Features / Focus

Behind the Beauty - An Interview with Lee Wan

posted 26 Jan 2023

In September 2022, the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS) collaborated with Art Asia Pacific, who specializes in Asian Art, to publish an in-depth look at Korean contemporary artists in the book Extreme Beauty: 12 Korean Artists Today including artworks from artists who each represent different genres, such as painting, installation, sculpture, video, etc. This gained particular interest, as it appeared during the busiest month in the Korean art market, with global attention focused squarely on Korea.

Each artist’s works are explored through critiques by both Korean and international experts. This composition transcends age and genre differences, and fully reflects the diversity and dynamism of contemporary Korean art.

The ARTRO will be featuring the “Behind the Beauty” series of articles to introduce the featured artists and their works, which will provide a better understanding of the book Extreme Beauty. In these feature articles, each artist will introduce a piece of their own work that he/she thinks is most meaningful and will tell the story behind it. Readers will be able to approach these pieces clearly and easily through such lively contextualisation.

〈고유시(Proper Time)〉(2016)와 〈더 밝은 내일을 위하여〉(2016)가 함께 전시된 모습.

Installation view of Proper Time (2016) and For a Better Tomorrow (2016) together. Photo provided by the artist.

More than 600 clocks filled the walls of the Korean Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The clocks were engraved with 668 names - ranging from the familiar to the strangest. They came from around the world and each moved at a different rate, making them the most inaccurate clocks in the world. Lee Wan’s Proper Time (2016) shows the time as determined by the amount of time the named individual must work in order to afford a meal. Therefore, it is the most accurate clock for each of those 668 people, simultaneously revealing a cross section of the capitalist era. Lee observes everyday elements, such as a meal, to reveal the hidden structures behind them. He raises questions about the legitimacy of the system by sharply capturing irresistible points within that huge system that cannot be overcome by individual attempts. While his finished work suggests a cool and calm approach, his working process is very enthusiastic. In the book Extreme Beauty: 12 Korean Artists Today, published by the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS) in collaboration with Art Asia Pacific, Lee is introduced as “an artist who threads his way through the world, meeting various people and observing their history and lifestyle, and weaves together the diverse perspectives procured along the way to produce his own theory.”1)

Can you describe the process of how you begin a new work?
First of all, I try to have a lot of experiences on a daily basis. Many people say that I am an artist who delivers social messages. However, I have never thought that I should deliver a social message through my work or create a work that changes the world. Rather, the daily life of an ordinary man in his 40s, in Korea, in the 21st century becomes the source of my work. Among them, I am particularly paying attention to contradictory points or incompatible parts that individuals cannot decide on their own.
Let me explain the process of daily life leading to my work. For instance, the series Life is widely spreading blood-red ripples, which I worked on between 2007 and 2008, was inspired by shopping at a supermarket. Around that time, as I started living on my own, I went to the supermarket quite often, and suddenly realized that all the supermarket looked the same. It was true that no matter which one you go to, you’d see similar things being sold and people coming to shop. So I wondered whether such identical landscapes resulted from the capitalist system and the operating process of production-sale-consumption. This thought soon led to questions about the meaning of ‘choice’. For example, when we choose bottled water, we think we are choosing one of several brands, but in fact we are just choosing from a set of products within the system. If we have no option but to make a certain choice, I wondered if there was a way not to become a consumer within this system. This led to addressing a question like 'what if I become the final producer by reprocessing the purchased item?'
Chicken Baseball (2008) was born from this same question. Chicken Baseball is an artwork of a baseball that I made from chicken meat. The responses were varied. Some people said: ‘are you just playing with what you eat?’, while others asked: ‘is chicken really a food?’. One of the most interesting questions was: ‘can a baseball, made of chicken, be called a real baseball?’. No matter what they look like before they go through the process of production, we only treat them as the same product. Hence the process before production is not visible. Through my work, I wanted to ask questions about the stage before becoming a product by re-processing the produced product. This work allows us to think about ‘what makes a product (chicken and baseball)’ when it is in a state where a chicken is no longer a chicken and a baseball is no longer a baseball.
In this way, I start my work by observing my surroundings. I observe, analyze, and constantly record the thoughts that come to me. I classify and list the questions derived from one thought. When these questions come together to form their own structure, I start working in earnest. That's why it takes relatively more time to organize my own thoughts and structure compared to the time required to actually make a work.

