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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

by Edan Corkill

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.

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.

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.

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.

Can you tell me a little more about your childhood in what is now the South Korean province of Gyeongsangnam-do? I’ve heard you took painting classes from an early age.

I was born in a mountainous area. There was no electricity, and the education I received as a young child was very conservative. From the age of 3 or 4, I had to learn poetry, calligraphy and painting. This wasn’t to help me become an artist; it was just something that every child did.

My teacher happened to be good at painting. The first thing he taught me was to make a line and a dot. He told me that everything begins with a dot and returns to a dot. And, of course, the thing that joins the dots is a line.

By the time you were born, in 1936, Korea had been a Japanese colony for 26 years. You grew up under Japanese rule, and it wasn’t until after World War II that the Japanese left. What did you think of Japan and the Japanese during this time?

We were out in the country and my father was a newspaper journalist. During Japanese rule, he was very active politically and my grandfather had also been very active in the independence movement. I heard that during the (independence movement’s) Banzai Incident (March 1, 1919) my grandfather was stabbed in the leg by the military police and so he limped for the rest of his life.

So your family didn’t have a very good impression of the Japanese.

No. When it came time for me to go to primary school, my grandfather didn’t want me to go because the schools were Japanese. My father argued with him about it, saying it’s fine to be against Japan, but children have to study. So I ended up going to school, and when I did that, of course, I had to get a Japanese name.

Really?

Of course — that’s what colonialism meant. Everything was discarded and replaced by the Japanese way.

For our name, we took the Japanese reading of the Chinese characters for our ancestral home: Michikawa. Most people used their hometowns for their Japanese names.

How did the Korean War (1950-1953) affect you?

The Korean War was really terrible. It was really terrible. The rural areas, like where we were, went through a lot. But I think it helped to alter my impression of the Japanese. The memory of the Japanese got lost in the experience of the Korean War. That’s how bad the Korean War was.

You were a teenager then?

I was in the first year of junior high school when the war started. It wasn’t possible to study. When I got to high school, I could finally start studying again.

And by the time I got to university, my opinions of Korea — and Japan — had changed.

How?

As I got older, I started to see Japan as a highly developed, affluent country. That was the image of Japan that we all had — and that Korea was really behind it.

When you came to Japan in 1956, I believe you had studied for just two months in a South Korean university.

Yes, I actually didn’t intend to go to university at all, but my teacher and my parents said I should go. Once I got there, though, it was really boring. After about two months, my uncle, who was living in Japan at the time, got sick, so my father asked me to go and deliver Chinese medicine to him. I was happy to go, and when I got to Japan, my uncle said I should stay and enter university. I ended up staying here and studying philosophy at Nihon University in Tokyo.

What was Japan like when you got here?

It was completely different from South Korea. There was television and all sorts of new things. Japan had become rich because of the Korean War, and more international.

Was it while you were a student that you became friends with Japanese contemporary artists?

To an extent, yes, but before becoming interested in art I was mostly interested in politics. That was the time of the movement for reuniting the two Koreas. There was also the military coup in South Korea in 1961. I was writing a lot about those things.

You did that from Japan?

Yes — but ultimately it didn’t work out. Politics didn’t suit me.

The argument that I and other young people were using was that until North and South Korea were united, then nothing would improve — and we were totally against the military government in the South (which officially ended in 1962).

But then things in the South started to get better. Even while Korea remained divided, people’s lifestyles improved. Even while the military state continued, the economy got better. My relatives and friends would send letters describing how good it had all become. So, basically, everything that I had said turned out to be wrong.

After that, you started becoming active in the art world here?

At university I had friends who liked art, and we went to see art together and talked about it. But after I graduated, in 1961, I continued to become interested in avant- garde art groups, such as Neo-Dada and Hi Red Center. I thought those guys were fun, so I hung out with them. And, as I was doing that, they asked me if wanted to make paintings as well.

And in addition to starting to make your own artworks, you wrote criticism too. You wrote a famous essay on the artist Nobuo Sekine in 1969, which became the foundation for the Mono-ha movement.

