STIR in conversation with Lee Kun-Yong, the Korean avant garde artist

The multi-disciplinary artist - whose performative works in 1970s responded to Korean political environment - talks about his art practice that transcends genres for a holistic style.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : May 03, 2022

The Korean avant-garde artist, Lee Kun-Yong is multi-disciplinary in the truest sense of the term. His practice straddles performance, sculpture, painting, and video works. Kun-Yong rose to prominence in the 1970s in Korea when his work responded to the political environment of the country and the eroding freedom of expression. He went on to form an artist group, Space and Time, to focus on performance art as the genre to express and question through public interventions. One of the most iconic series titled Bodyscape has been a long term and ongoing commitment of Kun-Yong. He began working on this in 1976 and part of it were recently on view at Pace Gallery, Hong Kong. He approaches and makes mark on the surface of the canvas from various angles, exploring his relationship, the physical proximity, and special relationships. “…I use my body as the medium. The paintings display my movements, and sometimes it is the negative space that result in an unintended figurative image…,” he says.

Five Steps, 1975-21, Performance | Lee Kun-Yong | STIRworld
Five Steps, 1975-21, performance Image: Courtesy of Lee Kun-Yong and Pace Gallery

I speak to the artist about his practice and motivations, and his recently concluded solo presentation at Pace Gallery’s Hong Kong space.

Rahul Kumar: How do you place your artistic practice that spans performance, sculpture, installation, and video in the context of contemporary times?

Lee Kun-Yong: For most of my career, I have tried to break free from existing genres, which in the end, hopefully, has resulted in a holistic style that can be understood and empathised with by everyone. I must say, it is a pity I never explored with digital media.

The Method of Drawing 76-4, 2017, Painting, pencil, acrylic on canvas | Lee Kun-Yong | STIRworld
The Method of Drawing 76-4, 2017, painting, pencil, acrylic on canvas Image: Courtesy of Lee Kun-Yong and Pace Gallery

Rahul: Your significant experimentations like the works titled Bodyscape yield bold abstractions that document your body’s movements. How did you develop this style and how do you desire this work to be interpreted by your audience?

Lee: I have always tried to approach painting from an external, objective point of view. I like to focus on the process of painting and drawing, and the Bodyscape series were actually first called The Method of Drawing series – the reason behind this early title was to emphasise the process, the method, the way in which a painting is born. For me, unlike the times where figurative painting was considered the only type of paintings, I like to explore the medium in itself, how the body reacts with it, and how it displays itself as a work of art. Some people look at my Bodyscape 76-3 works and see a heart, and some see wings in my Bodyscape 76-8 works, interpretations that I enjoy, but were never intended: in fact, show they are the result of my body working as the medium.

Five Steps, 1975-21, Performance | Lee Kun-Yong | STIRworld
Five Steps, 1975-21, performance Image: Courtesy of Lee Kun-Yong and Pace Gallery

Rahul: Your early interventions were a commentary on Korea’s authoritarianism and repression of freedom of expression. Please talk to us about that period and how did you employ art to express these thoughts?

Lee: In the early 1970s, I debuted one of my first Event-Logicals (how I term my performances) at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and somehow the government found out about it. Subsequently, I received an official letter from the museum, forbidding me to perform any work, categorising it as ‘pseudo-religious’. After receiving the letter, I gathered my group of acquaintances at a studio, and then burnt the letter on fire, reducing it to just ash. If only I had a copy machine – I would have made copies and performed a performance of a protesting nature! I do regret burning the only original copy of the letter – the museum was probably happy to hear that I had got rid of any evidence of government intervention (laughs). Since that performance, I had people following me. So, it was important that I make performances that wouldn’t attract the government. I transformed mundane actions – walking or simple hand gestures – into works of art. Logic of Hands and Five Steps are examples.

Bodyscape 76-2021, 2021, Painting, acrylic on canvas | Lee Kun-Yong | STIRworld
Bodyscape 76-2021, 2021, Painting, acrylic on canvas Image: Courtesy of Lee Kun-Yong and Pace Gallery

Rahul: How has Space and Time or ST Group, the artist group that you founded, pioneered avant garde art in your country?

Lee: When we first got together, our original purpose was to share art news from around the world. We wanted to learn and share our thoughts on art and culture from other countries. I felt that information and the communication of information was necessary as an artist, especially when there was so much governmental control. For instance, when a work was imported into the country at the time, customs would open the crates and censor everything. And so, because it was so difficult to get information from around the world, we would get together with whatever information we could get our hands on and discuss about it – about other artists, exhibitions, to theories. Eventually, it felt natural to realise these discussions into exhibitions, which is when we formally founded the ST Group. It is natural for an artist to be curious about their peers’ art and their ideologies, but it is essential for an artist to make their own art, which is why I started the ST group. It was our mission to avoid art that was habitually accepted as art throughout history and to create art that exists beyond time. We aimed to create art that would be viewed as a means of communication, a portal that can capture society.

01 min watch Five Steps preview, 1975-21, Performance | Lee Kun-Yong | STIRworld
Five Steps preview, 1975-21, performance Video: Courtesy of Lee Kun-Yong and Pace Gallery

Rahul: In your recent show at Pace Gallery, a large part of your oeuvre displays a simplified execution questioning the essence of art. How are these works questioning the ideas of body and space in context of the object (art work) and viewer?

Lee: For this show, I created both paintings and performances (Five Steps and Relay Life), in which I use my body as the medium. The paintings display my movements, and sometimes it is the negative space that result in an unintended figurative image, for example in Bodyscape 76-2. But it is not the image that is important in my work – it is the way in which it is executed and so it is reduced to the essence of painting.

Bodyscape 76-1-2021, 2021, Painting, acrylic on canvas | Lee Kun-Yong | STIRworld
Bodyscape 76-1-2021, 2021, Painting, acrylic on canvas Image: Courtesy of Lee Kun-Yong and Pace Gallery
Lee Kun-Yong speaks about his work Image: Courtesy of leekunyong79 on Instagram

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