Pioneering and championing performance art in South Korea during post-war recovery, Lee Kun-Yong was an influential figure in contemporary Korean art history.

Art Radar takes a look at the artist’s oeuvre, which was recently shown in the independent Sydney art space 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Lee Kun-Yong, 'Snail’s Gallop', first performed in 1979, re-performed in 2017. Image courtesy of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

Lee Kun-Yong, ‘Snail’s Gallop’, first performed in 1979, re-performed in 2017. Image courtesy of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

A seminal figure in Korea’s avant-garde art

The art of Lee Kun-Yong (b. 1942, South Korea) is one fundamentally embedded with the history of the Korean Peninsula itself. At a time when North and South Korea relations are at (what appears to be) a critical, watershed moment after the run of the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, it may well be the right time to reflect on the art of the seminal Korean conceptual artist, and the wider backdrop that his art was crafted in.

Amidst post-war recovery, the perceived threat of communism and the increasing influence of the West, Lee Kun-Yong paved the way for avant-garde experiments in art from the late 1960s onwards. A pioneering figure in the “Space and Time” and “Avant-Garde” art groups, Lee’s work was recently introduced to the Australian public in the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, in the show “Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area”, which closed on 25 February 2018.

Installation detail view: Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area, 2018, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Pictured: Front: Emily Parsons-Lord, 'A raging event of continual noise (the Sun)', 2018, Performance, dimensions variable. Behind Left to Right: Lee Kun-Yong, 'Snail’s Gallop', photographed in 1975 (reprinted in 2017), C-type print. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South Korea. Lee Kun-Yong 'Logic of Place', first performed in 1975, (re-printed in 2017), Ctype print, installation view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Lee Kun-Yong, 'The method of Drawing 76- 2', first performed in 1975, (re-printed in 2017) paint on canvas, dimensions variable. Lee Kun-Yong, 'The method of Drawing 76- 4', first performed in 1976 (re-printed in 2017),paper, charcoal, dimensions variable. All commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, 2018. All courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South

Installation detail view: “Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area”, 2018, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Pictured (Front) Emily Parsons-Lord, ‘A raging event of continual noise (the Sun)’, 2018, performance, dimensions variable. Behind Left to Right: Lee Kun-Yong, ‘Snail’s Gallop’, photographed in 1975 (reprinted in 2017), C-type print. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South Korea. Lee Kun-Yong, ‘Logic of Place’, first performed in 1975, (re-printed in 2017), C-type print, installation view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Lee Kun-Yong, ‘The method of Drawing 76- 2’, first performed in 1975, (re-printed in 2017) paint on canvas, dimensions variable. Lee Kun-Yong, ‘The method of Drawing 76- 4’, first performed in 1976 (re-printed in 2017), paper, charcoal, dimensions variable. All commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, 2018. All courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South Korea.

Performing in times of authoritarianism

At around the same time, the world continued to watch the parallel dramas that unfolded in Pyeongchang. Besides the whirlwind of sporting wins and losses, watchers of the Olympics also keenly noted the political activities between North, South and Western dignitaries. The state of affairs between the North and South today could not have been more different from the time when Lee Kun-Yong’s art gained momentum in South Korea. From the end of 1972 to 1979, South Korea was under martial law; then-President Park Chung-hee had thought it a necessary measure to combat North Korea and its communist influence. However, Park’s martial law regime is mostly remembered as a time of widespread civil rights abrogations, uprisings and violence. Cracking down on press freedom, artistic expression and encouraging unlawful detainment, Park’s authoritarian regime finally culminated in his assassination in 1979.

Installation view: Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area, 2018, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Pictured: Left: Lee Kun-Yong, 'Eating Biscuit', first performed in 1975, (re-performed in 2018) biscuits, bandages and splints, dimensions variable. C-type print. Right: Lee Kun-Yong, 'The method of Drawing 76-3', first performed in 1976, (reprinted in 2017), C-type print. All courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South Korea. Image: Document Photography.

Installation view: Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area, 2018, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Pictured: Left: Lee Kun-Yong, ‘Eating Biscuit’, first performed in 1975, (re-performed in 2018) biscuits, bandages and splints, dimensions variable. C-type print. Right: Lee Kun-Yong, ‘The method of Drawing 76-3’, first performed in 1976, (reprinted in 2017), C-type print. All courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South Korea. Image: Document Photography.

In the same years martial law flourished, Lee Kun-Yong presented over 50 performances. His performances often took into consideration the site, context, space and body; his first two performances, Indoor Measurement and Equal Area, both consisted of him conducting a survey of the space that he was in, by measuring the site through his own developed method. Other performances investigate the traces between body, canvas and movement. His “Method of Drawing” series, for example, involves recording the movements of his body on canvas. Body Drawing 76, executed in 1976, was a performance where Lee continuously drew on and sawed down a plywood board into different segments, whilst also stacking them up beside him. The final result was a photograph capturing the artist, standing next to a plywood board roughly the same height as him, completely covered over with his line drawings.

