La multi ani, Mihai A!
A modest encounter in line with ecstasy is how renowned Korean born artist Lee Ufan, 75, describes his unrestricted and infinite art. Ranging from painting and sculpting to writing and philosophy, Ufan’s endeavors are endless and groundbreaking, as he penetrates the contemporary art world through his spiritual ways.
But that is not what makes him unique. Rather it is his desire to showcase “the jargon of the universe” as well as his methodology of linking words and art as one – an ongoing dialogue and unity between art forms and people.
In an exclusive interview for GALO, Ufan brings light to his art, explains his love for literature, and tells us his most memorable moment at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, whilst preparing for his ongoing Marking Infinity exhibition.
GALO: When did your interest in art first develop?
Lee Ufan: From my childhood, I learned to draw and paint. But as I grew older, I started showing more interest in literature, to the point where I wrote my own novels. Meanwhile, I also took [an interest in] music, on which I worked with deep concern, so I once wanted to become a composer. It is due perhaps to my countryside background that I was slightly timid, which made me lean more toward art instead of other areas.
GALO: Why did you decide to pursue this interest professionally?
LU: It was probably the difficulty of language that stood between me and my willingness to achieve something in literature, and naturally, art became my main activity of concern. I, of course, chose visual art out of all other art forms, but the imaginative power that generated a force of drive in working at it sustained me throughout my life as an artist.
GALO: In your biography it says that you studied painting at the Seoul National University’s College of Fine Arts for two months, at which point you transferred to Nihon University in Tokyo and majored in philosophy. Why did you leave your studies in Korea for those in Japan, and why did you not continue studying the Fine Arts, while in Japan, and instead chose philosophy?
LU: The choice to study art in university was enforced by my entourage, rather than my own will. There it became tedious. During those days, I had an order from my father to deliver some oriental medicine to my uncle who was at the time suffering from a serious illness. As I arrived in Japan, I was convinced by him to study in Japan. My compliance with the recommendation took me to the philosophy department of a university, where I fell in love with reading and contemplation.
GALO: Has this elicited a challenge for you within the art community?
LU: It was indeed my knowledge and groping in philosophy that allowed me to sublimate my thinking into an expressive form in art, but there is also the factor of perception that directs and projects my thinking into the world. It certainly requires the strength of learning, bodily practice and understanding, to command a respectable work of expression.
GALO: Has your knowledge of philosophy helped you with your artwork? Has it helped with your creativity and understanding of art?
LU: If a work of art goes just as far as [an] extent of its expression of [a] idea per se, there is simply no joy in working. My learning and thoughts on various philosophèmes were for certain of a great importance in my inquiries into higher and deeper dimensions. But what is more crucial in such [a] stance of an artist is not [very] much ingrained in the idea itself, but the attitude which has to be philosophical.
GALO: Is there a particular philosopher who you most admire and that has inspired you?
LU: Among the thinkers I was influenced by, there are: Heraclitus, Lao-tze and Zhuangzi, as well as Kant, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Kitaro Nishida.
GALO: What does art mean to you?
LU: Art is the spiritual provision that enlightens one on the next level of sublimity of life.
GALO: Describe your creative process. What do you like to do before you start working on a project? During? Any rituals?
LU: I collect my senses calmly and draw long, deep breaths for quite a while, then gather all the equipment needed for working, which raises the level of concentration.
GALO: What materials do you usually like to use when painting? When sculpting?
LU: For painting, there are custom-made canvases, colors, brushes, as well as my hands, which in their predetermined plan are all appositive. As for my sculptures, I use natural stones that are commonly existent around us, and steel plaques, rendering them in a term of relationship. And it is in such relationships between the industrial and the natural that I would like the spectators to perceive, [affectionately] the infinity.
GALO: How does it feel to have a retrospective of your artwork showcased at one of the most prestigious museums in the world – the Guggenheim?
LU: One memorable point of exhibiting at [the] Guggenheim was the entrance leading to the interior that creates a curving upward slope, a trait that distinguishes it from the conventional White Cube. The challenge was to make sure that my works [would] blend into this particular environment. However, such instability was to be availed of, and there exists direct sensation that can be [awakened] closer to our bodies, making it a very [stimulating] exhibition.
