People / Critic

LEE Hyekjong : Dream of Icarus

posted 11 Sep 2020

Initiation of Artistic Practice
Where do these art garbages go. In 2003, about time to graduate from painting department at the college of Fine Arts, LEE Hyeokjong felt extreme doubts about art. At the end of his idle life almost like self-discipline facing the wall, he performed 〈Self-installation〉 (2003) three times in the campus as a part of final excretion. These actions took its motive from historical executions and the body facing death. The very first performance was to bury his own body except his neck under the ground where a lot of people come and go. He confronted them for 4 hours. His second work was 〈Sound from the Underground〉 (2003). The artist was confined in a coffin buried under the ground. Through a thin pipe connected to the coffin, he recited the printed materials he prepared.

“I present this to you to share what I felt from the Daegu subway fire disaster that recently happened. So far, there have been multiple immense catastrophes (not natural disasters) in our society, which one human being can hardly endure. Catastrophe is a matter of legal system. Catastrophe is a matter of administration. Catastrophe is a matter of culture. Catastrophe is matter of ethics. By communicating with other sectors, we need to realize the catastrophe comprehensively and attempt to unify members engaged in same profession and then fight against ‘fruitlessness’ of job in this society and ‘potential catastrophe’ individual may undertake in this society. If we get employed without any preparation after studying something given, and adapt ourselves to existing negative order, we can’t help but repeat these catastrophes. Therefore, we need to talk.”

His final work was to hang himself under the slogan ‘History Study’ on the wall of the school cafeteria for 4 hours.
After graduation, LEE Hyeokjong drifted around here and there in the society. He once joined a cod fishery ship that goes fishing for about fifteen days in the intermediate zone between Korea and China. Sea sickness precluding him from eating. Life on a ship without commuting for more than 10 days. Endless works with about 10 sailors. LEE confesses that this experience gave him not only psychological shock but new inspiration. After learning of ambivalence between experiencing labor site firsthand and pondering upon it from a distance, he decided to start artistic work before it’s too late.

Ideology called Ecology
〈Winged Figure〉 (2007) which was presented to the exhibition at the Bupyeong-gu Office of Incheon in 2007 was his first work after those times. LEE collected leftover rice from diners near the gallery, as if he were a begging bonze. Although he explained it was for his artwork, most diner owners gave him the rice with pitiful faces. He attached rice grains on the glass walls of the office before those grains ran dry. These grains blocked out lights coming from window like stained glass. The shape the artist created was a winged man flying over the window. This winged figure develops into the motive of Icarus in LEE Hyeokjong’s later works.

In Greek myth, Icarus flies high up in the air forgetting his father’s warning “If you fly too high, the wings will melt with the heat of the sun. Don’t fly too high.” Eventually when the wax holding wings to his back melted, Icarus plunged into the Aegean Sea and died. If ‘Icarus Wing’ signifies human’s yearning for the unknown world, LEE Hyeokjong has dreamed of reaching beyond the current capitalistic system and values through art. For him, the clue to escape lies in ecology.

From 2009 to 2011, LEE worked on Icarus Project in his 3 solo exhibition. “With the moto of artistically exploring the contact point of capitalism and ecology”, he created artistic works utilizing things which deviated from capital circulation system. His second exhibition 《Minus Capitalism Shop》 (Brain Factory, 2010) was held with 6 colleague artists from Gleaner Group which he is a member of, where he presented a new circulation system for selling those objects. One artist who participated in the shop produced a ring with his own gold tooth, and LEE Hyeokjong sculpted on lumber fragment and displayed it for sale.

This exhibition’s purpose was to use the margin from the sale for communal property. Instead of leaning on public institutions’ or corporations’ support, he aimed to establish the ground for autonomous existence when proceeding public art project. LEE Hyeokjong wrote after reading 『Transcritique: On Kant and Marx』 (2003) by KARATANI Kojin as below:

“Commodities do not have value because the commodity has human labor within. Rather it’s an ex post facto recognition. An artisan only produces it based on his ‘faith’ that the commodity will be sold, in the situation nothing is fixed. In ‘Capital ’, MARX called the jump of commodity into money as ‘the fatal leap of the commodity’.”

But the institution called art market was more substantial than he thought, and the artist couldn’t make money as he expected. LEE is still thinking about how to put his ideas into practice some points such as artwork as commodity, artist as worker and the price of artwork in art market.

