Spartan Skin

Young Joon Kwak

Artist-in-Residence: Critical Race Studies

April 9 – May 21, 2021

MSU Union Art Gallery

Guarded on game day and integral to graduation photographs, the bronze cast of Leonard Jungwirth’s 1945 Spartan statue is the central symbol of Michigan State University.  The Spartan is an exemplary body, an icon of race, gender, and physical fitness that reflects the university’s ideal virtues of tenacity and will. Arriving at MSU in the wake of a national reckoning with white supremacy that often used debate about historical monuments as a proxy for broader questions of justice, 2020-21 Artist-in-Residence in Critical Race Studies Young Joon Kwak models a different approach to public art. The artist takes a recuperative attitude toward the Spartan statue, while opening the symbol to careful consideration. What does it mean, Kwak’s work asks, to identify a university campus that reflects our diverse society with any one icon?

Having made molds of portions of the statue’s exterior, Kwak created sculptures in cold-cast metals that remake the Spartan’s skin. The artist lavishes attention on the statue’s surface, preserving details that show evidence of Jungwirth’s hand and draw attention to subtle fan interactions. Kwak’s sculptures include impressions left by the pennies glued to the statue by athletes seeking good luck. Surrounding the casts are a series of monumental prints made from the molds, in which the Spartan’s body deviates further from his original form. Presented in fragments, and in works that demand contemplation, Kwak provides a site for careful reconsideration of the meaning of the Spartan.

— Karin Zitzewitz

Young Joon Kwak (b. 1984 in Queens, NY) is the 2020 – 2021 Artist-in-Residence in Critical Race Studies at Michigan State University. Kwak is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Los Angeles, CA, and Lansing, MI, who primarily uses sculpture, performance, video, and community-based collaborations to reimagine bodies and the power structures that govern our everyday lives as mutable and permeable sites of agency. Kwak is the lead performer in the electronic-dance-noise band Xina Xurner, and the founder of Mutant Salon, a roving platform for collaborative installations and performances with their queer/trans/POC/mutant community. Kwak presented solo and collaborative exhibitions and performances internationally at galleries and institutions including Commonwealth & Council, LA (2017, 2016, 2014), Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Alberta, Canada (2018), the Art Museum of the National University of Colombia, Bogotá (2018), The Broad, LA (2016), and the Hammer Museum, LA (2016). Selected group exhibitions have been held at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea (2020), Antenna Space, Shanghai, China (2019), Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2018), and Le Pavillon Vendôme Centre d’Art Contemporain, Clichy, France (2015). Kwak received the Korea Arts Foundation of America’s Award for the Visual Arts (2020), Rema Hort Mann Foundation’s Emerging Artist Grant (2018), Artist Community Engagement Grant (2016), and the Art Matters Grant (2016). Kwak received an MFA from the University of Southern California, an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago, and a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kwak’s work has been reviewed and featured in Artforum, ARTnews, Artillery Magazine, BOMB Magazine, Frieze, Hyperallergic, and LA Times, among others.

The Artist would like to extend a special thank you to Lauren Batdorff and Nicolei Gupit who were integral to the creation of this body of work.

Young Joon Kwak making a mold of the Spartan statue. Image courtesy the MSU College of Arts & Letters.

The MSU Artist-in-Residence: Critical Race Studies is made possible thanks to generous support from the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU), the MSU College of Arts and Letters, and the Department of Art, Art History, and Design.

We would like to thank Matthew Bailey, Evan Christopherson, Kimberly Consavage, Ryan Frederick, Michael Mccune, Erik Mueller, Alex Nichols, Walt Peebles, Suzanne Reed, LouAnne Snider, Alex Vonhof, Lillian Young, and Karin Zitzewitz for their supporting roles. Additionally, we would like to recognize the work of Saper Galleries and Custom Framing in East Lansing, MI for mounting all of the two-dimensional works in the exhibition and the Biddle City Project in Lansing, MI for documenting the exhibition.