Lee Seung Taek (b. 1932) is a representative figure in Korean experimental art who has continued since the 1950s until today with a prolific body of work spanning installation, sculpture, painting, photography, land art, and performance art. Lee Seung Taek's Non-Art: The Inversive Act is a large-scale retrospective that aims to shed new light on the sixty-year career of an artist who played a pioneering role in transforming Korean contemporary art. The exhibition title Lee Seung Taek's Non-Art: The Inversive Act encapsulates a career spent inverting every kind of object and idea, challenging fixed notions of art. His artistic views are well expressed in his declaration, "My view was inverted. My thought process was inverted. My life in this world was inverted." and through the concept of "non-sculpture" by which he strove to break free of existing sculptural contexts.
In the 1950s, Lee challenged the established grammar of sculpture with his work History and Time; during the 1960s, he began parting ways with sculptural concepts prevalent in the Korean art establishment of the time, immersing himself in new material experiments with everyday items such as earthenware, plastic, glass, wood, and coal ashes. Around the 1970s, he created works with "non-material elements" such as wind, fire, and smoke and rendered locations and situations into artwork;
he used his "tying" work—which involved tying artificial and natural objects with twine—to explore the inherent meaning and value of objects in a new light. Thus challenging and experimenting existing art, Lee arrived at the concept of "non-sculpture" established in 1980. In the mid-1980s, he began broadening the horizons of his interests into areas of human life such as society, history, culture, and the environment, expanding the realm of art through works of performance, large-scale installation, and photo paintings.
The exhibition includes reproductions of major works from the 1960s based on historical materials, as well as restorations of the artist's early works in pursuit of "non-sculpture." Some of Lee's major installations of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Wind and Land Wearing Roof Tiles, have been restaged in the museum's outdoor settings, providing the opportunity for a direct physical experience. The exhibition also illuminates the key influence of shamanism in Lee's work. Numerous photo collages and photographs combined with painting (called "photo paintings" or "photo pictures") are shared from the period between the 1960s and 1990s, in an attempt to newly spotlight the significance of Lee's photography. This exhibition's attempt at "re-reading" the art of Lee Seung Taek—the trailblazer who led the transition of Korean contemporary art by relentlessly traversing the boundaries of material versus non-material, subject versus object, art versus non-art—will hopefully provide an opportunity for affirming the contemporaneity of his art.
1. Experimenting with Materials: Questions about Sculpture
During the 1960s, Lee Seung Taek began challenging the concepts of sculpture as required by the art establishment, pursuing experimentation with new materials and unconventional approaches to installation. He employed new materials ranging from traditional earthenware to industrialization
materials such as glass and plastic and ordinary items such as coal briquettes, steel, lumber and cement—which were not perceived as sculptural materials at the time. Artwork made from these materials would be placed on the ground without a plinth, suspended from the ceiling as formless objects, or stacked up liked a tower—a free approach to installation that marked the beginning of a departure from established sculptural grammar.
Lee's experiments with materials and pursuit of non-sculpture in the 1960s would be presented at exhibitions representing new currents at the time, including Sinsanghoe (New Image Associations, 1962–1963), Wonhyeonghoe (Original Form Association, 1964), Contemporary Artists Exhibition (1968), Korean Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition (1969), and A.G. (1970). Many of them were also exhibited in the form of archival photographs at Lee's first solo exhibition, held in 1971 at the National Public Information Center. For this exhibition, major works from the 1960s have been reproduced based on exhibition materials from the time, and the artist's early experiments are examined anew.
2. String—Tying and Deconstruction: Toward Non-Sculpture
In the work of Lee Seung Taek, "tying" objects with string and twine represents an important non-sculpture aesthetic methodology used by the artist to invert the forms and nature of items and subvert familiar everyday experience. This began with a 1958 work for History and Time in which Lee affixed barbed wire to an object; during the 1960s, he would bind plastic in twine or tie pieces of wood together with fabric. In the 1970s, he mainly began tying objects such as stones, ceramics, female torsos, books, banknotes, and canvas with cords, while also producing the visual effect of movement by repeatedly attaching twine to a canvas. During the 1980s, he expanded the act of tying from objects to spaces, binding branches in fabric or paper and setting up installations in which cords and sticks connected by knots were positioned to match their indoor setting.
The language of tying bears some connections with the ethnological experience of tying things with godret stones and straw rope, but the artist adopts a characteristic ironic approach in which he creates an optical illusion through the inscription of imaginary rope-tying marks on objects to bring about a visual transition or to evoke inferences of objects' hidden aspects and imaginary changes. The tying of ceramics, books, old documents, canvases, and banknotes signifies conceptual resistance to the civilization, discourse, knowledge, artistic establishment, and capitalist system that they symbolize.
At times, the artist would juxtapose the process of tying with an act of deconstruction, deconstructing a canvas frame to attach paper, fraying rope, or untying bundles of bills.
3. Formless Works
Lee SeungTaek began his conception of "formless works" in 1964 with his production of Untitled(Burning Canvases Floating on the River), which depicted canvases that had been set on fire floating down the Han River. "Formless artwork" refers to the incorporation of natural phenomena such as wind, fire, and smoke into artwork; it is characterized by its amorphous and non-material aspects, in that it does not possess a clear shape and disappears with the passage of time.
Beginning with the outdoor installation Wind in 1969, Lee's formless work was truly realized with his production of a monumental 1970 work also titled Wind, which involved suspending blue fabric by a single cord between buildings on the Hongik University campus so that it would flap in the wind. Wind was later presented at the 11th São Paulo Biennial and the 2nd A.G. in 1971. The Wind series is considered among Lee SeungTaek's most representative work, with numerous variations between the 1970s and 2000s. In the artist's words, it represented an expression of "interest in non-materials," and it is intended to "visualize otherwise invisible air" by incorporating twine, rags, and Korean paper.
