As one of the first generation of South Korean artists to embrace radical experimentation in art, Seung-Taek Lee has been at the forefront of Korean avant-garde art since the 1950s. Through his diverse and highly individualistic practice, Lee questions established political, social and artistic values, thereby consistently pushing the boundaries of art and culture. While Lee’s artistic experiments range from soft sculpture and site-specific installation to land art and performances, he is best known for his conceptualisation of ‘non-sculpture’ which not only signifies a rejection of values traditionally attributed to sculpture, but also of existing ideas or orders. The works shown in Lee’s first-ever European solo exhibition at MOT international are mainly from the period between late 1950s and early 1970s, which is regarded as the artist’s most experimental phase, resulting in works as Wind from East (1971) and Fire Ceremony (1964).
Lee often works in series, at times by repeatedly using the same materials and at others by revisiting similar motives or concepts: Both Godret Stone (1957) and Paper Tree (1970) belong to Lee’s early binding and wind series respectively. Inspired by the stones traditionally used in tying knots when plating handcrafts mats, Lee created Godret Stone by binding bifurcated stones along the flat and horizontal wooden bar with a cord. Precisely through this practice of binding an object (or combining disparate objects) using a rope, scarf or an iron cord, Lee subverts the natural material properties of the object, challenging the established notion of physical materiality. The precariously hanging stones of Godret Stone appear malleable and ‘squeezable,’ having lost their solid materiality. This effect is heighted to a greater extent in Soft Rock, which is one the largest and most ambitious works from Lee’s binding series. While the subversion of the inherent material qualities serves as a strategy of questioning existing mode of perception, it also expressively visualises a power relationship between the enveloping material and the one being enveloped.
In the 1960s Lee began to experiment with the concept of dematerialisation, extensively working with transient materials such as wind, water, smoke and fire. Paper Tree (1970) and Wind-Folk Amusement (1971) are Lee’s signature works from the wind series, for which the artist used everyday materials such as cloths, papers and vinyl to visualise the sheer force of the wind. Arranged specifically for the space at MOT, the Paper Tree installation derives from a series of Lee’s early outdoor installations where strips of clothes were tied along the tree branches to flutter and billow in the wind, thereby giving form to the transience of nature. The photographic documentation of Wind Folk Amusement ( )dramatically captures the energetic movement of the wind which is visualised by the unravelling and fluttering of an enormous 80 meter long scarlet cloth in the sky. Natural landscape is not only used as a backdrop to his performances and outdoor installations, but nature itself act as an artistic medium.
What this highly eclectic and experimental body of works have in common is their references to Korean traditions and folk sensibilities. Working in the aftermath of the Korean War, Lee actively responded to (or reacted against) the rapid social, political, economic and cultural changes that he witnessed and experienced. With an increasing influx of foreign cultural influences, which has been facilitated by globalisation, Lee sought to introduce art that reflects modernity and cultural identity specific to Korea. One of the ways in which he achieved this was by incorporating traditional objects, rituals and materials that are imbued with the unique history and culture of the nation. For his land art and performance works, Lee even purposely chose historical landmarks such as burial mounds or Han River, the sites which are symbolic of the historical past of Korea as well as the current socio-political situation of the divided nation.
On the other hand, the dense strips of white mulberry papers of Paper Tree which seem to grow out from the broken tree branches, recalls shamanistic rituals which traditionally take place in remote areas near mountains. In fact, Lee’s interest in shamanism and its status as a marginalised folk belief in Korea appears frequently throughout his oeuvre. Lee’s Wind-Folk Amusement performance is yet another example which has a visual reference to Korean folk festivals where colourful flags similar to the scarlet cloths used in Lee’s performance are hung on the trees.
This exhibition thus presents works of an artist who is currently being re-evaluated by the international art scene as arguably one of the most radical and experimental artists in the East Asia region in the 20th century. The show not only brings together Lee’s signature works, but for the first time, it also introduces the untitled series (1968) which are abstract self-portraits of the artist. While Lee’s artworks provide an insight into understanding his experimental artistic practice, they also offer an alternative perspective to the rich and diverse avant-garde art scene in East Asia.