By Jason Foumberg
Artist Young Sun Han placed a Craigslist ad for a stranger to engage in a twenty-four-hour sustained hug. After receiving several responses, Young invited Gerald O. Heller to participate. Though not an artist himself, Gerald was comfortable with endurance practices, having run thirteen marathon races. The two men began their embrace on December 30 at midnight, and after moving through several emotional phases of excitement, physical fatigue and mental boredom (they agreed to remain silent), comfort, and finally, impatience, Young and Gerald released on December 31 as a crowd counted down the last seconds of 2008.
The world record for the longest embrace is twenty-four hours and one minute, a duration that could have easily been exceeded here, but that was not Young’s intention with his performance. Instead, he wished to heighten a hug’s normally fleeting physical sensation; even the most heartfelt hugs between mothers and sons last only a few seconds; even as we spoon with lovers, who we may have known for a lifetime or for one night, we must eventually push away. At which point does a hug or a handshake become uncomfortable or even taboo? Young wished to fight the internal stopwatch, commanded by cultural conventions, and invited the public to watch.
Since the performance, Young has returned to Auckland, New Zealand, where he is a permanent resident and has lived for the past two years. The Skokie-native runs an art gallery there, called City Art Rooms, a spacious white cube with large arching windows, with Kylie Sanderson, wherein they exhibit the work of emerging artists. While earning his art degree in Chicago, at the School of the Art Institute, Young worked on a project that also extended for twenty-four hours. He hit the streets of the city and engaged twenty-four strangers for one hour each, learning as much about them as a casual conversation would allow, and they about him. He then photographed them, and moved on. The idea of the stranger also figures in to his 2004–05 double-portrait series of couples that Young approached almost at random and photographed in their domestic settings.
Now, with the hugging performance, the complexities of intimacy are given full expression. At times Gerald, a tall 64-year-old Caucasian, felt like the contours of past lovers or even of the artist’s father, says Young, a twenty-something Korean-American. Also on view in the gallery space was a projection of a self-portrait. Here, Young has a red sheet over his head like a child’s ghost costume, with three holes ripped in it: two for eyes and one for his dick, protruding gloryhole-like. The photographic print could easily extend commentary on anonymous Internet sex sites, like Craigslist, where Young met Jerry, where identity is shrouded during a transaction of pleasure. The ghost looks strikingly like a Klan member, so that the gay ghost comes to represent the self-loathing and internalized shame inherent in some repressed homosexual desire. Too often, though, gay identity becomes over-sexualized, and is maintained as a simultaneous concealment and exposure; the public image of the sanitized and witty gay seems nothing like the haunting image of symbolic ancestors dead from disease.
In his artist statement, Young writes that art saved his life. In fact it gave him direction, and freedom. Perhaps to be sincere is uncool, said Young when I asked him about the sentimentality of his projects, which are refreshingly devoid of hip irony. Indeed, they are genuine endeavors. During the culmination of the hugging performance, onlookers engaged each other in a group hug.