Room for Icarus Plan_Pax Egoria Documenta_Incheon Art Platform Gallery B, Incheon_2018. Image Courtesy of Incheon Art Platform

〈Room for Icarus Plan〉_《Pax Egoria Documenta》_Incheon Art Platform Gallery B, Incheon_2018. Image Courtesy of Incheon Art Platform

Interim Report of Artistic Practice
His solo exhibition 《Pax Egoria Documenta》 held in Incheon Art Platform in 2018 has subtitle ‘self-retrospective for self-incubation.’ It was his own exhibition encompassing all his activities from the local community art activities after graduation to individual works. The artist says he recognizes this as “one landscape combining various desires including the desire of the artist in his life.”

Some of major artistic practices are his local works funded by govermental institutions and proceeded with local activists in Banghak-dong in the names of ‘Goblin’s Federation’ (2011-2014) and ‘Stork Nest’ (2014-2017). ‘Goblin’s Federation’ was a community project for residents established in public parking lot of Goblin Market in Banghak-dong. This was an assembly of rooms with different purposes called goblin room, main room, women’s room, nature room, flower room and ‘119 room’ helping neighbor’s house repair or move. As this project became known as ‘exemplary case’, the autonomous region increased the funding. The project title ‘Goblin’s Federation’ was decided by participants’ vote. ‘Stork Nest’ was artistic project using neck of socks which were major industrial waste of Dobong-gu area. ‘Stork Nest’ developed up-cycling weaving and transformed these unnoticed surplus socks into symbol of art signifying the region.

But there was more than achievement in the field. For decision-making process of this kind of independent community, the positions of activist and artist were inevitably different. There was also inertial attitude accepting unpaid efforts of devoted leader and committed volunteers. Besides, there was another inertia to create a virtual ‘affective and beneficial community’ and promote it, rather than critical intervention in the local community.

All these were far from artists’ natural characteristics, i.e. critical but free at the same time. In the end, local activists thought artists were poorly participating and raised strong objections to them. Artists couldn’t help but stand back in front of the inertia of the real community movement which emphasizes the degree of participation rather than certain artistic achievements.

This experience left another kind of question to LEE Hyeokjong. It’s because he believed in designing a new community has its own aesthetic achievement in itself. Nevertheless, in this habitual dualism dividing artistic activity and community movement, his artistic practice has been categorized as neo-liberalistic lifestyle movement, in the end.

In 2011, for the very first time in Korea, the Seoul government purchased private housing and remodeled it to public housing called ‘Dure House.’ It consisted of communal spaces like kitchen and living room and individual spaces like room, bath room, and rest room. Although it was reasonably priced, sharing private space was reluctant idea. LEE Hyeokjong heard this news and suggested to public official to use the whole building for artist residency. After his suggestion was partially accepted, the 1st floor opened as artist residential community space called ‘Stork Nest.’ Due to administrative inadequacy, however, an older man in his 70s and female artists in their 30s got to live together in the Dure House. After 2 years, in the end, female tenants moved out and 1 male tenant remained. Those female artists are now living in one-room type housing clearly separated to each household.

At that time, LEE Hyeokjong believed that the role of artist in Korea is to narrow the gap between city government’s policy and reality and to suggest an alternative in cooperation with the public. ‘Governance art’ that he conceived, however, came to a rupture due to real limitations in communication with administration, political and cultural relationship with the local community, and bargaining power.

“ ... It would be better to change although the realistic limit is too high, it is still worthy enough to pursue. I thought digging a new artistic agenda is significant activity in itself ... ”

Later he restarted worrying about the individuality dismissed from the field and the status of artist demoted in the reality. Since 2017, LEE Hyeokjong has been performing roaming artist residencies under the title of ‘Wandering Residencies.’ After participating in artistin- residence program in Open Space Nu-e, multicultural district in Wanju, Jeolla Province for 3 months in 2017, he entered the Incheon Art Platform. Here he starts his Icarus project again. Between individual artist’s aesthetic achievement and public artist’s communal achievement, he is searching for down-to-earth method to establish art’s autogeny and self-reliance.

André GORZ once said in Ecologica (2008), “What ecological movement must do is ‘to change the life’, that is, to try to gain space for human autonomy and sociality in order to liberate life from (suppressive and destructive) system and its administrators.” Impeding destructive growth that capitalism endlessly encourages, and achieving productive post-growth. Practicing this in the realm of art. These two must be the record for LEE Hyeokjong’s achievement and failure for last 15 years.

※ This content was first published in 『2018 Incheon Art Platform Residency Program Cataloge』, and re-published here with the consent of Incheon Art Platform

YANG Ji-Yoon

YANG Ji-Yoon is currently the director of Alternative Space LOOP. She worked as a senior curator of Mimesis Art Museum and the director of Corner Art Space and participated in curator course at De Appel Arts Center in Amsterdam. She inquires into issues of visual culture extended from existing contemporary art and constantly pays attention to such works realizing radio, internet and social media into public communication.

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