In Tate Papers No. 23, art historian Joan Kee asks the question, “Why performance in authoritarian Korea?” Drawing specifically on the works on Lee Kun-Yong, Kee ruminates on the possibility that his works were a visual strategy to combat the stultifying, conformist rules that authoritarian Korea implemented. Writing that “Performance art in Yushin [authoritarian] Korea thus encompassed larger questions regarding the nature of artistic agency,” Kee notes that these works were “a critical task at a time when doubt was cast over the viability of outright protest or critique”. The art of Lee Kun-Yong occupies a special place in contemporary South Korean art history; a way of turning the visual politics of authoritarian South Korea on its head, Lee Kun-Yong’s performances, and their documentary evidence, tried to propose new relationships between the body and the space that it occupied – such was the extent of the regulation on both during those days.
Lee Kun-Yong,' The method of Drawing 76-3', first performed in 1976, re-performed in 2017. Image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

Lee Kun-Yong,’ The method of Drawing 76-3′, first performed in 1976, re-performed in 2017. Image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

Lee Kun-Yong,' The method of Drawing 76-3', first performed in 1976, re-performed in 2017. Image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

Lee Kun-Yong,’ The method of Drawing 76-3′, first performed in 1976, re-performed in 2017. Image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

Lee Kun-Yong and contemporary Australian artists
Fast-forward to 2018, the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney, Australia, held a five-week exhibition of Lee Kun-Yong’s works. Lee Kun-Yong (who will be 76 this year), presented a number of his seminal performances. These included a number from the series The Method of Drawing (originally performed in 1976), Logic of Place (1975), and Snail’s Gallop (1979). This time, Lee’s works were shown alongside works from contemporary Australian artists; as curator Mikala Tai stated,
It was a long process of discussion [about the exhibition] as we were keen to showcase not only his work but how he has influenced artists in Australia… co-curator Micheal Do and I crafted a curatorial structure that actively invited Australian artists to respond to his work.
After his initial performances during the run of the exhibition, Lee Kun-Yong would then hold a workshop with three Australian artists – Emily Parsons-Lord, Huseyin Sami and Daniel von Sturmer – allowing them to come up with their own responses to his body of work. Each of their performances were also shown during the run of the exhibition.
Installation view: Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area, 2018, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Pictured: Left to right: Huseyin Sami, 'Painting Cut Performance',2018, Acrylic paint on canvas, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery. Lee Kun-Yong, 'Untitled', 2018. Charcoal, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South Korea. All commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Installation view: “Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area”, 2018, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Pictured: Left to right: Huseyin Sami, ‘Painting Cut Performance’,2018, acrylic paint on canvas, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery. Lee Kun-Yong, ‘Untitled’, 2018, charcoal, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South Korea. All commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Curator Mikala Tai shared:
It was fascinating see the three Australian artists work together and learn from Mr Lee. Initially their works all seem to be quite disparate but over the course of the show these connections began to emerge. There was a kind of playfulness that they all adopted from Mr Lee and they all supported each other to experiment, to take a few risks and to see what kind of work they could create when outside of the studio.
Installation view: Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area, 2018, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Pictured: Left to right: Lee Kun-Yong and Huseyin Sami, 'The method of Drawing 76-1-18' and 'Painting Performance (with feet)', 2018. Acrylic paint on door, dimensions variable. Lee’s work courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South Korea. Sami’s work courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery.

Installation view: “Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area”, 2018, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Pictured (Left to right): Lee Kun-Yong and Huseyin Sami, ‘The method of Drawing 76-1-18’ and ‘Painting Performance (with feet)’, 2018, acrylic paint on door, dimensions variable. Lee’s work courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, South Korea. Sami’s work courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery.

From surviving and flourishing through the rough days of Korean history, to making a global impact, Lee Kun-Yong is a difficult name to erase from the annals of art history. Remarking on the exhibition, Tai says:
I hope that our visitors will not only marvel at the exhibiting artists work but also see how important figures in Asian art and Asian Modernity continue to influence the practice of contemporary Australian artists today.
Noting that “This interconnectedness and constant dialogue between Australia and the region is a very special part of our culture,” Tai hopes that visitors walked away with a broader view on how dynamic these connections are. Lee Kun-Yong’s art, it seems, will endure for a long time to come, influencing emerging generations of artists.

Junni Chen

2096

Related topics: museum shows, Korean artists, Lee Kun-Yongevents in Sydney

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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