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Fill Your Daily Life and Empty Your Mind


Soojung Kang (Senior Curator, National Museum of Contemporary Art)

Once in your life, you would find yourself standing at the bow of a boat. Looking at the depth of the sea, you are there to bid farewell to all your past time, as well as this very last moment. A question arises: Are those who are going to leave thinking also of those who are to be left behind? Sungmi Lee’s solo exhibition “Empty to Be Filled” at Gana Art Center is about the story of a person who has been left since then.




The fingers of the artist who is sitting at the working table with her head drooped, pasting pieces of broken glass from auto salvage yards, are moving in a regular rhythm. The apparently endless arrangement and repetition are occasionally interrupted by the passing state of absence of ego when her sense of self totally disappears. This tediously long repetition results in thousands of little light blue twinkles, from which rises her Empty to Be Filled (Let it go… It will be filled again… 07142012) as pale and haughty as a big full moon. This jade green-colored piece, rising silently in cries of shattered glass, offers an implicitly comprehensive epitome of the artist’s works so far.


To begin with, it is just so in that it uses glass fragments from smashed car windows. It was by mere chance that she became interested in broken glass. One day when she was on her way out to take her dog for a walk, she happened to see pieces of shattered glass scattered in the corner of a street in Brooklyn. Suddenly the thought flashed into her mind that those transparent but worthless, deserted, broken pieces were like a reflection of herself—an awkward outsider in a strange country. This sympathy or identification with thrown away objects was going to be a key feature that would distinguish Lee from other Korean artists who try to secure their identity as an artist in a defensive way. Soon thereafter, she began to attempt self-expression represented by concrete media such as broken glass in order to project her individual identity both as an ‘artist’ and an ‘Asian-born woman’ upon her art, rather than abstractly referred to such infertile concepts as ‘nation’ or ‘tradition.’ The sentiments she felt toward those feeble and thrown away items were an inspiration to make her develop her own visual language through the process of constantly reinterpreting and recreating them.


Lee accordingly never finds it boring or laborious to repeatedly work with bits of glass she got from auto salvage yard workers and in particular, fragments of broken windows of wrecked cars. She enjoys it like doing a jigsaw puzzle. It even seems that the artist takes the greatest pleasure in finding out new meanings in unsightly things, drawing out sorrows hidden deep within them, and then bring only their beautiful aspects to the real space. However, quite unexpectedly, her works produced in this way, although seemingly very solemn and solid, are not as heavy as they look. This is because their supports were made of light styrofoam. On the styrofoam surface, the artist repeatedly and intensively arranges dust-like pieces with her hands to let them find their way to form a certain area, until those tiny shards, jostling with one another, began to emit glow. And it is at this moment when these works momentarily embody the aesthetics of light by opening up numerous chasms in the discord between balance and imbalance.


In fact, these chasms were found as early as in Diary of Fall 04 (2004) with a huge amount of thin, sharp-cut pieces of glass standing vertically. These glass slides were held strongly together in a round shape, which looked like a pond in some ways, or a piece of the sky fallen to the ground in others. However, a longer and closer investigation will show you that the circle represents a mirror for mental imagery. As if reflecting the artist’s sharp attitude at that time toward the world, Diary of Fall 04 seems to warn that “if you come close to me and stretch out your hands or step into me, I will cut you down.” In contrast to this, The Burden in Different Perspectives: 04132012, presented in this exhibition, shows off more flexible and stronger shapes of black stalactites. This would be possibly the most concrete portrait of her feeling in all the works in display and, in this sense, is associated with the Melting series first shown in her 2010 solo show at Gana Art New York.


The series required the repeated process of melting and accumulating to create gigantic jade-colored icicle-like formations that are similar to huge lumps of coagulated mucus or tears, or seem to have the traces of old, closed wounds. The artist said the process was just like drawing with an object. In some respect, it was a visual evidence of her sense of loss. The unexpected death of her father whom she had depended on and loved the most plunged her into deep grief and loss, but she had to eat, sleep, work, and hold an exhibition in the turmoil of them. The love you received from your parents breeds an ability to maintain your dignity deep in your heart. It brings up a child into a responsible adult. It must have been so painful to her that she had to send away her father, the source of her self-respect, without saying goodbye, but cruelly, it is also the moment that all living things under the sun should meet someday as a part of nature. She too hoped that her sense of loss would turn into secretions like tears, to be accumulated, frozen, melt, and then naturally drained away or gone into the moment of ease. Nevertheless, what she was ultimately left with were those cocoon-like danglers made of countless layers of her wounds.


After returning to the familiar but strange working environment in Korea, the Melting series evolved into a new form with shattered car glass affixed to styrofoam: The Burden. According to the artist, the work, which was an expression of her heart’s complaint or pressure, rather than of grief, was a kind of diary only for herself. At first glance, viewers may be overwhelmed by huge jet black canine tooth-like forms coming from the ceiling, but from a little different angle, they will turn out to be splendid, beautiful chandeliers studded with thousands of pieces of black onyx. Worthless materials are reborn here as something much more elaborate and stunning, which, the artist murmurs to herself, is exactly the reason why she is living. In this way, Lee presents works with far more geometric and refined forms in this exhibition.


Empty to Be Filled(It really hurts: Jan.8, 2012) a three-piece work composed of three discs representing the change of the moon, is also a concrete expression of what was going on inside her. To ‘Empty to Be Filled’ may sound ironic, but it may be much more in conformity with the nature of man as part of nature who follows the far greater principle of how the universe works by letting go go his own reality. Furthermore, it also suggests that man as a broken and shattered being may seem to be useless and weak when seen in close-up, but he could be brilliant and beautiful when viewed at a distance or from a different perspective.

