Joan Kee describes Lee Ufan (b. 1936) as “…a champion of the global before the global turn actually came to pass.” (Kee, 2011). Lee is regarded as a leading figure of not one, but two art movements, in Japan and his native Korea. In his initial literary capacity, he wrote the manifesto for the Mono-ha movement in Japan, and he influenced what later became known as Dansaekhwa in Korea. Both of which are regarded to be amongst the most significant practices of 20th century art in East Asia (Morley, 2013). If we were to simplify, Lee’s sculpture would be more representative of Mono-ha, while his painting (see fig. 1.) would come to be more identified with Dansaekhwa.
After moving to Japan, Lee’s studies into philosophy brought him into contact with Western theorists such as Martin Heidegger. Together with his rural upbringing in Korea; where he learnt classical skills such as calligraphy, Lee synthesised a variety of global influences into the theory of Mono-ha. Although the resulting artwork itself doesn’t have any visible political connotations; Mono-ha was a methodology of de-westernisation and de-modernisation in reaction to this increasing influence on Japanese life and culture in the 1960s.
The Mono-ha artists explored ‘encounter’ using both natural and industrial materials (see fig. 2.), arranging them in a temporal state of dialogue. Lee’s sculpture works are an arrangement of two materials; stone and metal (iron, steel, etc.). The interaction between man made object and natural takes a minimalist formation. Lee describes them by saying “I bring out what I find in my surroundings and hold a dialogue with the environment.” (Blackwood, 2012).
Lee takes the view that there is no meaning in his work, but being in the presence of his work the viewer is placed “…at this starting point of experience.” (Blackwood, 2012).
The ideas within Dansaekhwa were later conceived, when Lee started returning to painting and his time was less solely dedicated to Japan. It is a non-figurative style that came to being during the 1970s in Korea, in a period also of political tension. Dansaekhwa means ‘monochrome painting’ in Korean. While aesthetically similar to Western abstraction, Lee sought to invert the notion of Modernism, stating “In modernist art, the artist is completely in charge of making his work. This is similar to the view that a country or society can be ruled by one idea. I want to keep myself out of the way as much as possible.” (Blackwood, 2012).
As a result, the rhythm that can be perceived in Lee’s seminal works From Line and From Point are more harmonious than orderly (see fig. 3.). “As in ink painting, formations continue to be imagined despite their material absence...” (Kee, 2008, p.418). It is in Lee’s work that the fusion between Western minimalism and the traditional application of ‘the void’, or negative space in East Asian art combine. Lee manages to modernise the Korean aesthetic, making its contemporaneity relevant on the global stage, but he also remains deeply rooted in the traditions of his native culture.
There is neither a singularity or polarity to his work, but what Simon Morley describes as ‘non-dualism’ in the hybridity of influences and in the individual experience of each viewer. In spite of all the theory, Lee managed to reduce his work down, saying that “By limiting the amount of ‘making’ I tried to come close to ‘not-making’.” (Blackwood, 2012). This sophisticated simplicity is based on the desire for the viewer not to be influenced by anything superficial, as Joan Kee says “With their non-referential application of pigment, Lee's paintings owe no debt to the incorporation of symbols or signs whose meanings are derived and perpetuated by the world outside of the painting.” (Kee, 2008, p.417). Although this is not forced, it is the responsibility of the viewer to make any ‘encounter’ possible.
The particular relevance of Lee to my BoW was introduced in my last post, but he is important in informing CS also. Lee and Dansaekhwa have more articulated connections between the cultural identity of Korea, and the influence of Western work, which is the point I am considering in my current research of the New Wave photographers from Korea in the 1980s.
Kee, J (2008) ‘Points, Lines, Encounters: The World According to Lee Ufan’. In: Oxford Art Journal, 31(3), pp 405-424
Kee, J (2011) ‘Contemporaneity as Calculus’. In: Third Text, 27(2), pp 563-576
Kee, J (2011) ‘Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity’. In: Artforum International, 49(9), pp132+
Morely, S (2013) ‘Dansaekwha’. In: Third Text, 25(5), pp 189-207
Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity (excerpt) [interview online] Michael Blackwood (2012) 3 mins At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1qZflfKiN0 (Accessed on 30.11.18)
Studio Lee Ufan (no date) Available at: http://www.studioleeufan.org (Accessed on 30.11.18)
List of illustrations
Figure. 1. Lee, U (1978) From Line [Glue, stone pigment on canvas] At: http://www.studioleeufan.org/main/ (Accessed on 30.11.18)
Figure. 2. Lee, U (1990) Relatum [Iron, stone] At: http://www.studioleeufan.org/main/ (Accessed on 30.11.18)
Figure. 3. Lee, U (1976) From Point [Glue, stone pigment on canvas] At: http://www.studioleeufan.org/main/ (Accessed on 30.11.18)