Dirty Laundry

Courtesy of the Artist

The back of a dry cleaner is steamy and uncomfortable, cramped with pressed clothes, plastic bags, and the smell of solvent. The day before the opening of “Maze,” a mixed-media installation at Roxaboxen Exhibitions, the gallery space is quiet and dusty, its low ceilings almost touching the top rack of men’s dress shirts. The artist, Hyeon Jung Kim, looks tired. “I chose shirts because I think they represent the cleaners,” she says. “There are a lot of people who need to wear shirts to work and there are dry cleaners who need to clean them.” Drawing from her family’s experience running a dry cleaning business, Kim hopes to bring to this Pilsen storefront the unseen and tedious processes of washing, drying, pressing, and delivering delicate clothing.

Kim admits that at times dry cleaning work can be monotonous and depressing, but she’s found that the same diligence is required of her artwork; “I engage in my own repetitive process with similar intensity towards the transformation and treatment of materials.” As we stand before the meticulously organized business casual labyrinth, I begin to understand how Kim can consider work in such an environment “meditative.” By recreating the dry cleaning back room scene at an impressive scale, she forces her audience to engage with the unexpected beauty of her parents’ working conditions. I ask what the artist hoped to see during tomorrow’s exhibition. Kim looks at her massive creation. “I don’t want it to collapse!” She draws her mouth to the side and raises her eyebrows. “I want them to feel overwhelmed by the amount of shirts. I want them to get lost in here. And then I guess I want people to find some beauty, too.”

Many of the installation’s shirts are forgotten garments that were left behind at her family’s cleaners, making Kim’s parents both the source of inspiration for “Maze” and literal donors of the fabrics that make it up. When asked whether or not she thought her parents would show up the next day, she seemed unsure:“My mom is coming, but I don’t know if my dad is.” She adds, “They’re not really into art.”

Despite their supposed disinterest, the Kims called on friends who owned dry cleaning businesses to contribute dress shirts to their daughter’s project. “They all thought that I was going to paint on the shirts,” Kim laughs. She extended invitations to the opening to all of the family friends who contributed to “Maze,” commenting; “I think they will be really surprised that I could come up with something like this. It is similar but different. I am using their materials and intensity of labor but I am looking at it from an artist’s point of view. I want them to think about their work differently.”

The next day, stepping into Roxaboxen thirty minutes into the opening of Maze, I am greeted with a slight nod by a well-dressed, tiny Korean woman who is undoubtedly Kim’s mother. She is holding a drink delicately and speaking with a tall young man in Korean, guarding the entrance to her daughter’s maze of plastic covered button-downs. A team of tattooed art student-types in kids-size sweatshirts emerges the wrong way from the maze, knocking down dress shirts as they attempt to duck under the PVC pipe holding the installation together. In the center of the maze, three Koreans stand in conversation, leaned up against the makeshift racks of white, fresh-pressed shirts. A bouquet of pink roses sits on an ironing board next to them.

On the other side of the physical maze is a small square space where a podium-mounted projector shows Kim making her way through the labyrinth, one shirt at a time. In the video, Kim rips plastic wrap off of a large roll above her, and then sheaths and re-hangs the dress shirt. After covering each shirt, she picks a fresh one off the rack and repeats the process. The quality of the video is grainy, like a store security tape, and I find myself captivated by the artist’s careful, repetitive motions. Even in the darkened, low-quality video, the precision of Kim’s work is obvious.

It seems I am the only one enraptured, however, as the small crowd of art students sprawled out on the floor seem caught up in conversation about their days. “Sorry I didn’t make it to brunch this morning,” says one girl in the corner. “I was so hungover.” A group of three girls emerges from the row behind me. “So, do we get to, like, take a shirt on the way out?” She dives into a rack, re-appearing with a white button-down over her black t-shirt. “How do I look?”

As Kim had hoped, “Maze” does not fall down, despite her peers trampling their way through the installation. Making my way out, I pass a couple standing directly in front of a garment steamer commenting on the positive effect the process would have on their skin. As I say goodbye to Kim and her mother, who was certainly surprised by the exhibition, the room smells a bit more like cigarette smoke than perchlorethylene.

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