Non-binary Korean-American artist Rachel Youn emerges as a trailblazer in the contemporary art scene. Their innovative approach involves transforming discarded massagers and artificial flora into kinetic sculptures. The individual pieces invite viewers into a vibrant, whimsical world where plants can move and emote much like animals or humans would.

Youn creates their sculptures through a meticulous process in which they combine motors with artificial branches and flowers. They employ a blend of observation and experimentation, which creates an innate understanding of the motors they use within the piece.

Gather by Rachel Youn. Image courtesy of Strange Fire Collective.

The motors they work with are second-hand massagers. Aside from benefiting from her ability to control the pace and movements that the massagers perform, Youn is also interested in the massagers’ metaphorical qualities. “My current body of kinetic work is mainly driven by whatever motors I find fascinating and can get my hands on. A lot of my work uses at-home massagers to create movement. I source the massagers secondhand, so new pieces are limited by what’s available on the market,” she said in an interview with Strange Fire Collective. might

Before being repurposed, the massager aimed to offer individuals a warm touch that might revitalize their energy. These massagers now assist a plastic plant's dance of fake vitality owing to their creative participation and this repurposing of materials by the artist also reflects upon the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Responsible Consumption and Production.  

The artificial plants themselves, who were once static symbols of nature, have now become dynamic components that challenge the viewer's perception of what is living and what is inanimate. The synergy between these elements transforms the mundane into the extraordinary, breathing life into the plastic plant, even if it is a fictional one.

Perfect Lovers by Rachel Youn. Image courtesy of @rachelyoun/Instagram.

Take for example Perfect Lovers, a work in which two orchids seem to be making out, they push their petals against each other erotically as if desiring to do more, even though all this is a product of the motor’s movements.

Perfect Lovers is just one of Youn’s body of work. Individual plant pieces showcase individual traits, they can be clumsy, erotic, or downright absurd. Some plants elegantly sway, while others engage in playful interactions or seemingly wrestle for dominance. The individuality of each piece mirrors the diversity and unpredictability of the natural world, as there are currently 391,000 species of vascular plants known to science. It’s as if Youn imagines that each species would have a different type of personality, the same way that humans would.

Well Adjusted by Rachel Youn. Image courtesy of @rachelyoun/Instagram.

In a Sartrean sense, Youn's sculptures become a way of being for others, compelling the viewer to engage with the nuanced narratives of existence, resilience, and the unexpected beauty found in the overlooked plant corner of life.

Another example of their work is Well Adjusted which shows a different orchid sub-species nodding along, seemingly submissive and going with the flow of anything that people are telling them. This can be read as a take on how plants are often overlooked as lifeforms simply because their incapability of movement is often taken as submission and consent to unsavoury behaviours.

Revival  by Rachel Youn. Image courtesy of Rachel Youn's website.

In 2023, more than 75 percent of the planet’s ‘undescribed’ plant species are threatened with extinction, meanwhile, 45 percent of known flowering plant species could be at risk of disappearing. About this loss of biodiversity, plant biologist and President of the Botanical Society of America, Hope Jahren, emphasizes the concept of "plant blindness," which highlights society’s general lack of acknowledgment of the crucial role that plants and natural environments play in human lives. This explains how little humankind cares about the preservation and conservation of plant life.

Jahren urges the recognition that safeguarding plants is equally as vital as protecting animals. Plants possess the unique ability to convert sunlight, water, and mineral nutrients into food and oxygen, forming the foundation of ecological systems. This means that plants are indispensable not just for human existence, but also for the planet’s ecosystem. Youn’s intentional infusion of movement breathes life into the normally inanimate plants. Giving them human-like characters to push her viewers to acknowledge them as much as they would recognize an endearing child.

Overall, Rachel Youn's focus on kinetic plants elevates their sculptures to new heights, offering a fresh perspective on the relationship between art and nature. The juxtaposition of discarded massagers and artificial plants serves as a metaphor for the resilience of life, urging viewers to reconsider their perceptions of the animate and the inanimate. To not base them on movement, especially when it comes to plant life. In embracing the kinetic, Youn invites audiences to cultivate a newfound appreciation for the complex and expressive lives of plants within the realm of contemporary art.

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