GALO: I read somewhere that last October you were picking out stones in Long Island, especially around the Hamptons area, for your present exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. What specifications were taken under consideration when you were selecting them? What were you envisioning?
LU: The point is definitely not to exhibit some handsome looking stones that are pleasing to see. The standard of choice was based on how neutral they looked as a natural being. I look for the sense of temporality that it holds as an existential marvel, radiated from stones. Perhaps upon occasions, stones and plaques could come into my mind after a certain concept occurs to my awakening, or it could be the concept that sets up the ground for a new work. All these call upon each other to be evoked.
GALO: I believe that there are approximately 90 of your works on display at the Guggenheim right now, ranging from your paintings and drawings to your sculptures. Is there one that you would say is your favorite or perhaps one that has an interesting story behind it that you feel especially connected with?
LU: There is a raison d’être [reason for being] and a story for every work that I do. But if I were to pick one example, it would be the wall painting, the working duration and the amount of work for which was the most challenging amongst others. One staff member, from the installation team, called the room “lofty” with the hands posed on the chest.
GALO: What do you hope that viewers will take away by viewing your diverse artwork at the Guggenheim? Is there a particular message that you strive to get across through your art?
LU: I hope that the spectators will try to sense the work with all parts of their body before attempting to give personal interpretations right away. In today’s [world], it is easy to consign the importance of works of art and their visual aspects to utterance and communication. This is of course not harmful to the nature of art, but it is my personal belief that an exhibition would radiate a vibrating resonance to the people who perceive it: between body and the space.
GALO: You have written a few books on your artwork and philosophy, including poetry. Why is this form of expression of importance to you? Does it derive from your love of literature and your past desire to study it while in college?
LU: I still do hold [admiration for] the power of literature. That means that my works are poetic representations. If I decide to write, rather than produce artwork, it is because [of] the need to choose words over visual art forms, or because I think that words are better suited for the expression conceived. But in either case, art for art’s sake, or literature for letter’s sake, is not relevant to such statement.
GALO: You were one of the founders and the leader of the Mono-ha earth-art movement. I understand there is an interest and idea of blending nature and art together in it. Could you explain what the Mono-ha movement is in relation to art?
LU: One would be mistaken if Mono-ha was taken as integration between nature and art” — it was an endeavor to deconstruct modern art. In other words, it wasn’t absolutism of the so-called “almighty,” but a movement that contains the self and connects what is not made. As a result, this sort of thought leans toward more ecological conception in criticizing mass-production cultures.
GALO: In the past you were fighting as an artist and a political activist for various issues, including the approach to de-westernization. Is there anything that you are still fighting for presently?
LU: In my youth, I stood up against the military regime of (the third and fourth – translator’s note) Korea Republic and took part in reunification movements, and even composed a few words for them and participated in theater pieces. This has not so much in relation with the concept of de-westernization, but rather with overcoming the modern in the most global way possible. This thought has certainly had a lot of obstacles to surmount. Naturally my focus became concentrated more on the aesthetic dimensions of modernity than on socio-political ones. Every now and then, I am received as a blind supporter of Orientalism, but this is not true: I’d say I am neither Orientalist nor Europeanist, but am what I am as Lee Ufan.
GALO: Describe your art in three words.
LU: Modest, encounter, ecstasy.
GALO: You’ve been creating art for many years. What inspires and motivates you to produce new artwork?
LU: One would always need the power to perceive objects or the world in new ways, as well as ideas and courage that can enable [one] to sublimate it.
GALO: Do you believe that artistic creativity is something that one is born with or something that can be learned?
LU: Artistic sensitivity exists in everyone in one form or another. It sometimes reveals itself through creativity brought about by a certain moment of opportunity. Normally people do get moved by the beauty of a flower or a high mountain, but such appreciation does not necessarily expand to another generalized [and] sustained dimension.
GALO: How do you perceive the art of today in relation to that of classical artists and that of your own? Is there something that you particularly dislike?
LU: All artists who stand on the fine borders of today are great in their own right. It was relatively uncomplicated, and very often credulous, to create a new current and to become massively prevalent in the art world; whereas today, artistic motives and styles are extremely multifarious, in other words, it is a time of infinite variety. On the contrary, to making a point on artists, it is the sloppy curators who put out tag lines or prematurely determined propositions.
