To fulfill its ongoing mission of preserving and sharing the history of Korean contemporary art, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon created the Korean Contemporary Artists Series. This series provides an in-depth look at the work of leading artists who have actively supported and advanced the field of Korean contemporary art. The latest entry in this series is LeeKun-Yong in Snail’s Gallop, presenting the work of LeeKun-Yong, one of Korea’s representative avant-garde and experimental artists. For more than forty years, Lee has significantly expanded and diversified the ecosystem of Korean contemporary art with his relentless spirit of originality and experimentation.
Beginning of Relationship
In his early works, Lee Kun-Yong explored fundamental questions about the nature of art: What is painting? What is sculpture? What is the essence of an artwork, and where is that essence located? Using his imagination as transit, he set off on a journey into the past. Through his series of thought-experiments, he conveyed his realization that painting is nothing more than the rendering of an illusion on a flat surface, and that sculpture begins when natural objects are somehow manipulated by human hands. For Lee, this moment of rediscovery represented nothing less than the rebirth of art. It is not uncommon for contemporary artists to present objects that do not immediately strike us as artworks. Such objects only emerge as artworks through the coexistence of the object, the exhibition space, and the viewers. In such situation and in such space, the works of Lee Kun-Yong enter into a relationship with you, the viewers, and through this relationship, artworks are born. Then, through those artworks, we are engaged to contemplate the natural world and human action, with particular focus on the infinite interactions between the two.
Lee Kun-Yong utilizes various media to invoke the close relationship between painting and performance. After all, every painting is the direct result of the physical actions of the painter. By the mid- to late twentieth century, artists were actively exploring the physical process of applying paint to a canvas. Some painters laid the canvas on the floor and splashed paint across it, while others poked holes in the canvas, or even tore completely through the canvas in order to paint the rips and shreds. Lee Kun-Yong similarly experimented with new and unconventional methods of painting. Traditionally, a painter stands and faces the canvas, but Lee questioned why a painter must assume such position in order to create. Thus, he placed himself to the side or behind the canvas, turned his back on the canvas, or laid the canvas on the floor. The resulting paintings are enriched by the resonance left behind from the limited and controlled conditions of his body position. Through these works, which are the direct outcome of his various performances, Lee was able to invent a new and unique vocabulary of painting.
Art Also Perishes
According to the popular aphorism, “life is short, art is long.” However, Lee Kun-Yong puts his own provocative twist on this adage, declaring instead that “life is short, art is also short.” Many of Lee’s works consist of physical performances and activities, so they exist only a short time during the actual performance. Such works remain only through the visual traces captured in photos and videos, or through memories. Lee’s statement that “art is also short” refers to the ephemeral nature of his works, but also conveys his belief in the interconnectedness between life and art. For Lee, art is found not only on the walls of an exhibition space, but also on the floor, the ceiling, and everywhere else. Indeed, art exists in every person’s daily life, even in the most mundane everyday activities. Some of his works directly relate the stories embedded in scenes from our lives, while others visualize the myriad connections between nature and art. Lee’s intense interest in art and life is presented as a trajectory that he slowly and steadily paints.