Installation view of the exhibition “How to Become Us,” at Art Space Pool, Seoul, 2011. 

Transformative Assemblages

Lee Wan

Korea, South
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

One morning several years ago, Lee Wan had an epiphany while eating breakfast. Looking at the various generic packages of cereal, juice and sugar that were on his kitchen table, he began to casually scan the items’ ingredients labels and the countries of their origin. Unsettled by these insignificant yet telling details, Lee began to consider how the most basic necessities of everyday life, such as simple breakfast foods, had traveled from small factories in Southeast Asia to giant supermarkets in the United States and Europe.

That particular morning’s rumination led to Lee’s video and installation series, “Made In” (2013–17), for which he has adopted the roles of farmer, producer and craftsman to investigate how commercial goods are produced. Over the next several years, he traveled to different Asian countries in pursuit of the factories and farms churning out staples that are the lifeblood of that particular nation’s economy. He filmed himself toiling at remote locations, such as a sugarcane plantation in Taiwan; rice fields in Cambodia; a wooden table factory in Indonesia; goldmines in Myanmar; and a renowned silk-suit manufacturer in Thailand. The latest and final iteration, filmed earlier this year, saw him meeting with farmers working in Malaysia’s palm oil sector, and while there, he documented himself joining the plantation’s workforce, extracting oil from palm kernels.

A partial display of “Made In” at the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, in 2014, featured a teaspoon of sugar, three grams of gold and a bowl of rice, presented alongside four respective videos that captured his long journeys to create these products. For this work, Lee won the prestigious 2014 Artspectrum Award and established himself as one of the most exciting artists of his generation in South Korea. Furthering his rapid rise, at the 57th Venice Biennale beginning in May, he will present works in the Korea Pavilion alongside Cody Choi. There, Lee will show 12 multi-channel videos and 12 products from the series, along with other works such as Proper Time: Though the Dreams Revolve with the Moon (2017), in which 365 clocks will run at different speeds according to Lee’s extensive survey of international statistics and measurements of income, and as a commentary on how modern life is wedded to economic and political conditions.

Yet, even before “Made In” springboarded him into the spotlight, meals and other daily rituals have never seemed simple for Lee. From very early in his career, in the mid-2000s, he became fixated on consumerism in contemporary society and its embedded systems of labor, production and distribution, incorporating unusual composites of inanimate, banal objects into his work to articulate his nonconformist views of the increasingly materialistic world. While “Made In” has taken Lee across Asia, inspiration for his work is firmly rooted in his native South Korea, a resource-poor nation that flourished following the rapid economic reforms of the 1980s through developments in import- and export-led industrialization, as well as by exploiting its labor-intensive workforce, becoming the 12th wealthiest country in the world. Lee was born in 1979 in Seoul, at the beginning of this period of growth, and also witnessed the country’s financial bankruptcy in 1997, which shook public confidence in the government and the local conglomerates (chaebol) that control the Korean economy. As such, the artist recognizes that the decades of progressive reform in South Korea have also had negative or regressive social consequences, evident in contemporary society’s excessive materialism, and a rigid education system that favors profit-driven success over innovation or emotional growth.

When discussing his own youth, Lee mentioned that he switched high schools several times, and had difficulty adjusting to new environments. Most of all, he was consistently overwhelmed by the demanding and hierarchical educational system. Even after he enrolled at Dongguk University to study sculpture, he was surprised to see friends and fellow students suffering similar pressures. He recalled thinking that young adults of his own generation seemed like objects on a conveyor belt, gradually being assembled into working machines. Along with the development of this macroscopic, critical view on the fundamental aspects of Korean society, Lee began to break away from seeking inspiration in traditional art-historical textbooks. Instead, his early art practice was based on exploring his own observations about material goods and their social context, as well as the power of public space and its impact on individual experience.

MADE IN TAIWAN (SUGAR), 2013, three-channel video: 12 min 25 sec; products, dimensions variable.
MADE IN TAIWAN (SUGAR), 2013, three-channel video: 12 min 25 sec; products, dimensions variable.