GALO: Many people say that art is universal and holds no boundaries or lines that divide it from country to country. Do you believe this statement to be true? Or do you think that there are certain differences that cannot be understood without at least a basic knowledge of a country’s history and culture?
LU: I have frequented many different geographical locations thus far, where I have also as a result experienced difficulties and hardships. Perhaps with this fact acting as a cause, anything in the nature of nationalism, racialism, and even globalism doesn’t interest me at all. As historic thinkers like Kant would affirm, art has to, first of all, resolve through the self. At the same time, considering my background of youth, my memories from those days have gotten into [my] DNA. One should however note the risk of dogmatism, which can easily come about and be dangerous, if one attempts to rationalize it.
GALO: In past interviews, you mentioned that you do not wish to follow the rules of the modern art world today because you do not want to be constrained by them; you want to be free. Could you elaborate on this?
LU: Even as one criticizes the modern, it is harbored and lurks everywhere in my environment. This means that critique toward Modernism redirects itself onto the person criticizing, but at the same time it is a manifestation of one’s own desire for the unknown of the future. If Modernity gives us the world of the internal via Ego, our contemporaneity proposes the world of the external through the relationship between the Self and the Other.
GALO: You have described your art as “the art of encounter.” Please explain what you mean by this.
LU: If a work of art is to be seen and determined as a solidified meaning, it is simply not fun at all. The circulation of meaning should be allowed to flow in different vectors, like in a room with its two windows wide open on each side. Similarly in work-viewer relationship, there must be a sense of vibrating resonance of encounter. Encounter then, is a sort of shaking, as well as [a] new birth.
GALO: Is there one museum, gallery or country that you have not yet exhibited at, but wish you could? If yes, which one and why?
LU: There is plenty. But oddly enough, something tells me that I am longing to open an exhibition [on] some anonymous planet. By this, I want spectators to respond to my exhibitions, so that they see a glimpse of the jargon of the universe.
GALO: What are your artistic plans for the near future?
LU: My next goal is to sublimate my present works to a higher platform of dimension.
GALO: Lastly, what piece of advice would you give to those who are just starting out and trying to make a difference in the art world today?
LU: The grand tendency of today’s art world is to contradict the idea of ‘body’ and ‘time.’ My interest is in looking at how it will develop.
The Breath of a Margin
The artworks I create are all tapestries of intimate breathing between me and the world. Therefore, seeing is not the confirmation of an object but a quiet concert of breathing between the work, the world, and the viewer.Blum & Poe is pleased to present the first West-coast U.S. gallery exhibition of internationally acclaimed artist Lee Ufan. Achieving critical praise at the 52nd Venice Biennale for his exhibition, Resonance at the Palazzo Palumbo Fossati in 2007, Lee has held major retrospectives at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (2009), Yokohama Museum of Art (2005), Musée d’Art Moderne de Saint-Étienne Métropole (2005), Kunstmuseum Bonn (2001), and Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris (1997). Lee has received many prestigious awards including the Praemium Imperiale prize in painting in 2001 and UNESCO Prize in 2000. He has served as a visiting professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and professor of art at Tama Art University in Tokyo from 1973 to 2007. A collection of Lee’s writings was recently published in The Art of Encounter (Lisson Gallery, 2008).
The show will present a historical survey of paintings and works on paper from 1974 to the present that include the artist’s key series, From Line, From Point and With Winds, which demonstrate the development of a breath-like repetition of a gestural act over time. The exhibit will also showcase Dialogue (2007–present), a series of recent large-scale oil on canvas paintings together with three sculptural installations (including one displayed outdoors) from his Relatum (2008) series that combine natural stones with industrially-produced steel plates to explore perception as a symptom of both the materiality and immateriality of space.
Lee Ufan’s career encompasses a spectrum of activity ranging from artist, philosopher, and poet. Born in Korea in 1936 and emigrating to Japan in 1956, Lee obtained a degree in philosophy at Nihon University in 1961 and became widely known as the key ideologue of the critical late-1960s Japanese artistic phenomenon, Mono-ha (School of Things). In dialogue with post-minimalist practices, Lee’s work developed out of Mono-ha’s tenet to explore the phenomenal encounter between natural and industrial objects such as glass, rocks, steel plates, wood, cotton, light bulbs, and Japanese paper in and of themselves arranged directly on the floor or in an outdoor field. What has distinguished Lee is his refined technique of repetition as a studied production of difference developed over time in both his painting and sculptural practice.
