraces the dichotomy.

“I wanted to express the dualism of the visibility. The things we see in our eyes are not the only aspect we perceive; it always coexists with the non-visible aspects.”

Eryn Carlson can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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