Lee Ufan - Encounters with 'the world as it is'

ECC Collection
Oct 6, 2017 6:26PM

Lee Ufan (* 1936 in Seoul, Korea) has lived in Japan since 1965. In the late 1960s and 1970s, he was the spokesman of the important Mono-ha ['school of things'] movement. Encounters are crucial in his works that address relationships between the elements that make up the works and between the works, the space that surrounds them, and the viewer. Lee Ufan lives and works in Kamakura, Japan, and Paris, France.

Karlyn de Jongh and Lee Ufan

Lee Ufan and his work 'Dialogue' - 2008.

Lee Ufan, Dialogue, 2008. Oil on canvas, 3 canvases, each 41 x 33 cm - overall installed 41 x 109.2 cm, Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, © Lee Ufan, courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

Art Project #06 "Encounters" with Lee Ufan

Conversation between Lee Ufan, Karlyn de Jongh & Peter Lodermeyer - Lee Ufan studio, Paris, France, 16 January 2009.*


Peter Lodermeyer: Karlyn de Jongh and I would like to talk with you about what you call 'the encounter with otherness'. (...) For me, 'the enounter with otherness', is an interesting subject: we both speak to each other now in a language that is not our own native language. This means that we always have to find words that do not really express what we want to say. One could generalize it and say that this always happens in communication because everybody uses words in his or her personal way.

Lee Ufan: In the western world, the perception of an 'encounter' is orginally defined as communication with God; it is like a correspondence, but I do not want to start with such a difficult and complicated subject. I would like to approach this discussion simply as a talk about an encounter in a very normal way, such as when people meet other people, or when we see the moon, or when you meet a beautiful woman, or an encounter with an incident. In fact, it starts with facing each other, which is simultaneously a passive and active encounter. In a sense, this concept is not necessarily about verbal communication. Also it is about the differences in meaning between East and West.

I was born in Korea and went to Japan when I was nineteen years old. I have lived in Japan for a long time now. I've walked around in many different countries, but wherever I am, I am a foreigner. all the time. I am a stranger, and due to this, my ability to communicate is disrupted: this is turn brings discomfort, and leads to misunderstandings. I have lived under these circumstances for a long time: thet is 'encounter' for me. (...) Encounter is dealing with others; it is a very simple thing.

Karlyn de Jongh: Do you mean that you want the viewer to experience your work in a more direct and pure way, without too much knowledge up front?

LU: Meaning and knowledge are just tools, that is all. 'Encounter' starts in the very moment of contact at a location - this is most important. The 'tools' are needed later on, so that is why it is sometimes disturbing to experience the encounter. (...) [Encounters] are outside of myself. It starts form the outside and then I am going to expand my own inside. To look at modern art needs knowledge. We require knowledge of history to understand classical art. If we do not know about Christianity and Greek mythology, we cannot understand western art. When I just look at the painting itself, I cannot understand it at all, it requires a broad depth of prior knowledge. Modern art also has many rules and artists are creating works by using those rules. I want to be very different from those rules; I want to be free. This is why I want to have reactions from African, American, European and Asian people (...) The meaning does not matter, but I want to have these fresh moments; they are very important for me.

PL: When I look at your sculpture that, for instance, consists of a stone and a plate of steel; it is seemingly simple. On the other hand, once you become aware of the situation it becomes complex. In a way, there is an encounter between the steel plate and the stone, but when you look at it there is an encounter between me, as a viewer, and the artwork; it becomes even more complex. At the same time, the surrounding space counts and there in an encounter with it, too.

LU: Simple and complex exist at the same time. This is the character of the encounter, the 'intermediate section'. It is not just an encounter with my work; I have an encounter with the world. Iron and even steel have existed since ancient times, but a steel plate is made in an industrial society. A stone is not man-made (...) stones are from nature, and a steel plate is industrial. I have thought about what the viewers can feel and see. I try to make the viewer feel the combination of things, those made by our industrial society and those that are from nature.

