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Lee Sungmi: Vulnerable Yet Strong

CHUNG Yeonshim (Associate Professor, Hongik University)

   There are a variety of objects in Lee Sungmi’s studio, produced using fragments of glass. As Eva Hesse created sculptural installations that resembled fragmented bodies, Lee installed figures of lotus, deformed umbrellas, and works from Empty to be Filled. From Glass Blanket, a work presented in the current exhibition, to untitled series where she records her everyday life, Lee’s work is filled with signs that symbolize collecting, remembering, return, repetition, and representation. Lee repeatedly creates figures along her everyday rituals, which reflect her stories that resemble a kind of “diary”. Similar to the repetitive act of writing where one constantly writes and erases, Lee’s work indicates a certain kind of performativity.

   It is said that Lee saw a glittering glass fragment on the road when she was studying in Baltimore, the United States. It was a trace of a car accident. Lee says that the fragment seemed to be similar to herself as a person who was living through a “selective diaspora” of studying abroad. The fragment of glass from a car was not just a simple object but a material that conveyed the urgent momentariness and nowness, accompanied with a violent moment of an accident. Such glass fragments are still waiting for the artist’s touch in her studio. Now in the mid-career stage of her career, Lee has calluses in her hands that she acquired while working with glass in different sizes for a long time. Through the artistic act of joining individual pieces of glass, the anomalous pieces form a line that conjoins each breath, becoming a plane that embraces the line. She uses ordinary materials such as glass and UV protected polyurethane without changing them much, reflecting different memories in the process through repetitive regularity and labor. Through such a process, the artist is performing “the ritual of process” in which she has a dialogue with herself and keeps silence.

   The glass, which has been transparent as a windshield of a car, comes to possess colors with a variety of nuances such as jade or celadon green. It comes as a beautiful shape from distance. However, when one comes closer to the work, the unique, fragile material and surface of the glass emit peculiar colors. Ironically enough, to Korean eyes, the matiere seen in Lee’s work reminds of the surface on Goryeo celadon. The painterly traces left by the smoke of incense and anomalous pieces without any title remind of Buddhist karma. Lee’s work, which presents diminishing traces, is an action to record temporary moments. Trace has also been a theme since the artist’s early works. Transformed from fragments to forms through countless layers of temporality, the completed work seems to be eternal as if it was a world of “perpetuity”. Such temporality must be related to the physical labor embedded in Lee’s practice.

   When Lee’s works were exhibited in museums such as the MoMA PS1, the Drawing Center, and the New Museum, they must have been read as representing the world of Zen or nothingness which minimalists had been immersed or being “one after another” that was constructed by repeating minimal shapes. Through the repetitive performativity, the artist arrives at the activity in which she immerses herself in and finds a remedy. When I was about to walk out from the studio, Lee said, “These works lost meaning after I came back to Korea. So, it would be the last for me to use glass in my work.” At the moment she said so, everything in the studio started functioning as an act of “writing”. The words confined in the fragments come as the writing on the sand that has been filled and emptied, which contain the monologue of the artist: Vulnerable yet strong…

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