Narrating the complexity of society

A chat with Korean artist Yein Lee.

Why did you choose sculpture as a medium? Does painting influence your way of conceiving 3D objects?

Treating sculpture as a painting surface was a natural process to me. When I was mostly a painter, my paintings were getting heavier, and my sculptures were naturally occurring as I expanded the idea of brushstroke, layer, and painterly gesture. In my previous practices, I saw a blue pipe as one brushstroke or a stone as a thickly layered paint. These expressive gestures with pigments add liveness to sculptures. For example, when I paint on my nails, as I get distracted, the nail polish goes all over, not just my finger tip. Then my nail looks weirdly longer, not anymore a nail shape but a damaged form. Color can define forms. It helps shape even more 3-dimensional; it also implies narratives, nuance, and a hint. Whilst it assists the figure to be precise, it distorts the shape itself, which is also intriguing to me. Isa Genzken or Rachel Harrison have been a great inspiration to me. How the brush stroke gets volume and stretches out to space. Also, how the brush stroke can shape and manipulate forms affects my sculptures. Therefore, sculptures are fascinating because they can capture you in the moment and bring you into their surroundings with the same background and light. It manages to drag you into the world set up by the artist.

The shape, as well as the materiality of your work, seems to be exposed to an obscure hybridisation. However, some of the most kitsch, colourful and questionable objects of our century – fake flowers – are used in some of your pieces. What does this combination mean?

On top of hybridity, I always want additional layers of narrating the complexity of society; a question, symbol, or implication on certain things. Ready-made objects could carry some of these. This cheap, kitsch materiality could be associated with a product in a market. So it makes my obscure bodies charming, closer to look at, and raises questions. What does it have to do with an orchid flower? Would the body know that it is a flower? Maybe it also intends to use it as a piercing. When I was young, I was fascinated by the story of “fake eggs”— many internet forums talked about some eggs made in a factory. This possibility of mimicry, showing other shapes by different textures and not-accurate forms. However, it hardly resonates with originals. Plastic orchids are very far from their original shape, but they could carry the idea of a particular type of exoticism. Perhaps it reminds viewers of a suspicious Asian massage shop.

Can you tell us a bit about your last exhibition “Rejunevate Body Order Now”? How do the concept and the materiality resonate with contemporary emergencies?

Body modification creates anxiety and fascination. The desperate needs in life are permanently appropriated by the market exploiting this desperation—besides, humans fear technology, which might overtake human capability. The body parts in the exhibition are figurative and abstract, which is more than the body. It might be in the process of growing the human body in the artificial womb; it might be overtaking and parasitising previous bodies. “Rejunevate Body Order Now” presented hybridity and non-binary bodies being captured by a sticky capitalistic web.

The title mimics these random spam email titles or advertisements. We can also see the words like ‘order now’ in a McDonald’s kiosk. If you look at some works, the pieces are made of plastics, electric wires, and polished steel like sports cars. The sleekness and transparency of the materiality in the exhibition also presents current society. All laptops, cars are glossy and sleek, like our touch screen. Not only physical sleekness but non-physical materials are supposed to work smoothly. In “Rejunevate Body Order Now”, this sleekness got disturbed. This sleek surface of used motorbike and cars parts are manipulated, distorted, twisted and wiggled by my languages to be transformed into more-than-human-body. Also, these twisted motorbike parts are missing organs. They got muscle-like, flesh-like, liquid-like, a chunk of matter entangled with wires. Organic and mechanical shapes are entangled here, presenting posthuman bodies. 

 Do you have some specific references that guide you during your creative process? 

In my process, it is both instinct and hands that are guiding me. I am drawing a lot, although I don’t use them as sketches. Even while working on sculptures based on sketches, I find a better way to solve it. I just grab a drill or a metal saw and start to chop up some plastic waste. Holding materials is the fundamental starting point of my process. By doing, and working with hands, sometimes I find form, a style that is interesting, that often narrates my current interest, curiosity, and subject matter. Then some techniques can lead me to a new language. My memory, what I have seen, what I have read is also coming in a certain way. When I look back on my childhood, some days with my friends in primary school, we rented a pile of mangas, then read them together. I am the generation that grew up with Sailor moon, dragon ball Z. Somehow, human transformation was always a significant interest. Also, science magazines and nature documentaries are part of my daily life. 

What are you working on at the moment? 

Currently, I’m preparing two group shows in Munich and LA and a solo show in Berlin. I am revisiting all my practice, focusing on my painterly approach, bringing it into sculpture and installation, which contains my years of practice. I’ve been investigating hybridity, transgression, mutation, and in-out bodies. Perhaps going back to giving human body signifiers, I plan to merge it with my languages to create my cyborg dancers. That could be born out of our social junk mixed with organic matters — plants, fishes, junk, e-waste, and freely chosen gender that embodies. In the occurring body-horror fascination in the art scene, I would like to bring up questions on the over-sexualised female cyborg, alien images in manga culture, H.R Giger, and Hajime Sorayama, while not denying my fascination. This enthusiasm often might have blurred the problematic issues. Can we be fascinated with these visual images whilst we have a critical point of view? I’d like to embody these thoughts for the upcoming pieces.

Narrating the complexity of society

Artists: Yein Lee / @yeinplee
Editor: Maria Abramenko / @mariabramenko
Interview: Antoine Schafroth / @a.schafroth

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