What will Jason Yi create behind the window of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art?

Ask that question, and you’ll be part of the process.

This week Yi is scheduled to begin building a massive work for his one-man show “Jason S. Yi: A Fragile Impermanence.”

The show doesn’t officially open until Aug. 23. But between now and then, Yi will be creating the exhibition’s centerpiece installation inside MMOCA’s State Street Gallery, a glass-walled space in full view of anyone passing by on Madison’s most famous street.

Yi, 50, will begin with a free-form frame constructed of recycled wood slats, which he’ll cover in strips of white tape. The result may evoke a massive mountain. Or a delicate cloud. Or an enigmatic artscape balanced between permanence and etherealness, fragility and strength.

The piece will evolve over some three weeks. Yi plans to work on it during the day but also under spotlights at night.

Though he has a concept for the piece mapped out, its final form will be influenced by the people who come to see its creation, he said.

“I would like it to be interactive — a visual interaction, and also with me interacting with the audiences as they see things unfold,” the personable Yi said .

Having the public around “revs me up even more so,” he said. “And I’m a firm believer in the subtle influences of things that are around me and the people that I interact with.”

In late July, Yi came to Madison to install two pieces inside MMOCA’s main lobby. Still untitled at the time, the works are made from repurposed materials and share the dichotomies and landscape qualities that are signatures of his work.

A glittering mass that appears weighty seems to hover in the air. A quartet of mundane slices of pegboard takes on the surreal sense of a topographical map.

“In a way, I think this typifies my aesthetics. I love this contrast between something that is aesthetically and visually pleasing, with certain unexpected qualities — such as material use, or form that people might think, on first view, ‘Does that mesh together?’,” Yi explained. “So there is a seed of questioning that I try to get out of my viewers. Through those questions I hope they uncover more and more about the work and the aesthetics, and how they are participating in this sort of experience.”

A native of northern Virginia, Yi has lived for many years in Milwaukee, where he teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Named Milwaukee Artist of the Year in 2006, he works in a broad range of media including photography, video, drawing, multimedia and sculpture.

Yi’s art has been shown in major cities throughout the world. But the MMOCA show is his first one-person show, MMOCA director Stephen Fleischman said.

Yi’s work also has been featured in MMOCA Triennials, exhibitions that showcase the finest works produced by Wisconsin artists today. Fleischman selected Yi’s 2010 sculpture “Legend of the White Snake” for exhibition in the museum’s rooftop sculpture garden.

For Yi’s stay in August, MMOCA will essentially convert its State Street Gallery from a place where art is shown to a place where art is created.

The vast windows along State Street, said Yi, will serve as a sort of “screen” where the audience can witness and participate in real time.

It’s all part of the contemporary art museum’s goal of being a living laboratory for art, Fleischman said. The experience “is partly about the process of creating,” he said, “and the actual movement of the artist in the space.”

Once Yi’s structure is built, visitors to the State Street Gallery will actually step into the installation itself — because the gallery’s three solid walls, covered with tape, are also part of the work.

“As soon as they walk in, they’ll be stepping inside the artwork,” Yi said. “They’re not going to be entering into the sculpture. But the relationship I want to create is that the space between the structure and the tape becomes kind of an alleyway. The space is intimately interconnected.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.