〈Life is widely spreading blood-red ripples〉 연작 중 일부. (왼쪽) 〈The Mirror〉, 2009, 갈린 소고기, 재제조. (중앙) 〈The Traditional Tower〉, 2009, 갈린 소고기, 재제조. (오른쪽) 〈The Shelve〉(2009), 갈린 소고기, 재제조.

A part of Life is widely spreading blood-red ripples. (Left)The Mirror, 2009, Ground beef, remanufacturing. (Centre) The Traditional Tower, 2009, Ground beef, remanufacturing. (Right) The Shelve, 2009, Ground beef, remanufacturing.

〈Chicken Baseball〉 연작 중 일부, 2008, 갈린 닭고기, 재제조.

Chicken Baseball, 2008, Ground chicken, remanufacturing.

You have been working as an artist for many years now. Can you introduce any work that you are personally attached to or that has a special meaning to you?
I am most attached to the work Made in Series (2013-), to which I devoted my 30s. Made in Series is a project involving going to each product’s country of origin and producing the product first-hand. We encounter beautifully displayed products at the supermarket every day, but we do not know how they come to appear in front of us. I began this project with the idea that if I am only currently able to see the final stage of the production-sale-consumption process, I also want to see the initial stage. So I travelled to Taiwan to grow sugarcane to make sugar, and went to Thailand to work at a silk factory, making yarn and fabric. I farmed rice in Cambodia and mined gold in a mine in Myanmar. During this process, I met many people and witnessed the everyday life and environment of each country. I think my artwork therefore stems from an experience of real life. I think that an artist can only create works containing the experience of his/her age. As such, Made in Series is special to me, as it entirely depicts my own experience.

〈메이드인 시리즈〉(2013~). 왼쪽 위부터 시계 방향으로 태국, 대만, 캄보디아, 미얀마.

Made in Series (2013-), Screenshots of Thailand, Taiwan, Myanmar and Cambodia.

I would like to ask you what this work means to you.
Through this work, and while meeting people and experiencing the production site first-hand, my perspective on the world has changed a lot. I no longer look at beautiful things as they are. While touring the worksites in various Asian countries, I witnessed rigid systems and structural problems hidden behind beautiful products. I saw children forced into labor, and women and workers who lacked protection. When I got a job at a silk factory in Thailand, my senior was a woman who leads a family while also working diligently in the factory. She was a sincere and strong woman. We got along well, I learned to work hard from her diligent attitude, and often visited her house on my days off. So I got to hear many stories, and I was told that the company cured her cancer. The factory was an American company and people were very favourable towards it because it paid for her medical treatment. However, when I heard that story, my heart felt many complicated emotions. It seemed to me that the chemicals used in the factory caused the cancer. The site was far from safe. Above all, all the cats living in the factory had crooked tails and backs, and I wondered if it was because of the chemicals. The story I am telling now is a story that anyone would know, maybe anyone could tell. But after experiencing such a situation up close, things looked completely different. The world is overflowing with beautiful things, and my house is filled with things I like. But since then, they all felt like a mirage or a trick that covers my eyes. This work gave me an opportunity to experience the structural problems that I had previously only understood in my head.
While traveling all over Asia, I also realized that Asia experiences a communal history and the people's consciousness is undergoing a common change under modernization. Modernization is not only affecting the economic and social structures, but also changes the structure of people's consciousness. Asia was originally a region where ethnic traditions had been handed down for thousands of years. Most of the country lived settled lives in an agricultural society and people had their own territories. Much of their spiritual and physical heritage has accumulated inside them and their culture over thousands of years. However, as the process of modernization takes place and neoliberalism spreads, their heritage and traditions gradually lose their meaning and are rapidly being commercialized. Similarly, Korea lost its unique culture and spirit little by little as it underwent rapid economic development in the 80s and 90s.

(왼쪽) 〈메이드인 시리즈〉, 대만에서 만든 설탕과 설탕 그릇, 그리고 설탕 스푼. (오른쪽) 〈메이드인 시리즈〉, 태국 실크 공장에서 일하는 작가의 모습.

(Left) Made in Series (2013-), screenshots of sugar, sugar bowl, and sugar spoon made in Taiwan. (Right) Made in Series(2013-), screenshot of the artist, working at the silk factory in Thailand.