Lee created his debut series “Riding Art” (2005) the year after he graduated from Dongguk University. The idea of parodying a playground had occurred to him one day when thinking about those around him and the oppressive environment of social conformity. In his head, he had likened the inevitable process of entering a regimented education and work system to a playground ride in which one is forced to bounce up and down, while spinning round and round. Translating that metaphor into a series of objects, Lee tested a DIY style that he later honed and utilized in other series such as “Made In.” He modified secondhand office and school furniture with plywood, metal and other materials to create hybridized playground equipment, including a seesaw, climber, mini-tricycles and a merry-go-round. The rides are intended for use by viewers, although not entirely for play. As the audience sits and twirls on the objects, it becomes clear that Lee’s intention is to satirize a pervasively systematized society, where individuals must passively follow the rules of the ride in order to be included.

In the formative years following “Riding Art,” Lee deepened his explorations of commodities in contemporary society. In 2008, he presented the video piece Dei Gratia (2008) at a group show titled “I Am An Artist” at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon. The color video—just over eight minutes long—features what appears to be a continuous take of a rotating pedestal, upon which a dead bird features alongside empty packages of popular perfume brands, cigarette cartons, painkillers, as well as a gold-plated crown, ring and a large plastic version of a British one-pound coin. Throughout the video, Lee intermittently replaces the packages with other well-known international-branded products—a Heineken beer bottle, a McDonald’s french-fry container, a box of Tylenol—while the bird continues to rot.

DEI GRATIA, 2008, stills from single-channel video: 8 min 10 sec.

KISS LONELY GOODBYECHICKEN BASEBALL, 2008, from the series “Life is Widely Spreading Blood-Red Ripples” (2008-09), objects remanufactured with grated chicken, dimensions variable. 

KISS LONELY GOODBYECHICKEN BASEBALL, 2008, from the series “Life is Widely Spreading Blood-Red Ripples” (2008-09), objects remanufactured with grated chicken, dimensions variable. 

The work explores the increasing gap between mortality and existence as well as the disparity between the natural world and mass-produced objects. As time lapses in the video, crawling larvae begin to feast on the bird’s tiny corpse while the empty packages remain perfectly intact. The rotating disk seems to symbolize the endless cycle of human consumption, which continues despite life and death. The title of the video is also an ironic reference to the Latin phrase “By the grace of God,” that signals the divine sovereignty claimed by European monarchies (and is similar to the phrase found on the reverse side of British and Canadian coins). In Lee’s video it also refers to the idolatry that comes from a society worshipping heavily marketed objects such as exotic perfumes and cigarettes. This uncanny, symbolic use of rotating objects—evoking Buddhist-inflected notions of repetition and the cycle of life—recalls Lee’s metaphor of humans as items on a merry-go-round, and his own sense of anxiety and distress when confronted by social conformity. 

If Dei Gratia was a poignant reflection of the artist’s discomfort with the vicious cycle of consumerism, his subsequent works were deliberate attempts to change his own habits and mindset as an individual constantly exposed to such materialism. Around the same time as the creation of Dei Gratia, Lee began a series of works, “Life Is Widely Spreading Blood-Red Ripples” (2008–09), that featured food items for the first time, investigating his hypothesis that consumerism was an inevitable outcome of human desires for convenience. The first work in this series, Kiss Lonely Goodbye, Chicken Baseball (2008), is an installation of seemingly ordinary-looking baseballs, some of which are placed inside a yellow supermarket basket and others scattered across a patch of artificial grass. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the baseballs were in fact sculpted from an unusual and unlikely material: ground chicken.

