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After the Storm


Jee Young Maeng 

_art critic, curator of DOOSAN Gallery

Letters to You

When I look at you, I feel a distance. When I touch you, I am no longer able to determine where you have come from. I stumble for no reason every time I see you.


While wandering along the streets of New York, one commonly witnesses discarded umbrellas and other useless junk. These disposable umbrellas, which cost only a few bucks, are usually in bad shape—torn apart, crushed and thrown away, looking like proud scars after an exhausting fight against a tough storm. As their short curvy lives resemble human beings, their lost souls beg for recognition. 


Sungmi Lee, a Korean-born artist, spent her early life in the United States before returning to her homeland in 2011. Being an alien in a foreign country for so long, she must have experienced loneliness and an inevitable sense of loss. After having spent so many years away from her family and her own country, she feels strangely aloof from her native land as well. She has become a stranger in both countries. After all, it is this very sense of alienation that helps her see common objects as uncommon.


Lee collects broken pieces of discarded objects from the street that are far from beautiful. The translucent umbrellas featured in One Rainy Day (2009-2012) and the crushed glasses from a car window in The Last Gaze (2010) capture Lee’s character. Shattered bits and pieces are carefully shifted as if they are wounded children in need of desperate care. Lee brings them to her studio and meticulously pours clear resin over them as if seizing their moment of being thrown away. Then she repeatedly grinds them, or tries to gather smoke from incents and to capture it on Plexiglass, as with her Evanescence series. The acts of layering resin over damaged umbrellas and capturing incense smoke signifies her natural defense mechanism. She deploys mastering techniques in expanding metaphors and beautifully envelopes her moods with utmost delicacy.


They are all coming at once.

They are here to scare me.

They will never go away.

I cry my heart out.


Lee does not hide her feelings. Rather, she confronts them. Although she finds it difficult to put those feelings into a shape, she is much straightforward about expressing them in her works. As the transformation is drastic, from invisible to visible, it makes her works seem abstract and mysterious. The abstract forms ironically bring the viewers even closer to the reality of life.


Lee frantically encapsulates ungraspable memories or emotions that can live only in the moment. Moreover, the materials she uses, such as resin and incense smoke, are difficult to control and form into structures. It is fascinating to even attempt to imagine how one can imprison something that is impossible to hold. As Lee voluntarily opens the door to the realm of negation in life, she does not deny nor is self-indulgent. She does not back down. One may think that the translucent and pale colors of One Rainy Day (2009-2012) suggest an overwhelming sorrow hidden beneath the work. However the work embraces both doubt and hope at the same time.


Lee’s works are not about building a shield to protect her from whatever tough waves have surged upon her life, but about accepting the waves. Her works not only address a whirlwind of emotions, but also are to reach the point of self-forgetfulness through the artist’s seemingly painstaking and sanctified practice of creation. The process of her art making has a quintessential aspect that is similar to what German philosopher Eugen Herrigel writes about archery in his book Zen in the Art or Archery. 


“In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality. The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s eye which confronts him. This state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, thought there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.”


Therefore, Lee’s severely obsessive and repetitive process reflects meditative states in which process and result (the work) meet. The contrast between the polished and sleek surface of works embedded with Lee’s genuine contemplation and the uncontrollable material that she uses suggests distance from the gravity of emotions in her life. This is the reason why her works are not demanding. They do not pressure or manipulate viewer’s minds; they do not transfer their emotions; and they do not try to impress one or beg for one’s sympathy. Lee is concerned only with her own emotions and emptying them out, the process that heals her.


The underlying themes in the body of Lee’s works are identifying contradiction, recognizing human emotions, whether good or bad, and accepting those emotions. She never tries of searching for the fundamental foreground through her work. She does not hesitate to throw herself into a vulnerable environment. It is critical for her to fight intensely, and that causes the viewers to become aware of signals from the works and resonate with them. Lee elevates and transcends her works to a subtle sensation with a degree of refinement. Her sincere dedication toward the enduring working process purifies both herself and the viewers’ minds. There will always be an admixture of emotions in Lee’s works. And it will be no surprise to find that her pain never goes away. What remains in the end is not just a residue of bewildered despair but acknowledgement that it constantly resides within.


After the storm, everything will be different. After the storm, everything will be the same. I cannot go back. I only go forward.

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