A key device that guides Lee’s working method is the notion of lived time (the perpetual passage of the present) through the flux between the visible (actual) and invisible (virtual) both in the production and the reception of his work. This process begins with the rhythm involved in the preparation of each work: the strict choice of materials, the consciousness of each breath and bodily stance, and the strict positioning and application of each material element. Lee’s Relatum series come out of a rigorous search for the precise stone to juxtapose industrially-produced, weathered steel plates, which are at times scattered around the floor to form a capacious field, leaned toward each another like an embrace, or propped against a wall with the steel acting as a screen-like shadow bringing forth the stone’s bodily profile. This sense of movement is also carried in his paintings, which begin by mixing mineral powdered pigments (cobalt blue, orange, and more recently blue-grey) with glue and choosing an appropriate brush to apply onto a large white canvas. Through the continuous repetition of a gestural act in From Line, From Point, and With Winds, Lee loads his brush with mixed pigment and begins applying a single linear stroke or point onto the canvas one by one until the pigment has faded and repeats this process in an orderly fashion. The empty space deliberately left on the white canvas or wall seen especially in his most recent Dialogue series, as well as the light, air and shadows that fall in and around his objects in Relatum are integral to the work’s breath-like contraction and expansion of matter, embodied for example in the thousands of years of erosion the stone has endured and passes forth to our present moment.
Lee has thus followed what one might call an ethics of duration: activating a passage for the viewer to perceive what lies before and around us, even the objects and spaces that are invisible to the eye, as co-existing entities that are brought together to form an affective relationship. Lee has named his practice the art of margins, or yohaku, the resonance between the visible and not visible, the made and unmade, that permeates and reverberates one’s surroundings like a resounding echo or tidal flow. In the artist’s words,
Yohaku (margins) is not empty space but an open site of power in which acts and things and space interact vividly. It is a contradictory world rich in changes and suggestions where a struggle occurs between things that are made and things that are not made. Therefore, yohaku transcends objects and words, leading people to silence, and causing them to breathe infinity.One can trace this idea of yohaku back to 1969, when Lee staged an ephemeral work consisting of three large sheets of Japanese paper fluttering in the wind, entitled Things and Language outside of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and later placed directly on the gallery floor as part of the “Ninth Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan.” The ephemerality of this event (a happening) brings to light both the modernist critique of the permanence of the work of art as well as the object as a symptom of the physicality of its surrounding environment, issues also fundamental to post-minimalist practices in the West. In direct response to the eschewal of traditional conceptions of sculpture in particular, Lee envisions the radical destruction of the art object as an objectified medium for signification and expression, and rather focuses on seeking an open, relational structure that activates the limits of our senses and perception. For example, in Phenomenon and Perception B (1968) presented later that year at the “Trends in Contemporary Art” at the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, a natural stone was placed on a plate of “broken” glass to create the illusion that the stone had been dropped onto the plate, capturing the discord between chance and intention (a nod to and reversal of Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass). Later renamed Relatum (the title given to all of his sculptures up until the present), Lee began exploring the phenomenal encounter between organic and industrial materials and its surrounding environment. As he states, “A work of art, rather than being a self-complete, independent entity, is a resonant relationship with the outside. It exists together with the world, simultaneously what it is and what is not, that is, a relatum.” Here we see how yohaku has its direct roots in the Relatum experiments by re-conceiving the breakdown of the object as a durational form of co-existence between the actuality and potentiality of elements (i.e. ephemerality, chance vs. intention, and relational structure). This idea of duration as a form of ethics is developed not only through his artistic practice, but also in his writings. It was during this time when Lee began publishing his ideas in a series of now seminal articles, which were subsequently compiled into a book entitled, Deai o motomete (The Search for Encounter) (1971).
Lee’s works thus operate as a process of perceiving a perpetually passing present and opens the materiality of the work beyond what is simply seen. Like a shadow, the works make visible the passage of time it profiles. And through this synthesis, each work presents a temporal structure that mediates a phenomenological encounter among viewer, object, and site. This cycle of duration can thus be seen as a mode of eternal recurrence that bind the seemingly opposing elements of destruction and continuity, detachment and relationality, finitude and infinite expanse present in Lee’s oeuvre as a solemn affirmation of life.