I have a confession to make. I have long harbored the desire to set fire to artist Jin Lee’s cut paper installations. Like most brutal men, I am deeply threatened by beauty, vulnerability, and innocence. Often suspended from the ceiling by monofilament, Lee’s large-scale installations share the same tenor as a spider’s web— virtuosity, exquisite craftsmanship, wonder, and intricate design. I recently caught up with Lee to discuss her new installation, life inside the studio, and the state of Korean cinema.
Lee is currently participating in the group exhibition, SITE 92: Work Permit Approved, at Smack Mellon Gallery in Brooklyn, NY. The show is up until February 20, 2011.
Brendan Carroll: Tell us about your participation in SITE 92 at Smack Mellon. What are you showing in the exhibition, and why should people come out too see it?
Jin Lee: SITE 92 is Smack Mellon’s bi-annual exhibition series featuring site-specific installations. Participating artists must consider the specific location while planning and creating the work. My cut paper installation responds to the industrial past of the building and its changing identity; the space that once provided steam power is now a center of culture generating creative energy.
To compare, my installation at the Jersey City museum was a white landscape of nature while my current installation at Smack Mellon is a vibrant cityscape of the newly gentrified neighborhood. The main components of my new site-specific installation are machines, exposed pipes, factory buildings, and people. The Gair Building in which Smack Mellon is located is in the center of the industrial area of downtown Brooklyn like the Powerhouse area in Jersey City. When people from Jersey City see my installation at Smack Mellon, I think they may find many interesting parallels between cityscape and landscape, between DUMBO in Brooklyn and PAD in Jersey City.
BC: You were born and raised in Seoul, Korea—the center of the country’s economy, finance, arts and culture. Seoul is also home to more than 10 million people. How do you develop such a deep affinity for the natural world?
JL: I try to find similarities between the seemingly opposite things. Have you read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities? In this fiction, Marco Polo describes fifty-five cities to Kublai Kahn. In the beginning, the cities sound imaginary, but later Kublai Kahn realizes that Polo may have described fifty-five stories about one city – fifty-five different ways of looking at one.
I also try to look at things from many different perspectives. I take abstract images from life forms because when I pay attention to something and try to look at it from many points of view, the images from nature resemble many things we find in our life in city.
For example, road maps of a city, maps of human social networks, the muscles and veins in human body… they all have interesting resemblances. Many elements in my installations are actually drawn from maps, electric wires, network maps, illustrated anatomy… they all constructed white landscape series together.
If I record the movements of the mouse connected to my computer for a certain period of time and draw the trajectory on a piece of paper, the image also would look like my drawing for my installation.
I also like to use paper because its vulnerable and ephemeral qualities emphasize my installation’s emotional character. The fragility of paper paradoxically signifies the eternal cycle of nature. But it also signifies the ephemerality of humans, history, environment… The urban components in my new work at Smack Mellon also portray the fragility of the city, industrial age, and the history.
I enjoy finding similar characteristics in two opposite things. That might be one reason why I live in an extremely urban area and look at the natural world.
BC: The natural world plays a huge role in your artwork. What brought you to Jersey City—the antithesis of nature and all that is green and pretty in the world—and how is it influencing your decisions inside the studio?
JL: I don’t think Jersey City is the antithesis of nature and all that is green and pretty in the world. I have lived in Seoul, Brooklyn, and Manhattan before I moved to Jersey City. I think beautiful nature surrounds these cities. Moving to Jersey City didn’t change much in my life style.
BC: You received a BFA in painting from Seoul National University in Seoul, Korea. The artist Do-Ho Suh received a BFA in painting from Seoul National University too. Regarding his schooling in Korea, he said: “Teachers didn’t allow us to really explore many different things. That’s something that I really regret. We never had a crit, and it was only one direction—from teacher to the students. There was no exchange or dialogue between the teacher and student. If the teacher says something then you just have to follow that.” What type of experiences did you have in art school in Korea?
JL: Do-Ho Suh attended my school a long time before I entered the school, so the curricula must have been much more conservative. Moreover, he earned his BFA and MFA in Oriental Painting which is more traditional than my department, Painting/Contemporary art. Studio seminar courses I took in my junior and senior years were pretty liberal. I am not sure whether it was because most of the professors in my department received an MFA from the United States but we were encouraged to explore diverse areas and allowed to debate too.
BC: In 2002, you received an MFA in Painting, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY. Currently, you are a Doctoral student in Art and Art Education at Columbia University in New York. Is there a difference between Eastern and Western approaches to art education and training? If so, what are some of the differences?
JL: In my doctoral program, there are several Asian students. We could relate with each other through our similar experiences in art lessons in high school. During our high school years, we spent most of time developing and mastering skills in observational drawing and shading. If my drawing was not good enough, the teacher often erased the wrong part and corrected it to demonstrate how it should be done. It is reminiscent of Do-Ho Suh’s comment on art education in Korea. However, the art classes in my junior and senior years of college are not very different from here. The MFA programs may be similar. The most distinctive difference may be that students here have to talk and write a lot for courses, but in Korea, the works art of students, the end products, tell almost everything for the students.
Korean students may have a hard time adjusting to discussion based seminars classes. The high school education, in Korea, is still extremely task oriented. As far as I know, there is no process-oriented task or discussion class in high school curriculum in Korea. That’s a sad thing. College curricula are a little better, and I would hope graduate school curricula are more diverse.
BC: You studied painting in undergraduate and graduate school. Right now, your primary tool is the X-ACTO knife. When did you pick up the blade, and put the paint brushes down? What prompted the switch? Has your relationship to your artwork changed since you changed tools? If so, how, and in what way?
