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In CAM Show, Rachel Youn Explores Where Megachurch Meets Dance Club

Rachel Youn’s “Gather” exhibit uses massagers, artificial plants, speakers and sounds to draw a relationship between manufactured goods and spirituality.
Wil Driscoll
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
Rachel Youn’s “Gather” exhibit uses massagers, artificial plants, speakers and sounds to draw a relationship between manufactured goods and spirituality.

Every two years, local artists are front and center at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Since 2003, the gallery has partnered with the Gateway Foundation to offer the Great Rivers Biennial Arts Award Program.

The effort highlights local emerging artists in the greater St. Louis region and provides them with a $20,000 stipend. This year’s winners are Kahlil Robert Irving, Tim Portlock and Rachel Youn.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske explored the latest Great Rivers Biennial exhibit, which opened Sept. 11. Misa Jeffereis, an assistant curator at CAM, discussed her work organizing the show.

Also participating in the conversation was Youn, who talked about “Gather,” the kinetic show currently on display at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Bright lights, “dancing” plants and a custom soundtrack are among the details featured in Youn's 50-sculpture project.

At first glance, patrons may feel like they’re in a dance club or house party, with colorful lights, a disco ball and music by local band GodsBod. Youn jury-rigged large artificial plants with massagers so they shake and sway to the audio tracks playing from vintage speakers in the background.

But it’s not just a dance party. The set also evokes the stage at an evangelical megachurch. Youn’s father is a Southern Baptist pastor and, as a child, the artist spent a lot of time in church.

“Really intense song and prayer were also part of what I grew up with in the church, and there'd be this moment where you turn the lights down and play music, and people would just let their hearts out and just pray out loud and shake their fists, and kind of rock back and forth,” Youn said.

Part of the soundtrack is Korean gospel, as the gallery blends the lines between dance and worship.

“I really started to see that similarity with my sculptures,” said Youn, who identifies as queer. “On one hand, they're kind of dancing. On the other hand, they're kind of worshiping or shaking in this ecstatic way. And so what I hoped to accomplish with the show was kind of creating that gray area between those spaces. … On one hand, it’s this really joyful space, and on the other, it’s this really intense religious space too.”

Related Event
What: 2020 Great Rivers Biennial Exhibit
When: Now through Feb. 21
Where: Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (3750 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.