Until about 1969 the most popular style of art was that which involved some kind of visual trick. The objective was to demonstrate that you can’t trust everything you see. People would paint something in two dimensions to make it look like it was three-dimensional. But in amongst all that activity — and I was making those sorts of works myself — I had my doubts. The art seemed too self-referential. It was all about art. It wasn’t connected to society at all.

Then, in 1968, Sekine created a work titled “Phase — Mother Earth” at Sumarikyu Garden in Kobe. He dug a cylinder-shaped hole of dirt (about 2.2 meters in diameter and 2.7 meters deep) out of the ground and piled it all up beside the hole in the shape of a cylinder. It looked like he had somehow extracted a giant plug of earth and placed it beside the hole. It was a very impressive work. It was a trick, but at the same time it wasn’t a trick.

By that do you mean it was not a trick because he was just moving the soil from one place to another?

In one way it was a trick, because people’s first assumption is that the ground is flat — a neutral plane. By extracting this earth, he seemed to be making something out of nothing. And yet at the same time, he was giving the game away, making the viewer realize that if you could somehow put the “plug” of earth back, then the ground would be flat again, and the work would essentially disappear, cease to exist.

How did that develop into Mono-ha?

Well, prior to that we were just thinking about tricks, so the process of making something was very important. But after Sekine, things changed: It wasn’t so much about making things in deceptive ways any more, but more about showing things. We started gathering things together or placing them in relation with particular places.

It was called Mono-ha, but we actually weren’t interested in the objects themselves; we were interested in the idea of not making anything, limiting the degree to which we made things, and then establishing a connection between that which has been made and that which hasn’t. We wanted to experiment with how things would look when we combined two things, brought them together.

Was it significant at all that you were a foreigner, an outsider?

Well it was both an advantage and a disadvantage. At first it was an advantage. In the late 1960s, young Japanese were interested in reappraising themselves and their identities, breaking down the old and building something new. Mono-ha fitted into that way of thinking nicely. Anyway, everyone was very interested in the viewpoints of foreigners. It was one of the times, I think, that Japan has been most open to voices from abroad.

But the more I started writing, and the more I started getting known, then the more people would ask, “Why are we letting this guy write this? Should he be doing that?”

What was the criticism?

Well, I was basically denying the act of creativity, the act of making things, saying you should just manipulate relationships and so on. So I was undermining what a lot of Japanese artists were doing. After a while, it became hard for me to be in Japan, and I ended up going to Europe more often.

When was that?

I was invited to the Paris Biennial in 1971 — that was the catalyst. I participated in that with a group of Mono-ha artists. The response we got was really good, so I started going to Europe every year, and after a while I started spending two or three months there annually.

Nowadays, I spend about seven months in Europe each year.

How are you regarded in Europe?

Well, when I first became known, there were some problems. People would say that I’m just doing orientalism or that the work is based in Eastern philosophy.

How do you want them to regard you now?

Of course, I can’t deny my own background, so if people want to talk about influences of Eastern thought, then yes, I have those. But these days it is better. People don’t say that I am oriental or Asian so much. They just say I am Lee.

What I want to do is think more about the problems in Modernism. Only recently have people started to look at that and say, “He is making an interesting suggestion about Modernism.” That’s very pleasing.

What’s your suggestion about Modernism?

Well, it’s this question of making and not making. It is relevant wherever you go — from Africa and Russia to America. At what point does something become a work of art? At what point does a mark become a painting? At what point does an object become a sculpture? Those are the questions I want to think about. It’s the starting point that I’m interested in.

And the starting point is the first dot.

That’s right. Even if you don’t paint a lot, the simple act of making that first stroke can set off vibrations. It can reverberate across the whole canvas, and it can set the imagination running. That, I believe, is the starting point of a painting. And when I talk about this, people from all over can understand what I mean. It’s universal.

So you’re providing the starting point.

Yes, that’s right. You don’t need to do so much, but you can start thinking from that point. Presenting people with that starting point — maybe that will be as far as my contribution goes. But even if that is so, I’d be satisfied.

For more on the Lee Ufan Museum, visit www.benesse-artsite.jp/en/lee-ufan/