Humans are the only animals that truly sweat as a way of releasing heat from their bodies. Other animals try — like monkeys, for example, which can discharge fluids through certain spots such as under their tails. But humans alone have the quality and quantity of glands that allow them to effectively secrete water all along the surface of their skin as a way of regulating internal temperatures.
In that way, maintaining our cool serves as a measure of us, and not just physically. It is also a metaphor for just how civilized and in control we are under stressful situations when, as we say, the heat is on. We like to appear composed and calm in front of others; we never want them to see us sweat.
For the entertaining — and, yes, stressful — exhibition titled “Sweaty Wedding” at Union Hall, artist Juntae TeeJay Hwang builds on that concept. The dozens of ceramic, human-ish figures he has lined up on shelves sweat vigorously with huge, colorful, clay droplets emanating from their beings.
They all have firm looks on their faces, as well as fancy shoes, but they are dripping and oozing and drowning in bubbles of sweat, revealing the underlying tension of staring and being stared at in public places. As these creatures demonstrate, we can be petty and insecure creatures and we don’t make our lives easy for one another.
Nor do we make them easy for ourselves, and that is where TeeJay wants us to go with his concept. We also make ourselves sweat, day in and out, with nervousness and worry when we are alone. We force ourselves to sweat at the gym and claim it is for our own good. We value our labor only if it makes us sweat to the level of joining its dark, physiological cohorts, “blood” and “tears.”
Is all that work and working out in our best interests?
No one is really getting married at this fictional wedding, but the anxiety feels real, and it’s not so difficult to see our own personalities reflected in these cartoon-ish figures — even though they are essentially just combinations of odd-shaped heads and sets of feet, and stand less than 2 feet tall.
It helps that TeeJay gives them names and distinct identities we can relate to. There is “Pretty Bebe,” for example, which is beige and appears to be wearing eyeglasses and whose sweat is spicy-mustard yellow.
There is “Crystals JuJu,” with two eyes, a mouth and no nose and whose surface is golden and whose sweat resembles purple grapes.
There’s “Spoiled Princess,” who looks more like a bird than a human, but who stands upright on four feet and sweats in bright pink.
You attach personality traits to each of them — vain, proud, serious, playful, mysterious, confused, disapproving. There are some you might actually like — the bright-eyed, glossy blue “Shining Hookie” is kind of perky and cute; “Lady Moneybag” is high-fashion and well-put together — but, by and large, they just make you feel as nervous as they are.
There is little escape from this sense once you are in the gallery. Curator Esther Hz has painted the walls a shade of lifeless, muted gray. What light there is in the room is focused almost entirely on the sculptures — like spotlights — and the space is actually a little dark for walking around.
It’s immersive to the point of being claustrophobic. That said, it’s important to understand that “Sweaty Wedding” can feel playful, too. With their simple faces and exaggerated colors, there is a strong influence of comic book culture in the works. In the same way that cartoon violence doesn’t actually feel like violence, these characters’ dark emotions can be processed with a bit of levity.
TeeJay also gives us a chance to distance ourselves from the moment by adding into the exhibition a series of ceramic “paintings” that hang on some of the gallery walls. These pieces, all about 2 feet square, are more like reliefs or topographical maps, and appear as aerial views of urban or suburban landscapes. We can make out the grids of streets, and TeeJay has allowed surface variables so that there appears to be actual building of different heights in his scenes as well.
These works seem to suggest we pull back a bit and take a broader view of the way we live, that we don’t get all sweaty over the prospect of commitment or sacrifice, or the judgment of the people who happen to be in our visual range at the moment.
The exhibition is rich for that reason. It is full of abstractions and contradictions. Making things out of clay is difficult and hot on its own. As the artist points out in the show’s curatorial statement, each piece is “fired multiple times in a temperature higher than a volcano. I often think of it as my works being in a super hot sauna.”
TeeJay could not make the pieces if he did not sweat himself, and that’s terrifically ironic. The show itself is a testament to what is possible if we sweat, but then it asks us to recalculate the value of sweating.
That makes it approachable but not preachy. “Sweaty Wedding” is more of an investigation into our behavior than any judgment upon it, though it does suggest we can make choices — to some degree — about how we go about our days. Sometimes sweating is involuntary; sometimes we do it on purpose. The ability, or the need, of sorting out the benefits of either is just one more thing that makes us stand out as humans.
If you go
“Sweaty Wedding” continues through Jan. 7 at Union Hall, located inside The Coloradan building at 1750 Wewatta St. It’s free. Info: 720-927-4033 or unionhalldenver.org.