JL: My process evolved out of necessity. I started cutting paper after I had a show at the SPACES gallery in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2003. For the show, I created a huge wall drawing overtaking two walls of the gallery. It took me a whole week to finish the drawing. I really enjoyed making a site-specific drawing. However, the drawing had to be covered up with the white paint after the show was taken down. I also wished that I had more time for my wall drawings during the limited installation time. Thus, I developed this method of creating these cut-paper units prior to the designated installation time in order to fill walls. My relationship to my work also changed after I switched tools… I play more dynamically with the space. My drawings are becoming more and more site-specific.
BC: You often use white paper in your paper installations. White is typically associated with purity, innocence, and sterility. What does the color white mean to you?
JL: Commonplace, ordinary, openness, possibility, neutrality, minimalist… I like to use white paper because it doesn’t have much presence compared to other art media. My friend said that her husband, whose side job is a professional magician, gets the most applause when he does a trick with his bare hands, creating something from nothing. It is the most common trick but it still amazes the audience the most because the audience is not focusing on the magician’s props but his character and skill. She said that my work was amazing to her because my white paper installation was a reminiscent of a magician’s sleight of hand. When I heard that, I was glad that she understood the reason why I like to use white paper as my main medium, and that she described it beautifully in her words. I couldn’t have explained my intention better but she did it for me.
BC: A Paper Landscape affected me. It is an elegant installation composed of thousands of pieces of finely cut paper. The work is beautiful. As an artist, I admired the creativity, skill, ingenuity, and discipline required to make it. But the work inspired another feeling in me, a feeling less than salutary: I felt a deep need to obliterate it, as if I were some kind of monster like Godzilla or King Kong. How do you expect viewers to respond to your work? Do you often think about who your audience is?
JL: I understand your sentiment. I also thought about setting fire to my work, but with an intention to film the scene and play it backward. Of course I don’t want anyone to destroy my work, but I expect viewers to have such strong feelings that may draw them to have a closer look at it. I work on a large scale with elaborate details to create an overwhelming environment in which the viewers are sometimes invited to lose themselves and to have a closer look.
As viewers may notice, the layers of many delicate cut paper pieces simultaneously reveal and hide figurative images among abstract images. I want the viewer to enjoy my hide-and-seek game. The viewer may recognize familiar representative forms hidden among layers of abstract images that seemingly to float in midair. The viewer’s discoveries may trigger his imagination to create more meanings while looking at my work.
BC: When I see a painting by Jackson Pollock—Convergence (1952)—I hear the music of Koko Taylor—bluesy, brassy, get-down-get-dirty hip shaking music. When I saw your work, A Paper Landscape, I imagined the echo of a pebble dropped into a calm pool of water. What role does sound play in your work, if any?
JL: Sound didn’t play a significant role in my work, but the echo of a pebble dropped into water may have something to do with it. In my Stages of Life series, there are drawings in which I made hundreds of irregular circles to portray a birth or a growth of living organisms. Repetition with slight variation in life cycles has been the key to my work and the echo of a pebble dropped into water can definitely be an element of my work, although I didn’t intend it.
BC: Do you listen to music or the radio in your studio while you work?
JL: Yes. Antonio Carlos Jobim is my all time favorite. In the morning, I try to listen to classical music such as Chopin and Bach played by Pollini. During the daytime, I listen to soft and alternative rocks such as Kings of Convenience, the Shins, Ben Folds, and Jack Johnson. I like to listen to K-pop too. I used to listen to Jazz too but after I started listening to Jobim, I just listen to Jobim playing and singing his songs.
BC: I am a big fan of Korean movies. Korea is to film now what Italy was to film in the 1950s, France in the 1960s, United States in the 1970s, and China in the 1980s. Do you keep up with the filmmaking scene in Korea? Whose work do you admire now?
JL: I am glad that you like Korean movies and thank you for your high compliment on Korean movies. I really like Hong Sang-Soo’s movies. I like Eric Rohmer’s movies in the ‘60s too. Because of Hong’s Nouvelle Vague style and narrative, many movie lovers may find the similarity between the two filmmakers. I really like their hyper- realistic mock-documentary like movies for the minimalist styles: two men, women, and very minimalist plots – dialogs about art, life, and love. They use the similar components over and over again to create similar but totally new movies by experimenting with the formats. I particularly like Hong’s movie because his movies show exaggerated reality of artists and writers in Korea. I think Hong’s movies are also hide- and -seek games that I always try to employ in my installations. Once you find some dialogue or situation really funny because it sounds too real, you start digging really deeper into the movies to find more.
BC: What three pieces of advice would you give to an artist just starting out their career?
JL: I don’t think I am in the position to give advice to them, but if I can go back in time and give advice to younger me, I would say, first, consider seriously the role of art and artists, second, be realistic, and last but not least, be prolific.
BC: What are you working on now?
JL: I am doing some research on the possibly of multi-sensory experience of my installations, especially, hectic experiences. Our experience of culture is increasingly visual so I am interested in exploring alternative ways to experience works of art. I also explore the possibility to install my work in open space, like outdoor space. I will have to find durable materials and consider many other factors for the project.
BC: Any last words?
JL: Thank you.
SITE 92: Work Permit Approved will be on display at Smack Mellon Gallery through Feb. 20 and features the work of Clare Churchouse, Janelle Iglesias, Hong Seon Jang, Jin Lee, Caitlin Masley, Jo Q. Nelson, Timothy Nolan, Yumi Janairo Roth, Viviane Rombaldi Seppey, Rob Swainston.
The gallery is located at 92 Plymouth Street in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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