Category Archives: Text-En

2017.9 Solo Exhibition – Mediating the Sacred and the Profane, Becoming a Sacrifice

Mediating the Sacred and the Profane, Becoming a Sacrifice
Kho Chung-Hwan (Art Critic)

The work of Lee Minha involves writing texts onto paper and leather. Lee began with oiled paper, and then gradually moved on to tanned sheepskin, cowhide, hog leather and deerskin. The job of tanning animal hides has long been considered menial. Therefore, the artist’s decision to transcribe texts on leather is not unrelated to her self-awareness of social vulnerability, not to mention the problems of social class distinctions. Lee is very much concerned with social issues and communal environments. For her recent project titled One Thousand Questions and Despair (2017), the walls of a tiny room in the Garibong-dong shantytown were almost entirely covered with texts. Firstly, Lee plastered the walls with oiled paper, and then filled up the surface with sample questions for civil service exams, the TOEIC test, and the real estate licensing exam. On the whole, the project can be described as a satire on the grim realities faced by today’s youth who have been driven to desperation with little hope for the future. In addition, Lee’s 2011 project Very Difficult Labor, which exhibited the entire process of inscribing texts on leather, was a way of honouring the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. The act of incising texts onto leather thus acquired a ritualistic undertone. By embracing the anguish of such socially disadvantaged groups as the younger generation and disaster victims, the artist heals their wounds and allows new flesh to grow (i.e. regeneration).

As for textual sources, Lee Minha has transcribed a variety of prayers written in many different languages. Sometimes the artist herself takes on the task of transcribing texts. Sometimes it is left to participants (as a form of audience participation), and sometimes a plotter is used for transcription. Why does she turn to prayers? What significance do prayers have in her work? What profound meanings can we find in the artistic transcription of prayers on paper and leather? Indeed, people pray for personal gain, and yet at the same time they are prompted by more fundamental concerns including altruistic and ontological values. Prayers are therefore ambivalent in nature, belonging to both sacred and profane realms. As a result, prayers mediate the sacred and the profane. By purifying what belongs to the profane world, prayers sublimate it to the sacred level. The sacred-profane connected is created through purification and sublimation (the sacred-profane dialectic?). Or, rather than newly uniting the two, Lee Minha reminds us (which then results in anamnesis) of the initial, connected state, the most primitive state, or the state at the beginning. The initial state (and therefore the archetype of existence) is then reconstructed and restored. Georges Bataille argues that in the initial form of existence, the sacred and the profane as well as life and death are all connected as one (continuity). According to him, mediation by capitalism and economy-first principles has led to a divide (discontinuity) between what is productive (secular life) and what is unproductive (the sacred realm of death). Given this, our task is to overcome the consequent discontinuity and restore the original continuity.

Lee Minha explores the correlation between the sacred and the profane, not to mention the restoration of continuity between the two realms. In this respect, religion is closely associated with the practice of purifying secular things and subliming them to the sacred level. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is to recite and transcribe prayers. If you continue transcribing prayers, you will eventually find that ‘self’ has been erased and that you’re only left with the act of transcribing. What does it mean to have one’s ‘self’ obliterated? It wipes out all your agony, desires and wounds. Having thus been erased, one then finally becomes transparent and complete. Here lies a paradox; paradoxically, deletion brings about completeness and ‘true self’ (true ego in the original state) arises only when ‘self’ is gone. In short, the act of transcribing prayers on paper and leather and inviting audience to participate in the effort is closely connected to the process of introspection that wipes out all anguish and desires, and then heals wounds by erasing ‘self’ and confronting ‘true self.’

What kind of texts does Lee Minha write on leather and how? As for textual materials, she mainly uses prayers, and sometimes participants are asked to each come up with an internal monologue (in doing so, they offer confessions and reveal their wounds). In terms of methodology, the artist uses irons to transcribe her chosen texts. When texts are transcribed onto leather with irons, participants soon smell the burning leather and see smoke. As they each give words to their internal thoughts, their wounds buried deep within are burned (purification) and then go up in smoke (sublimation). This is reminiscent of religious rites whereby believers visit holy places to confess their sins (wounds) and find forgiveness (alleviate wounds). We must also consider its symbolic significance. In fact, in one of her previous projects, Lee Minha built a sanctum in the highest and most even place (possibly a holy and divine place, a place that is found here on earth but is ruled by the heaven above – in other words, a church) and received postcards from local residents carrying their invocations. Such invocations are closely related to the act of praying, confessing sins and worries, and then transferring wounds perhaps very much in the same manner as the drop the handkerchief game. Furthermore, the act of receiving the villagers’ postcards with their invocations written on them has a symbolic and shamanistic meaning. This way, the artist lends an ear to their worries and embraces their wounds, thereby healing them as far as the villagers are concerned. Since participants resolve their inner wounds by revealing them, the artist serves as an impetus and mediator. She becomes a shaman (Joseph Beuys asserts that all artists are shamans).