I don't just make massive objects; I create space: 'Ba'. All my works involve space and time; these are precisely my subject matter. Normally, in modern art, the work is the object itself. My art is not a painting and not a sculpture. (...) I create space: 'Ba' and 'being there'.


PL: In one of your texts you mentioned that there should be some strangeness in a work of art and especially in sculpture. What do you mean by 'strangeness'?

LU: There exist unknown characteristics outside of muself and the community. This, in fact, is 'Otherness'. Humans want to perceive and understand this with all the knowledge gained from Modernism. But in reality, you feel a distortion, a gap between knowledge and reality. (...) [This gap] is an unknown character. An unknown character always invites me to learn more about things in one or another way. (...) Constantly being with the world that is unknown means that there are a lot of variables. It happens outside of myself: that's why I can only understand the inside of myself, but because of that which exists outside of me, there is an unknown.

PL: What I find interesting is what you said about the body as interface between 'me and the outside world'. The otherness starts with the body because it is something we can never understand completely. There is a strong physical presence in your work. Can you tell me a bit more about the importance of the body in making your work and in receiving it?

LU: The meaning of 'body' is perceived differently in the Asian and the Western world. In English, the word 'body' simply means 'flesh and blood', but in Japanese, Korean and Chinese it has a more extensive meaning. The body itself is not just 'myself', it inclused the relations with the outside. In its contact with the outside, the body becomes something 'in the middle', or 'in between'. So, when you use your body as a channel, contact with the outside goes well. It does not go well when you want to contact your surroundings only with knowledge. When I make a painting, I use my body as a channel, so I paint with my body. That I paint with my body means that it contains not only my knowledge, it contains much more. It is very important that the body contains more things than knowledge. I think, Peter, you do not fully understand my meaning. The body is influenced by its reltions with its surroundings: I do not completely 'own' it just by myself. I paint my relation to the outside naturally through this intermediate connection. My body is not mine, and my body is not just inside or outside, it is inbetween. This is very important.

KDJ: If you control everything, it seems difficult to have an encounter, because in that case nothing seems to come back to you. Do you need the openness for an encounter to take place?

LU: Each time I give an answer, I ask myself: 'should I do this, or should I do that?' When I am painting, I also have small encounters: a feeling of subtlety, questions and other things comes up. It seems that you confuse 'encounter' with 'pure continuity'. 'Encounter' is non-continuous: always changing. It is important that it is a passive and active thing. That is the reason why I want to paint a multitude of seemingly the same paintings, endlessly. For me, perfection does not exist, nor does a work that can be controlled one hundred percent. I cannot know what will happen at the moment I start working in a certain location.


KDJ: Do you see your work as site-specific?

LU: My work is decided in relation to a particular location, and in relation to the space. Normally fine art spaces exist everywhere, be they a mountain, a riverside, a gallery, a home, etc. But this is very complex, and raises many difficult questions. That is why the way my work relates to the space in which it will be presented is the most important aspect I consider. But the truth is, anywhere is fine. I do not place my completed work on the spot: my work is made ready through its relation with the space where I want to place it. The relation itself is infinite.

PL: In the interview we made before, you said something that I found very interesting. You said that modern times have forgotten about the death of the artwork, but that you think carefully about the life and death of the artwork. What are your thoughts about the life and death of the artwork?

LU: In modern society, many things get shut off: to exist, to talk, to see, etc. A conflict between life and death without a relationship to existence: such are the characteristics of modern ontology. We call this anthropocentrism. In the Universe, there constantly is birth and death, appearing and disappearing; we all live under these circumstances. These things are always happening in my life as well. Death is nothingness: untellable, invisible; but there is no doubt that it has a relationship with ordinary life and therefore it lives within me. Because we think about death in our life, we can have an awareness of infinity. Death is not opposite from Life, it is a facet of life, helping us to understand a fragment of infinity.

