Vincent Hung’s 4’ x 6’ installation, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, presents the viewer with a screen of thirty TVs—stacked in rows of six—that flash between static, large-scale images of a building, and smaller images of young adults from a range of ethnicities and genders: a woman poses smiling hand-to-hip on a spiral staircase; a man dressed in a red t-shirt and shorts sits on sloping rocks; another man wears a black hockey jersey and pours lean; a woman in her underwear holds a yoga pose while clutching a sword across her lap; a man blocks his face with the beer he grips; another stands awkwardly on a front lawn.
The installation was conceptualized by Hung and created with the help of artists, Aurnab Saleh—who collaborated on the video and screen—and Leander Knust—who helped build the wood frame. Originally titled “The Problem That Has No Name” after the opening chapter in feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Hung decided to change the name of the instillation because he felt the implications were too negative. Instead, he chose the title of another preexisting work, Tupac Shakur’s posthumously published collection of poetry, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, which features poems that the late great rapper wrote between 1989 and 1991.
Hung’s work was inspired by the video sculptures of Korean artist, Nam June Paik. His original idea was to stack a number of CRT TVs on top of one another, but he realized the installation would be too expensive and difficult to bring to fruition, so he opted for a single screen instead. The installation also owes something to 90’s photography books like Adrienne Salinger’s In My Room: Teenagers in Their Bedrooms and the persona-based self-portraits of artists like Cindy Sherman.
The Rose That Grew From Concrete offers a subtle commentary on social media, social class, diversity, and representation. “A lot of the images that I created were based off of photos on Instagram and Facebook,” Hung told me. “I was really interested in self-representation. Nowadays, we're growing in society to have this as a norm to promote our lifestyle, and have our own stage, and have people watch and like us, and feel like we’re being watched to have our voice be heard.”
Hung grew up in Naperville, Illinois—one of the wealthiest cities in the Midwest—but did not have the type of childhood stereotypically associated with his hometown. Hung’s parents divorced after his birth and, although he lived with his mom and sister, he identified himself more with friends than his family. Hung “saw both sides of social class” and “was in a constant flux of friends from different financial standings.” Hung’s formative years appear to have given him the ability to comfortably straddle two different worlds—an important attribute for a photographer representing friends from various walks of life in a single piece of art.
Hung seems particularly fascinated with the ethics of representation, so it makes sense that artist-subject collaboration played a crucial role in the creation of The Rose That Grew From Concrete. Hung told me that “none of [the photos] are candid—they’re all staged. I would sit down with my friend and tell them my idea and give them the long story because I felt like they deserved it. If they’re going to help me with this project I would want them to understand where all this is coming from because I knew, if I took these photos, I might not be putting some of my friends in the best light.”
Part of the reason Hung may have been so open with his friends during the staging process is because of his perspective on the lack of truth in photography: “It’s crazy because images never tell the truth—like ever—but it seems like we can curate our own reality, so it’s dangerous to get caught up in it.” Yet, Hung still wanted to create “something that seemed like it was real or truthful,” which is why he chose to photograph each subject “like it’s a lifestyle portrait.”
Hung’s choices in creating The Rose That Grew From Concrete speak to the (un)reality of social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. Like these platforms, Hung’s installation presents the viewer with images that are simultaneously staged performances and representations of real human beings. Hung’s subjects helped choose their settings and poses, which speaks to their interests, as well as the boundaries they are, and are not, willing to cross—a fitting metaphor for how so many of us position ourselves within social media, whether we realize it or not.
In many ways, The Rose That Grew From Concrete is a communal bildungsroman: by gathering representations of his friends within a single frame, Hung also represents himself, where he comes from, and how he sees his peers. And while wanting to show your friends to the world through your eyes is a common wish for many young artists—and young people, in general—Hung has created a piece of art that is compelling because it speaks so precisely to the blurring of truth and fiction at the present moment in time.
February 27, 2017