Please tell us if there are any interesting anecdotes or stories behind your work during the process.
Actually, I was going to go to Bangladesh for the Made in Series, but I was not able to. In Bangladesh I planned to catch shrimps and make ‘saewookkang’- shrimp flavoured crackers. As a low-lying country, Bangladesh has been especially vulnerable to changing sea levels due to global warming. Quite a large area of land has become submerged, to the degree that the main industry has changed from agriculture to fishing and aquaculture, and as a result, they do a lot of shrimp farming.2) Global warming has thus altered the country’s key industries. Bangladesh is not able to compete agriculturally with neighbouring countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, which all have fertile land for farming. The higher sea level and greater tidal difference brought the rapid growth of aquaculture industries in Bangladesh. However, as the country moved from agriculture to aquaculture, many people engaged in farming faced the problem of losing their jobs. Moreover, aquaculture requires relatively fewer workers than agriculture. This becomes a serious social problem in Bangladesh, a country with a small economy, where the number of unemployed has increased significantly. I wanted to include this background in the Made in Series, but unfortunately, I couldn’t get there.

When you are dealing with a social topic, I assume you would consider the method of expression the most important. Tell us about what you focus upon when you produce your work.
As I work with social issues, sometimes some people ask me why I don't speak and act more strongly through my works. However, I don’t want to limit myself by expressing my political opinion as an artist. Instead, I try to listen to as many diverse voices as possible, while considering the overall phenomenon and structure. I like the works of Francis Alÿs,3)among which is Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes making something leads to nothing), a video work that shows the process of walking and pushing an ice block until it melts. In the video, Francis Alÿs appears and pushes the ice without saying a word, until the large block of ice melts away. The video ends there. This simple video elicits diverse responses. Some people come to the realization that 'yes, what we live for may be similar to just silently pushing and walking until the ice melts'. While others are frustrated, saying ‘he should push more quickly before it melts. Why doesn't he use a car to be more efficient?’ This simple piece can accommodate many ideas. I also hope that my work could be interpreted in various ways. In this regard, How to become us (2011) is a work that can be interpreted ambivalently. The piece is randomly assembled by re-cutting 60 objects to an average weight of 5.06 kg. Some people are reminded of the violence of social standards, while others are concerned with the subjectivity of the individuals themselves who are looking at objects that have the same weight, yet all look different. I personally like the work because the meaning is not fixed and can be interpreted in many ways.

〈우리가 되는 방법〉 연작, 2011

How to become us, 2011.

Lastly, how does artistic practice affect your life as an artist?
The more I continue to work, the more I think about what I can do via my work. The reality of economic and structural inequalities and the capitalist system depicted in the Made in Series made me dwell on some thoughts. I could not decide whether I should ignore them as if I was ignorant of them, or whether I should take action to try to change this situation. After some contemplation, I decided to do what I can with art. That's how I came to make a work titled Proper Time(2016), derived from the Made in Series. If I witnessed the gap between the manufacturing country and consuming country in the Made in Series, Proper Time tried to discuss the universal values that ordinary beings consider important, despite such disparity. Proper Time is a work in which I asked numerous people from different countries (whom I had met through the Made in Series) about how long they had to work for a meal, and then interviewed them about their memories related to the meal. I asked them to share some of the most precious memories they had involving the meal, and most of them talked about family. People told me of memories with their deceased parents and anecdotes about their siblings. As I listened to the stories of over 600 people, I liked that all of them had similar thoughts about their families despite their different roles, incomes, and living environments.


1) Lee Daehyung, ‘Standard Politics,’ Extreme Beauty, p.150
2) Donatien Garnier, “Bangladesh’s Climate Refugees”, Le Monde diplomatique (2007, 04.12), translated into Korean, Hankyoreh Newspaper, https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/international/asiapacific/202670.html
3)Francis Alÿs is a Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist. Through his unique poetic and imaginative sensibility, Alÿs conveys the anthropological and geopolitical issues encountered through observation and intervention in daily life. http://artsonje.art/francisalys/

Lee Wan

Lee Wan works on various mediums, focusing on irresistible systems that affect individuals and groups, such as politics, economy, history, and culture. He is the winner of the 1st ARTSPECTRUM Award organized by Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in 2014. He was a participating artist in the 10th Gwangju Biennale and won the 26th Kim Se-choong Sculpture Award in 2015. In 2017, he was selected as the featured artist for the Korea Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. His works are in the collections of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul Museum of Art, Foundation Louis Vuitton, Cheongju Museum of Art, etc. He recently held a solo exhibition “Random Access Memory” at Gallerie X, Seongsu-dong in Seoul.

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