As mentioned above, the artist invites each participant to share his or her internal monologue (wounds) in the form of written texts. Here lies the artist. She looks relaxed and at the same time somewhat defenceless. She covers herself with tanned deerskin as if it were clothing or a blanket. A group of five immigrants (two from Uzbekistan and one each from China, Turkey and Italy) currently living in Korea write down their stories of discrimination on leather using irons. The artist has asked them share such stories, which not only reflect her own interest in social issues (such as the situations of immigrant workers) but also encompass ontological wounds condensed deep within, going far beyond the simple problem of discrimination. When the participants incise their stories onto the surface of leather, the leather burns and smoke arises. Their wounds are resolved through metastasis, and within that process it is important to observe the leather burning and smoke arising. This is because it marks a symbolic phenomenon that records each step in the metastasis of the participants’ wounds onto the artist. It can be viewed as an archetype of the existing symbolic gestures and religious rites.

As I mentioned above, the participants’ wounds are transferred onto the artist through this process. Even though she is wrapped in leather, here the leather in fact replaces her body. Therefore, writing on the leather equates to writing on the artist’s body. In symbolic terms, the stories are etched on her body before it burns, gives off a smell and then goes up in smoke. Lee Minha becomes a burnt sacrifice. We single someone out as a scapegoat for our sins and offer that sacrifice to appease God’s wrath. Interestingly, René Girard regards this sacrificial process as part of our institutional frame (institutional mechanism) that transcends religious rites. The success of any sound and healthy system depends on how well we recognise scapegoats, who could reflect, transfer and alleviate people’s violent nature and desires (desire mechanism), turn people into scapegoats and offer sacrifice. This way, religion serves as a counterweight in the society steeped in violence, where the core system is built upon sacrificial blood.

In the future, Lee Minha is most likely to visit areas of conflict across the world where violence prevails. She will profess herself to be a shaman and sacrifice. A shaman mediates the sacred and the profane, and crosses the boundaries between life and death. Leather is taken from dead animals and therefore embodies death (corpses). Writing on corpses and overcoming death result in regeneration. From participants’ point of view, the death of the scapegoat (shaman) heals wounds and generates new life by reducing violence (violence and desires). The artist sometimes puts on such an emblem of death (leather inscribed with wounds and therefore a body of burning flesh and blood) as if it were clothing, and sometimes uses it as a blanket to cover herself. Sometimes it even works like a screen onto which the world’s agony, violence and disputes are projected.

In Greek, anaphora means remembrance and anamnesis means recollection – a memory deeper than remembrance, an archetypal memory, a memory of existence in its original state. In addition, hesychia refers to inner tranquillity. These three words are central to the work of Lee Minha and provide contextual insights based in humanities. It can be inferred that Lee aims to remind us of the archetypal existence while restoring and reconstructing the original state of existence. Only after we’ve experienced a process of self-reflection that forces us confront ‘true self’ (all of which perhaps leads to regeneration beyond death, and therefore can be seen as reform as well as cleansing rituals), can we regain inner tranquillity. Art is a narrative technique. The act of writing stories on leather can be compared to the act of writing a book. The book can be completed through the culturology of confessions that delicately weaves together the sacred and the profane, wounds and cures, violence and sacrifice (or Violence and the Sacred according to René Girard) as well as amusement and religious rites.

from the Solo Exhibition Catalog September. 2017

2014.5 Solo Exhibition – Scorching Thirst, Vestiges of Engraved Humanness

Minha Lee: Scorching Thirst, Vestiges of Engraved Humanness
Seyeon Park (Art Theory)

Minha Lee has been engaged in the work of transcribing prayers on paper and leather by hand. Her work involves collecting prayers written in various languages and transcribing each letter by hand. The results are colorful vestiges of prayers in different languages, which intersect and overlap one another beyond the national, religious or ethnic barriers.

