By Jennifer K. Dick
Artist: Seulgi Lee
The lines between visual and performance arts has been growing blurrier these past years, especially when one examines cutting edge explorations such as those by Seulgi Lee, a South Korean artist living in Paris for the past 17 years. After completing her degree at an arts high school in Seoul, Lee came to France to study at the Beaux Arts in Paris. An admirer of Rodin and Claudel, as well as work by Renoir, Lee began her studies at the Beaux Arts in a mosaic studio. For Lee, deciding to participate in this workshop was part of a realization that one could use decorative arts techniques in fine arts work. Thus began a series of transformations towards her own interdisciplinary artistic practice. In her third year at the Beaux Arts, Lee met Jean-Luc Vilmouth who’d just begun teaching in the sculpture studio. “I showed him pictures of garbage cans and other things, things I wasn’t willing to show anyone else, and he made me realize art could be made out of nothing or anything.” Most of the students in Vilmouth’s group –which Lee became a part of– were doing installation and mixed performance pieces at the time, a direction Lee’s work would take.
Given these foundations, one sees how the work Lee has been showing over the past decade here in Paris and in Seoul borrows from the decorative arts in its bright colourings and textures; it is playful, almost giddy at times. For example, a 2005 exhibition at Miss China Beauty Room in Paris showed a sock tree called “weeping willow” alongside a series of almost naïve drawings of single objects floating mid-page. Her installation piece “c” from a show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2001 recalls something from fairy tales or a children’s stage set: out of the edge of a giant grey lump stick live people’s legs (see image). In fact, Lee believes that “children are the most serious of people,” and therefore she tries to get at the elements of childhood which unite all of us. “Everyone a child once, its something we all share,” she explains, and I want to “create relationships with [and between] people” –as well as between objects. This is why she works with what she calls “standard forms” such as blocks and circles, or everyday objects, such as green tea, doors, doorknobs or take out cups.
One should not be fooled, however, by the surface lightness of this work. It exposes its own interrogations of serious issues within playful, unthreatening (or less threatening) space. Take for example the take-out cup and straw in her 2008 solo show “Automatic; homage to the thief” at Colletpark galérie, Paris. This cup’s an object, Lee explains, we just toss away. Yet in her work she connects the cup and a plastic fast food tray via a straw within which water is then circulated “permanently”. This, Lee adds, is opposed to the disposable logic of the object, giving it elements of sustainability, making the material take on a constancy unlike our daily uses for it. Similarly, for the show “B side” from the Do Art Gallery in Seoul, Lee’s “Green Tea” piece linked two solid green cubes with a bar of running green tea. Instead of constructing a real bar between the cubes, she used the flow of liquid. The tea is at the same time more constant and yet also not fabricated like an object, nor solid in the same manner as a bar would have been. As here, Lee is “interested in creating objects where the relationship between them is indirect”. The stream of tea also adds mobility to the work, like a life force connecting the cubes.
When asked whether she thinks about impermanence, or what is left behind (speaking both of people and objects), in relationship to her own migration to Paris, or how people confront others’ leaving, deal with absence, distance or loss, Lee looks stumped and admits that she had not conceived of her work this way. However, she admits, she has moved a lot in her life, even in Paris, and her work does deal with that search for the familiar, or a desire to see the world from another perspective. For example, she sought out difficult to locate round doorknobs for her piece “Porte américaine” (see image) – whereas in France, the doorknobs are typically horizontal levers, the round knob, prevalent in the USA, is also the kind she recalls from her childhood in Korea. This piece is a door with 7 doorknobs, but, as she said, “only one will actually open the door, though many are offered. It’s the idea that we’re given a lot of options but only one works, like in life.”
Lee’s work is also quite political –despite its bright and cheerful camouflage. In fact, the political aspects of her artwork have lead Lee to put herself in positions of risk, such as for her documented performance piece– “Une afghane en Corse”. This piece emerged after Lee saw images of women in Burkas in a metro ad at a time when she was noticing an increasing number of covered women around Paris, and was interested in black hooded protesters in Corsica. In the interest of bringing these intersecting ideas of people covering themselves up or being covered, Lee dressed in bright floral patterns –a small flower motif she later learned is called “liberty”– and hooded herself in a similarly floral scarf in which only two eye holes were cut. Lee then wandered around the island of Corsica, an island covered with tiny, richly perfumed Mediterranean wildflowers. No one would mistake this getup for traditional covering, yet it angered some of the people she came across and even frightened a few. “For me, taking risks in the real world is very important”, Lee explained, which is why she sought out actual protesters to display another political work, the giant yellow banner on which Lee embroidered the word “STRIKE” in French: “GRÈVE” in pink thread. The process of meticulous, time-consuming embroidery was, for Lee, also a response to the idea of striking. For some strikers protest to avoid unemployment, which puts one into a position of having too much time on one’s hands, and in striking one is also not at work. This piece also touched on an element of the feminist idea of women’s work not having value yet being time consuming. Though Lee never managed to get this French banner used in a real demonstration in France, she did manage to have a Korean version in held high at a May 1st parade in Seoul.
Whether you enjoy Lee’s work because it helps you, as she hopes to, “see the world with the eyes of objects” or “see objects are inhabitants of the earth just as human beings are” or you simply laugh at the vibrancy of some childhood echo, this work certainly does reawaken the hidden corner of ourselves where the curious child still resides, strangely evoking the future adult with all of its complicated politics.
Currently, Seulgi Lee’s work is represented by La Galerie Colletpark in Paris and she will be showing alongside Caroline Molusson at la Ferme du Buisson Centre d’Art in Noisiel near Marne-la-Vallée (out on RER A from Paris) from January 24 thru March 29th, 2009.
Jennifer K. Dick is an author (of Fluorescence, Retina, & Enclosures) and teacher (currently at EHESS and Ecole Polytechnique). She co-organizes the bilingual IVY reading series with Michelle Noteboom in Paris which began in a gallery thanks to curator Susie Hollands. Jennifer is now completing her PhD at Paris III on visual uses of the page in poetry: text and image in works by Anne marie Albiach, Myung Mi Kim and Susan Howe.