PL: When you speak about the life and death of an artwork, I think about the fact that the work of art can change, paintings in particular. I can imagine that in 100 or 200 years the white of your paintings will be yellowish  or the surfaces cracked. Are these changes that you accept, or would you then say the artwork is destroyed?

LU: I have two answers for that. One is that the work has a social responsibility. For this reason, I try to make strong work that lasts. Second and more importantly, I do not mind so much that my works will slowly break down and 'die'. Man is always trying to ensure that human-made things exist, or 'live on' forever. But, nature always works to break them down and return them to their original elements. Thus we could say nature and humans are fighting. I have a social repsonsibility and that is why I should be firm about my work, but, no matter how much we take care of it, it will be break up and disappear someday. I am going to die and when I die, my work will also die. Between humans and nature there exists a kind of fight.

KDJ: When you say that an an artwork can die and is about an encounter, when would you say the work is dead? Is it dead when it cannot 'speak' anymore, when the encounter is no longer possible anymore?

LU: First of all, I was born in Asia and I received an Asian education. Asians have words like 'everything is transient'. Asia is a monsoon region: we have a lot of rain, and for that reason everything erodes quickly. We are very conscious of erosion. With art it is the same. We create wonderful things in our life, but it is just for a moment; it does not have a guarantee of continuance. Artists are greedy, and we are always trying to preserve as much as possible, but this has limits and eventually comes to an end. Westeners made buildings with stones, like pyramids, to prevent them from collapsing. When you think of 'eternity', your image for this concept is unending. In Japanese culture, 'everything is transient': made from soil and wood; everything will break down. We see infinity as something slowly disappearing. You see infinity as the existence of things going on forever, but we see infinity as the disappearing of things.

PL: I have a question about the Japanese art movement Mono-ha in the 60s, in particular concerning Nobuo Sekine and his famous work, Mother Earth. Why do you think it was so important for Japanese artists at that time? For many artists it was the starting point. Was it a starting point you as well, or did you, at that time, already have your concept about art?

LU: Nobuo Sekine is my friend. His work has changed over time, but around the time he made Mother Earth, people did not show any interest in his work and our art. I wrote many times about that work. I tried very hard to explain it. I brought up questions about the meaning of the work, and by doing so, Mother Earth became well known, as did our names. That work also shows both sides: the 'creating' and 'non-creating' part. In fact, the work was just soil dug out from a holeand then put beside the hole in the ground: that was all. After the exhibition, the soil was put back into the hole, and the work disappeared. We knew from the beginning, that it would not be permanently exhibited, just for a short period of time. There was existence and non-existence, creation and non-creation, we could see both aspects. It was a very important work.

KDJ: Soon I will interview Giuseppe Penone. I have noticed that your work seems to display similarities to his and I believe the two of you are good friends. What do you think makes your art different from that of Penone?

LU: Giuseppe Penone is an artist from Italy. On the surface we are totally different, but we have a common theme in our work. His metaphor is in the use of wood: through the very use of wood itself he gives a message. The object itself is not so important in his work. When I see his work, I can see the forest and ordinary trees. I can link the outside world, such as the woods, to his work. Similarly when you see a stone in my work you can link it with stones from outside in nature. Thus, we have similarities in the point of recalling the relation with the outside world. Richard Long uses stone, Richard Serra uses steel plates, we use the same materials, but we want different ways.

KDJ: I think Penone is also about encounter, but he seems to use touch as the primary means to connect with the 'other'. For you the encounter seems to be more about a visual or conceptual encounter. Or would you say an encounter for you is also about touching an object?

LU: Many people want to touch my works. I am fine when people touch the stone and steel plate works but I am not pleased when people touch my paintings, becaue of dirt. For me it is important to create the feeling of wanting to touch. Actually, Penone has thought a great deal about the sense of touch; he uses wood to communicate sensations that question what has happened. That is not of primary importance for me. A kind of metamorphosis or a metaphor, that which excites the imagination; that is important to me.

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