When first shown in Korea, Lee’s strange objects turned heads. With this work, the artist aimed to disrupt the banality that pervades quotidian processes and rituals. The added optical illusion was a twist on mainstream associations between food and sports, serving as an eerie critique on the absurdity of Korea’s mass consumption habits and how they are deeply linked to American culture—Korean fried chicken, canned meat like Spam and baseball all being legacies of the US military’s occupation of the Korean peninsula in the 1950s. As Lee explained to me, “Baseball is most popular in developing countries that built strong economic and diplomatic ties with the United States. South Korea’s obsession with baseball is no exception—its fan base grew concurrently with exponential capitalist development during the postwar period, under a heavy American influence.” In this light, the chicken “baseballs” seem to physically embody Lee’s musings on the everyday consumption of convenience goods and sports as something inextricably bound to neoliberalist attitudes.

While Lee has criticized the prevalence of global capitalism in Korean society, he is also keenly skeptical of more local politics. Another work in the “Life Is Widely Spreading Blood-Red Ripples” series, titled The Household Items (2009) utilized ground beef to create lifelike replicas of utilitarian items commonplace in South Korea, such as a stick of lumber, a broom, a plunger and a spade. Lee said he specifically chose objects with a highly discernible use. For example, the stick is normally used in Korean high schools and the military for corporal punishment, while the luminescent green broom is used to clean streets and other public spaces. When Lee re-creates these objects in beef, thereby rendering them useless, the object’s symbolic value and status in society—whether representing authority, like the stick, or subservience, like the broom—are brought into question. For his solo exhibition at Seoul’s Total Museum of Contemporary Art in 2009, Lee hung these sculptures on a storage rack, while others leaned against the wall in simulacrum of a domestic situation. Upon closer inspection, the strangely synthetic texture of the animal meat—coated with thick acrylic paint and varnish—revealed the deceptive nature of Lee’s objects. This visual spin underlined the perceived and prescribed values we place on objects.

THE HOUSEHOLD ITEMS, 2009, from the series “Life is Widely Spreading Blood-red Ripples” (2008-09), objects remanufactured with grated beef, dimensions variable. 

Work in progress for the series “Life is Widely Spreading Blood-Red Ripples.” 

“Forlorn Standard” series, 2010, object cutting and polishing, dimensions variable. 

Lee’s view of Korean society is unapologetically critical and candid. After making the “Life Is Widely Spreading Blood-Red Ripples” series, he expounded on his rejection of conformist pressures by physically—sometimes violently—altering objects in the series “Forlorn Standard” (2010). One of the central aims of this body of work was to explore how objects could reflect the psychological strain of complying with ideological conventions. He took various household items and materials and put them through drastic modifications. Slabs of brick and stone, tiles, wheels of trolleys, hammers and other mundane objects, were cut, ground and polished to create a reflective surface. While it is harder to change the uneven clay-based exterior of a brick into a mirror, Lee explained to me that other objects, such as a solid-iron gym weight, transform relatively easily into a mirror due to their metallic composition. This brutal transformation forced very different objects to become more similar in both appearance and utilitarian value. The uniformity created a sense of order, restraint and control. At the same time, subtle variations in color, material and form convey the extent to which standardization also creates differentiation among individuals, showing the impossibility of adopting a singular standard.

Continuing his focus on dogmatic social obedience and processes of coercive transformation in How to Become Us (2011), Lee collected used and discarded objects from the streets—including mannequins, plastic water bottles, stools, trays, shovels and a refrigerator—and exhibited them at Seoul alternative space Art Space Pool in 2011. He split, cut and combined these materials into 60 assemblages, which he placed on individual industrial scales showing that each had achieved the exact mean weight—5.06 kilograms—of the collective mass. Appearing almost like a window display, the work evoked the regulated structures of a supermarket. Its title, How to Become Us, also carried the ironic implication that overarching collective systems determine our individual identities.

