The Breviloquence of Art

Korean Contemporary Art

Lee Ufan is a man who needs no introduction. In the serenity of his work, there is almost a phenomenological reflection behind his paintings. “It is the things themselves, from the depths of their silence, that it wishes to bring to expression.” This utterance from French philosopher Merleau-Ponty quite aptly summarises Lee’s methodology.

It was by chance that Lee Ufan, the octogenarian South Korean native, adopted the lifestyle of a traveler since his family settled down in Japan sixty years ago. Lee lives in the solitude of displacement but he does not suffer from the circumstances. He communicates a similar kind of desolation in his art. Perhaps, in a similar vein to the way Malevich describes his Suprematist composition. Notwithstanding that the comparison limits itself to the Russian counterpart’s search for the “zero degree of form”, Lee’s reflection on the world we inhabit as an artist and as an individual, reveals that he is responsible for his work from ground zero and that all is built in his own solitary existence. In fact, due to his constant travels, Lee translates this sentiment, in a process of maturation and purification, into an artistic element. To borrow Malevich’s words, it may well be “the supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts.”

The Cane of Titan, 2014 – Photo: Fabrice Seixas

Writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, first expressed the philosophical system Objectivism, which revolves around the tenet that reality exists independently of consciousness, in her 1943 book The Fountainhead. Reality is a matter that prevails human cognition. To illustrate this notion, Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943) depicts the dynamic rhythm of Manhattan’s architecture and American jazz, the painting’s construction is in direct conversation with the reality that surrounded the artist at that time. Similarly, Lee recognises the process of fulfilling an expression is, in its nature, an interaction between the exterior and the interior. As such, his creative technique relies on harmonious relationships with space, time and location. As a result, like mercury, Lee adapts to the environment in which he works. In 2014, his solo exhibition took place in the Château de Versailles, a place with which he was not unfamiliar but, that he insisted revisiting to be, once again, inspired by the location, to reify his ideas. His ten works, collectively entitled Relatum, exhibited throughout the palace and the gardens, conversed with the weight of the material surrounding Lee’s made oeuvre. If one chooses to understand Lee’s work by way of Rand’s Objectivist definition of the role of art and looks at The Tomb (2014), the interpretation may be rather convoluted and does not correspond to Lee’s passivity. The artist ruminates on the tension between the conscious and the subconscious, echoing Sigmund Freud’s musing that “the conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun and falling back into the great subterranean pool of subconscious from which it rises.” In his work, Lee suggests that through this pool of subconscious, one comes into contact with the infinite.

Infinity does not equal eternity, as the latter is completely construed by humans. While Objectivism says that in a closed system, humans may come into contact with reality through sense reception, vision is a concept constructed out of the necessity of the human gaze, which is only part of the process of consciousness according to Lee. Like Merleau-Ponty posing doubts on the faith in the perception of the world, in his words, Lee thinks that it is more important to feel art, through the reverberations with the Other, and that what is visible to the naked eye is only an illusion of the invisible world. His canvases, more often than not, consist of one or two coloured brushstrokes, emblematic of his 2016 series Dialogue, his minimalistic composition sets forth “a true reform of the comprehension of reality”. Rather fitting to be exhibited in a large space, Lee’s paintings reveal only a minimal part that is visible and through the conspicuous, spectators feel the things that are invisible filling the space. The artist’s involvement is to crack open a window for the artwork to resonate with its surroundings, with the white walls on which it is hung and with its spectators in the space.

Lee Ufan, 2013 – Photo. Fabrice Seixas

Considered as the pioneer of the Mono-ha movement in Japan through his article Beyond Being and Nothingness – a Thesis on Sekine Nobuo (1969), Lee has personally experienced his artistic impetus in the 1970s, an epoch of political unrest and revolution. Lee attests that at that time, artists carried a self-commitment to their own narratives. This kind of zealousness was and still, is not what Lee’s artistic pursuit entails. Mono-ha is a critique on its predecessor, modernism, and contrasts with the modesty and self-constraint on the canvases and materials of its followers. Lee emphasises the passiveness of his methodology, which runs parallel to Primo Levi’s allegory of the alterity of the single carbon atom and its lonesome journey in Carbonio, a short story in The Periodic Table (1975). A seemingly insignificant affair but necessary as an element of life.

In Asian philosophy, a point is the beginning of everything and a line is the continuation of said point. Everything that is present will disappear and likewise, everything that is absent will reappear. Lee’s work is situated in the middle of the two, manifesting both aspects at the same time.

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