The artist's interest in non-materiality would reach the point where works such as Untitled(Burning Canvases Floating on the River)(c.1988) and Performance Art of Burning(1989) would stage acts of burning to perform the total destruction of an artwork with physical materiality. "Formless works" can also be seen in Lee's "privatization" series with works such as A Play of Tree Mouth(1968) that achieved completion through intervention in some existing environment or structure without the artist's production of anything.
4. Life, Society, and History
Born in Gowon, Hamgyeongnam-do (part of North Korea today), during the Japanese occupation, Lee Seung Taek traveled to the South during the Korean War and would symbolically represent Korea's division in 1958 with his History and Time. His artistic interest in Korea's modern and contemporary history broadened further in the 1980s as the context of this art came to incorporate the multilayered horizons of life, including society, history, politics, the environment and ecology, religion, and gender. For the artists, topics such as Korean modern and contemporary history (including the Donghak Revolution and Korea's division), the art establishment and cultural authorities, idolized religions, and taboo sexuality were both objects for reflection and topics for irony and "viewing upside down." Aspects of Lee as both an avant-garde artist and a historian can be seen in his major works since the 1990s, including Untitled, Fratricidal War, Last Supper of the Power, and At Last, Art Has Been Garbage.
By the mid-1980s, the artist's interests would also begin to encompass the environment and ecology. The works in his series Artist Planting Moss and Greening Campaign (Making Hills Green), as well as the Earth Performance series that was executed in various countries such as Korea, Japan, and China, incorporate a message about ecological recovery—healing damaged nature and restoring our planet.
5. Action, Process, and Painting
Lee Seung Taek's works of painting emphasize the artist's performance and process, as well as a vivid sense of life in its immediacy as seen in his Scorched Painting series, in which traces of
burning were incorporated as part of the work, or his Water Painting series, which fully expressed the process of transformation as water was allowed to flow. Representative examples of this include his Performance Art of Burning exhibition in 1989 and To Encounter Others (Kassel) in 1992, for which he produced paintings on the scene and set fire to them to leave behind the traces; and his Performing at Jeongrim building Deconstruction Event in 1995, in which he allowed paint to flow over canvases placed over on the building's walls and floors so that its traces would drip down to form water paintings. The Sea of Mountain Peak, which only reached completion through a performative process in which a painted image of waves was carried up a mountain, offers an excellent illustration of Lee Seung Taek's unique ironic aesthetic, which substitutes the sea with a mountain.
6. Shamanism and Non-Sculpture at the Crossroad
In 1986, Lee Seung Taek held a solo exhibition at Hu Gallery under the title Lee Seung Taek: Non-Sculpture. Consisting of installation work in which red, blue, and black cloths and pillars bound with twine are hung on the walls or placed on the floor, it evokes a shamanistic atmosphere that is odd and eerie. The artist has mentioned that the blue and red in his installation work represents yin/yang ideas of masculine and feminine, water and fire, and heaven and earth; the black and red borrows from the blankets of the old working class and their regional colors imbued with poverty and feelings of injustice, and the red paintings are metaphorical representations of ominous death and the gateway to the afterlife in his essay "Shamanism and Non-Sculpture at the Crossroad" in the exhibition catalogue. The shamanistic world woven into our lives served as a wellspring for Lee's artistic concept of "non-sculpture."
Adopting early on the idea that the "most ethnological is the most global," Lee Seung Taek has maintained an ongoing interest in tradition, tales, folk practices, and shamanism, incorporating Korean folk items and traditional motifs such as godret stones, stone pagodas, earthenware, shrines, urns, and tiles in his work and regarding them as the roots of non-sculpture. His work Tale was created in the 1950s based on traditional totem poles; his earthenware work from the 1960s, drew inspiration from traditional urns and crocks, while his significant Wind series in the 1970s was inspired by the colorful flags of ocean fishing rituals and the fluttering of fabric strips suspended from seonghwangdang shrines. The shamanistic energy that predominates throughout Lee's work serves as an important source in his departure from modern sculptural concepts of the West and progression toward the world of non-sculpture, the world of heterogeneity deemed by Lee as "inversive."
7. Between Photography and Painting
Since the 1960s, Lee Seung Taek has gone beyond the idea of photography-as-record to experiment with the various possibilities of photography by creating collage and painting works in which a different photograph is placed over a developed photograph. With photographic works representing the main items exhibited at his first solo exhibition in 1971, the photographic medium has held a meaning for the artist beyond that of "recording."
In addition to composing new images by combining background spaces with images in a kind of photo montage approach, Lee has also contributed a sense of immediacy to his spaces by placing himself within the angle of the image in order to establish or exaggerate a work's size. Since the 1980s onward, the artist produced a large body of photo paintings (photo pictures), venturing into mountains or seascapes as in Drawing Falls or Drawing Wave on the Sand to photograph a performance, eventually drawing over the printed image. These photo pictures created a virtual space for the artist to achieve his unfinished projects.
Additionally, Lee Seung Taek's photograph combining photographs with other images generate an unfamiliar effect, which results from the collision between two disparate images. For example, the photo picture Villa of Artist, in which a pile of wood has been photographed and colored over, transforms an ordinary scene into a setting for conceptual art. Juxtaposing photography with painting, reality with fiction, his unique works of photography encompass the artist's unique "upside down aesthetic," which uses fiction to interrogate truth.