Lee pushes back against a reality that he sees as dictated by capitalist ideology. He mentioned in our conversation that he often
feels blindsided by the intentionally complex rules of capitalism, which he thinks are irrational and unpredictable, and a catalyst for volatile social conditions. In one of Lee’s most iconic sculptures, The Possibility of Impossible Things (2012), he explores our ability to determine and predict future value of objects in an era of capitalism and mass production. The sculpture features a beam scale with a stone brick hung on one side, and a large rubbish bag with undisclosed contents on the other. The work refers to the financial collapse Lee witnessed in 1997, when a severe depletion of the government’s foreign-exchange reserves had necessitated a bailout by the International Monetary Fund. Although Lee doesn’t explicitly make mention of this event, the work suggests a cynical attitude to the notion of equating monetary and material values. This apprehension—and confusion about what equals what—is represented in a delicate balance between certainty and uncertainty. When Lee showed The Possibility of Impossible Things at the Daegu Art Museum in 2012, the vertical pole of the scale was masked with a green cloth, on top of which he perched a taxidermy pheasant. While the scarf reflects the obfuscation of stock market exchange by masking the axis of balance, the bird, according to Lee, is a metaphor for our inability to operate outside of consumerist society. Lee said of the pheasant: “Its wild ancestors were apparently much stronger . . . and intellectually superior, but [the birds] degenerated due to inactivity.”

HOW TO BECOME US, 2011, 60 collected objects combined into an average weight of 5.06 kg, dimensions variable. 

IF GIVEN A CHANCE, I DO REFUSE IT, 2012, mixed-media, dimensions variable. 

Up until 2013, the scope of Lee’s explorations of consumption had been expressed through his abstract assemblages and sculptures. While former works critiqued consumerist culture, the “Made In” series delved deeper into these interests by looking at the geopolitical implications of capitalism in modern urban life. Each of the 12 multichannel videos in the series provided insightful commentary on the artist’s experience of entering an unfamiliar environment and laboriously creating a single commodity by himself. For example, in the Cambodia segment, the video’s Korean and English subtitles provided personal and interpretive notes on the political history of Cambodia and its rice production, from the time of its liberation from French colonial rule in the 1950s to the mid-1970s, when the Khmer Rouge came to power under the ruthless Pol Pot. We see Lee first traveling to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and later navigating his way to the rice farm on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where he meets and interviews a farmer who was a former Khmer Rouge soldier. It is this farmer who gives Lee grains of rice to plant a crop that will become one of the final products in the work. In this way, Lee connects the still-vital act of cultivating rice to a traumatic and turbulent period, where more than two million people were either brutally murdered or perished due to labor exhaustion or starvation as a result of Pol Pot’s attempts to build a classless, agrarian society.

When I met Lee at a former steel warehouse turned studio in the Mullae-dong area of Seoul in January, he told me he was juggling a number of projects. The next day, he was due to travel to Malaysia to film the final segment of “Made In” that will premiere at the Venice Biennale. Accompanying this will be Proper Time and Mr. K and the Collection of Korean History (2017), a large-scale project that narrates the life of the semi-fictitious “Mr. K,” loosely based on a man called Kim Kimoon who lived from the 1930s to 2011. The installation will piece together an archive of 14,000 photographs with a collection of various artifacts to offer unreliable narratives of Korea’s tumultuous modern history. Additionally, the images will be partially obscured and only visible through peepholes, which further questions “the legitimacy of seamless and coherent construction of universal history,” and challenges viewers to explore relative truths amid a stifling social atmosphere of material excess and information overload.

The works on view at Lee Wan’s latest exhibition in February, at 313 Art Project in Seoul, further solidified the artist’s unwavering tenacity in addressing social issues. The seriesA Diligent Attitude Toward a Meaningless Thing (2017) consists of abstract paintings marked with enigmatic calligraphic scrawls, co-produced by Lee and eight migrant workers hired through a local employment agency. The resulting lyrical and minimalist epiphanies on the gallery walls were visually captivating, but they left viewers with a moral dilemma that is echoed throughout all of his works. Lee seemed to be asking: What determines the true value of art? Is it the observer? Or is it the sacrifices made in the name of labor and capitalism? Political and transformative, Lee Wan’s rebellious expressions encourage us to consider the world beyond its material, consumerist terms.

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