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Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010

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Korean at the forefront of Japan's modern art

Modernist pioneer Lee Ufan helped found a key postwar art movement in the homeland of his people's former colonizers


Staff writer

For the last several years, Benesse Art Site on the island of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea has featured prominently in rankings of Japan's best tourist destinations.

News photo
Modern master: Artist and critic Lee Ufan stands beside one of his recent paintings at his home in leafy Kamakura, just south of Tokyo. Since moving to Japan from his native South Korea in 1956, Lee has become one of Asia's most important artists. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The publisher Rough Guides, for example, ranks the Kagawa Prefecture island's hotel and two art museums — set into a series of forested headlands — as the nation's sixth-most "must-see" attraction — ahead of Mount Fuji and the shrines of Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture.

This year, though, Naoshima's already superb facilities — operated by the Okayama-based publishing empire Benesse Holdings and a private foundation set up by its president — have been enhanced significantly.

Not only is the inaugural Setouchi International Art Festival, which kicked off July 19, centered on the island, but yet another museum has opened there — one, like most of Benesse Art Site's other facilities, that was designed by the world-renowned Tadao Ando.

In this case, however, the stately architecture is less significant than the fact of the museum's specific focus: It is devoted exclusively to the work of Japan-based South Korean artist Lee Ufan.

Lee, who turned 74 in June, occupies a unique position in the Japanese art world. An artist but also a critic, he first rose to prominence in 1969, when he played a key role in the formation of a modern-art movement that is still considered one of Japan's most important.

Mono-ha, which literally means the school, or movement, of "things," is actually less about the things an artist might create and more about the relationships in which he or she might place existing objects in order to convey tension or particular ideas. As Lee likes to say, he is equally interested in the "element that the artist makes" and the "element that is left unmade."

Yet, despite the prominence of Mono-ha in Japan's art history, Lee's recognition within the local art establishment has only come gradually. In the 1970s, Mono-ha was considered damaging and Lee a meddlesome troublemaker from abroad. It wasn't until 2001 that he was, more or less, brought into the fold when he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale — Japan's version of the Nobel Prize — for painting.

Lee first came to Japan in 1956, after spending just two months in an art university in Seoul. Since then he's primarily been based here, though as criticisms of his theorizing peaked 40 years ago, he started having annual sojourns to Europe, where he found a warm audience for his paintings.

Lee's artworks are mostly simple constructions. A typical recent painting sports a single, carefully applied brush stroke in blue — the product of a minute or two's intense concentration that is sustained, the painter says, by a single deep breath. Western viewers tend to interpret the paintings' simplicity as an expression of a particularly Asian aesthetic. Lee, though, insists they owe more to the Western Modernist tradition than anything else.

The paintings regularly fetch six-figure dollar sums at auction. A 1980 canvas with a series of vertical blue lines, for example, went for $410,000 at Sotheby's in New York in May this year.

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Lee Ufan in 1970 KIM S. S.

With the opening of the new Lee Ufan Museum on Naoshima, dozens of Lee's paintings and sculptures now have a permanent home. Even more will be brought together at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in February, when a massive retrospective for the artist will be hosted by the museum.

When Lee is not in Europe, he lives with his Japan-born Korean wife in a studio- residence tucked into the hills of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, just south of Tokyo. Their three daughters have left home — the oldest, Mina, is now a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama.

Lee was busy making new paintings in his studio when he took time out to talk to The Japan Times recently. Against a backdrop of vast white canvases punctuated by trademark thickly painted blue brush strokes, Lee discussed his art, the new museum, Mono-ha — and his complex relationship with Japan.

Congratulations on the new museum. What kind of venue did you want it to be?

I didn't want it to be a conventional museum, but more like a cave, something like a shelter, a place to escape to or to hide in. The plan Ando came up with is actually like that. For some people, it won't look like a museum. Some people might think it's a mosque, or a grave. That's fine. I wanted it to feel far removed from everyday life.

The museum is cavelike in that it is half underground. But, generally speaking, art museums are brightly lit, so you can see the art. The idea of an underground museum seems slightly contradictory.

These days, when we think of art, we immediately think of it being something that you look at. But it is actually only in the Modern period that this act of looking has been given such emphasis. Before then, there was more to it: myths, religion, social issues. People would know these stories and they would read them into the art. In other words, the act of appreciating art was completed in the mind.

With the arrival of Modernism that was stripped away, and you were left with the thing, the object, the artwork itself. I'm actually against that.

My art is of course visual, but I want people to imagine something more than what they see, more than is visible. So light is not so important.

You've mentioned your art, so I'd like to continue with that for a minute. You're saying that the idea is there is no meaning in the work itself, but that the work is a catalyst for imagining something bigger, something more abstract. I've read that you want viewers to come away from your work thinking about their connection with the world, the universe.

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Underground art: A view of the cavelike Tadao Ando-designed Lee Ufan Museum that opened on June 15 on Naoshima Island in the Seto Inland Sea. TADASU YAMAMOTO PHOTO

That's right. But when I talk about the external world, and its connection with the inner world, I am not talking about a connection with one's immediate surroundings. I'm talking about a connection to the world on a more transcendental level.

I don't make marks all over my canvases. I just touch them, maybe once. By doing that I can create a distinction between the areas of the canvas that have been marked and those that have not. And in so doing, I can get the viewer to imagine something deeper, a connection with the world on a more fundamental level — a sense of the existence of an underlying order.

Viewers in the West tend to look at your paintings and think their simplicity is characteristically Asian. How do you respond to that?

People often say that, but that is not the right approach. It is very ironic: Of course I was born in Asia, in a rural area, so I am Asian to the core, but the education I received was Western.

A minute ago I was being critical of Western Modern art, saying it has lost its narrative element, but, in a lot of ways, my work is a continuation of Modernism. It was artists such as Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich who simplified painting, reduced it to a concept. Then, in America, Minimalism went even further, reducing art to the very object itself.

But the irony is that when you reduce art to that level, then all of a sudden the viewer's attention shifts from the object itself to everything else. What kind of space is it in? What kind of time is it in? So the Minimalists ended up showing the opposite of what they wanted to show.

The aim of my work, from the outset, is to show everything else. The mark on the canvas is a trigger to get the viewer to imagine other things. This is where my Asianness might have played a role. By being born and raised in Asia, I might have been more in tune to an awareness of "everything else." After all, Asia has a monsoon climate, so there is a lot of rain. There's always things rotting and new life sprouting and, in the past, this gave rise to strong tendencies toward animistic beliefs. Asians are more likely to see themselves as living with nature, with the rest of the universe. So if you ask about the influence of Eastern thought on my work, then maybe that is one area where it happened.

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