Yes. She has been submerged in the deepest of waters and now is beginning to rise from her being broken.




In her 2006 exhibition “Bearable Lightness” at P.S.1, Lee presented Untitled #600 (2006) using incense. In accord with the curatorial intention based on the technical aspect of the media, it featured works made of light materials with both traditional and abstract techniques. Just as she produced a plexiglas case overflowing with smoke from burning incense in “Bearable Lightness,” the artist, in this 2012 exhibition, displays some works using incense such as The Journey (Day 20) and The Journey (Day 25).


The two ovals, which were made by collecting soot from burning incense and laying it horizontally on the surface of plexiglas, best express the artist’s subconscious sense of form that manifestly appears in her art. For example, the translucent background material and dusky abstract forms remind you of the translucence of Chinese drawing paper, as well as the rich tonal gradation of the black ink, that is carefully achieved by rubbing the ink stick on the ink stone over and over again.


Here, what should be paid more attention to is the use of ‘incense.’ For these works, the artist burns incense and employs its smoke. Incense has been generally said to ‘intoxicate man to seduce him into the selfless ecstasy as well as has a mystical and incantatory effect.’ For a long time, it has been indispensable to sacrifices and its smoke has been regarded as a mysterious medium connecting between the sky and the ground and between God and humans. And by introducing this medium to her art, Lee represents the meeting and parting of man and woman as in Erasing Memory(Let you go) and Erasing Memory(Let me go). 

For each piece, she burned as many as 600 incense sticks and put an enormous amount of labor into capturing this going-up-in-smoke incense onto a plexiglas plate. She attached sheets of pater on the translucent plate and gathered the soot of smoke from hundreds of incense sticks. Then, she applied a thick layer of fixative spray on the surface in order to settle down this futile substance that was too ready to disappear even by a light fingerprint or a mere glancing touch. As you know, incense is supposed to stimulate the sense of smell.

It leaves only the perception of what you smell, or the fragrance that fills the whole place, embedded in your mind, while its physical entity is oxidized before your eyes. Lee’s art, however, goes against the entire process and prevents the smoke from going back to the sky. The smoke remains, only to hang around on the ground, like the artist’s mind unable to let go of her precious person. Therefore, her ritual for parting might have not yet been completed. Or rather, to tell the truth, she failed in holding the smell itself. It was only its traces that she was able to catch.


And this is why she had to turn her eyes to another trace of something that is running in nature as is shown in Starry Night with You #49 and Go with the Flow. Her version of starry night depicts a scene where transparent beads are scattered here and there as if drawn on the air and the bundles of semi-transparent, overlapping layers flow like a river running across the night sky. On the other hand, in reference to her 2 meter long drawing titled Empty Mind, Go with the Flow tries to give a more simplification, as well as a more delicate expression, of the stream of parallel lines in the drawing. Finished with varnish and based throughout on calculation, Go with the Flow pushes the impression of sparkling white to the limit, thereby forming a contrast with the naked beauty in Starry Night with You #49.



Sorrow will never disappear. It just goes deeper and deeper to your heart. In Dreaming of You, some white objects lie scattered on a round circle like petals on a pond. It makes you think of Jaemangmae Song, an ancient Korean poem about mourning a sister’s death and offering flowers to her. In the case of the artist, she ‘spouted out’ her grief for the absence and loss of her father in her drawings, which built a foundation for the works mentioned so far. Those drawings may be likened to a kind of ‘diary to be seen with the eyes’ or a record of her ‘empty heart’ surrounded by her daily life that seemed to just go and on, although she was in the state of losing someone dear. For example, in Reactivation in April, Lee drew countless concentric circles on transfer paper. She seemingly endlessly repeated drawing circles, like spinning a ring around, to pray for the repose of his father’s soul. Because mylar paper does not absorb paints, Lee had to also repeat the process of drawing in oil pen, drying, waiting and then drawing again. It was a very significant process to her.


Later, she returned to Korea in the hope that she would be able to escape from the life in Brooklyn where everything was just the same as before. But even here she found herself weighed down by the grief, or a burden to be unladed. In order to get rid of the burden this time, she began to fill her daily life with her works and empty her mind through them. Empty to Be Filled (30 days practice) is one of the results of such efforts. The work, which was produced for 30 days as is suggested by the title, may seem to consist of the same pieces cast in the same square mould, but they are actually made one by one by hand. The circles within the squares all have unique imperfect shapes, which suggest different images to different people, such as the moon, a well and the sand in a desert. Some viewers even say that the circles seem to represent the waxing or waning of the moon, or water in the heart, to reflect their own state of mind.


In another work in the series, Empty to Be Filled (Under the surface: Feb.09, 2012), the white discs have little thin silicon feet swarming on the other side. These feeble transparent feet under the surface of each circle, a symbol for the cycle of life, speak eloquently that everybody carries the burden of sorrow on his back. In this way, not by giving concrete stories and shapes to her personal experience of loss and distress, Lee rather allows viewers to find out a bigger and more universal meaning. In front of her works, they find themselves confronting the depth of the abyss in their unconsciousness, which will be projected on some image to reflect their mind like a mirror and then, uttered as various interpretations.


This was something that you could not expect in her earlier works made of sharp pieces of glass. As the artist confessed, it really seems that she has moved har away from the uneasiness. Therefore, seeing the works with which the artist filled each day in order to empty her own pain of grief and loss in the cycle of life and death, we too feel like praying that her new days grow out wholly.  

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