Broken-off tree branches, hanging paper strips and tied stones - at first glance, Seung-Taek Lee’s works may seem like a variant of Arte Povera or a kind of post-industrial reminiscence of natural materials. However, an exploration of the historical context of postwar Korean art reveals hidden layers of meaning informed by the artist’s interests in what he perceives as uniquely Korean traditions.
The genealogy of contemporary Korean art can be traced back to the mid- to late-1950s. A large number of young artists began to graduate from the fine art faculties of newly established and growing universities after the end of the Korean War in 1953. While the notion of ‘fine art’ itself was introduced as a largely Western idea during the period in which the country was under Japanese imperial control (1910–45), it was not until the 1950s that the Korean art community actively and collectively began to explore ideas of Modernism and the Avant-Garde. Born in 1932, Lee is among this first generation of artists to have embraced the idea of experimental practice. The centrepiece of his London exhibition, Paper Tree (1970), consists of 13 persimmon tree branches draped with tightly layered white paper strips of equal length. Part of the artist’s ‘Wind’ series from the late 1960s and ’70s, this work reflects his interest in invisible energy. The paper strips are largely static in the gallery space, only slightly swaying as visitors walk by. The presence of the wind is nominal, but the work’s conceptual emphasis lies in the probability of movements, not in the certainties of material presence. Reminiscent of the pieces of cloth tied to sacred trees in rural villages in pre-industrialized Korea, the work is also a nod to folk tradition. As in several of Lee’s other pieces – and very similarly to the Western, Dada-inspired idea of the readymade – the incidental beauty of non-art objects is key.
Working in diverse media ranging from sculpture and installation to performance and Land art, Lee’s has continuously challenged the established and the conventional. His decidedly subversive approach to materials and methods has led him to re-appropriate everyday objects including wire, rope, stone, paper, fabric and even human hair. In many cases, the physical nature of his medium is consciously altered to appear different: rough-edged stones are carved to seem soft and round, sheets of paper are crumpled and compressed to resemble stones, and pieces of fabric are laid on the ground to look like streams of water. The smaller-scale works included in the exhibition are exemplary of such sleight of hand, as seen in Untitled (1968) and Soft Rock (1964). The inter-changeability and arbitrariness of the chosen media become apparent while the focus of the work is shifted from form to gesture. Fire, smoke and fog are among the other almost immaterial things that Lee has employed in order to question the fundamentals of form. Naturally transformative and elusive, these elements displace the physical and metaphorical stability of the work of art.
Godret Stone (1957) is one of the artist’s earliest pieces, comprising a wooden bar with small round stones strung to it from cords of varying lengths. The title directly references the rocks traditionally used to tie knots when plaiting handcrafted mats in Korea and the formal arrangement also resembles the traditional tool. Lee frequented museums in Korea while studying art, finding unexpected inspiration in the traditional and folk objects that he saw there. The fact that these artefacts are not conventionally viewed as artworks was particularly attractive to the artist in his formative years, during which he developed what could be regarded as an aesthetics of the vernacular.
As interest in, and understanding of, 20th-century non-Western art grows, bodies of work such as Lee’s have become a crucial link, enabling us to discover and re-evaluate diverse iterations of avant-garde practices in different geographical and cultural loci. The familiar European and North American narratives of recent art history are complicated and enriched, and the fundamental interconnectedness of the trajectories of postwar artistic movements is revealed. This exhibition offered a valuable opportunity for a first-time encounter with Lee’s art by an audience less familiar with these contexts. However, a broader and more critically rigorous platform still seems necessary to be able to properly understand and evaluate this prolific and multifaceted artist.