For their focus on prayers, the works of Minha Lee may be interpreted as expressions of established religions. Nonetheless, Lee’s artistic attention is focused on examining ‘the mind and behavior of those who devote themselves to repetitive actions’. In her notes, Lee claims that the very act of praying could be viewed as a point of contact for expressing ‘the Sacred and the Profane’, otherwise known as the dilemma of humanity. She argues that while it is a human instinct that we put our own safety and comfort above all else as a matter of foremost priority, we at the same time also have higher moral aspirations for altruism. In this respect, Lee is interested in the sincerity found in prayers of hope and entireties, whether or not their purpose is secular or sacred. According to Lee, a prayer is the most outstanding representation of humanness.

Lee’s earlier works, created prior to transcribing prayers, show repetition of drawing lines on JangJi(長紙), Korean traditional paper, using calligraphy brushes and ink. By repeatedly drawing lines in pale Indian ink, Lee must have been able to attain a spiritual state of perfect selflessness and experience the ascetic nature of such repetitive actions. Transcribing prayers has long been considered as a means of religious practice. Given this, there is a parallel between the act of drawing lines and transcribing prayers, and Lee has taken this similarity as her artistic motivation for her current work.

Initially she began transcribing in pencil on paper and then later proceeded to using other materials such as leather and a hand-held iron. Interestingly, Lee was inspired to switch from paper to leather after watching news about mad cow diseases. She witnessed a loss of humanity in the mass slaughter of animals for human benefit. Furthermore, Lee even reflects on the history of prejudice and persecutions imposed upon the leather industry that has been despised as a subordinate/untouchable industry. Such conscious associations are based on her deep-seated concern for the loss of humanity through conflicts such as wars and religious disputes.

The hot hand-iron transcribing work of prayers on tanned leathers of cow, pig or sheep produces a brunt smell and smoke, which then invoke the tragedy of war, hunger and massacre. The act of transcribing prayers by hand may look sacred but it gives off the smell of burning flesh. Therefore, the process of inscribing letters by burning leather is itself a destructive one. This paradoxical nature of the work reminds Lee of those issues she wishes to explore and pushes her to continue transcribing prayers.

Lee has made various attempts to share with her audiences what she felt and experienced during the creative process. She even held a public workshop where she invited spectators to participate in person. In addition, she installed a transcription device that allowed audiences to view both the completed work and transcription in progress at the same time. The current exhibition features an independent space for audiences to actively take part and interact with her works. Stepping into the dark, secluded room, audiences encounter a large silhouette of a human body projected onto a huge screen. As one approaches the screen, his or her attention is drawn toward the limbs. It is then assumed that the silhouette is an image of the artist transcribing prayers onto leather. Even those who fail to recognize this are led to respond to many sensory experiences, thus fully experiencing that very time and space as they stand in front of the silhouette of a large man amidst light and calm and hear the sound of the wind blowing from somewhere.

The title of the exhibition, ‘Anaphora’, is a word derived from Greek meaning ‘carrying back’. In rhetoric, an anaphora is a rhetorical device that denotes repetition at the beginning of clauses. It signifies the artist’s struggle to keep in mind the problems concerning human nature by transcribing prayers over and over again. In addition, by naming the aforementioned video installation work ‘Hesychia’ or ‘inner peace’, the artist hopes to let those living in the secular world experience inner peace through spiritual elevation.

Minha Lee is able to create light and strong effects by adjusting the temperature and pressure of her iron on leather. She finds similarities between this method of leaving an iron mark with a single stroke and the expressions of light and shade in ink-and-wash paintings as well as the process of writing with one stroke of a brush. What is next for this innovative artist, who has built upon her foundations in traditional art and expanded into various other mediums including leather, ironing, and video installations? Like the ancient ritual of presenting burnt offerings on altars in an attempt to communicate with gods, ,perhaps the artist yearns to achieve communication with the world or even some transcendental beings by burning leathers and inscribing prayers on them. In the future, I look forward to seeing her aspirations manifest themselves without the constraints of methods of expressions.

from the Solo Exhibition leaflet May. 2014

2007.3 Solo Exhibition – Mirror Meets Emotion

Mina Lee- Mirror Meets Emotion
Young Taek Park (Art Critique, Kyongi University Professor)

Feathers of ink, feathers of powder, and feathers of lead – from the surface of a large paper an outstretched wing appears. Even from a terrestrial perspective, the outstretched wing does not belong to a caged bird or to a wild bird, but rather the portrayed wing is a mere glimpse of something much more celestial. Taoists hermits, Da Vinci, and Daidalos, shared the dream of such winged icons. This shared dream of these iconic winged beings spans time, place, and race. In Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty, large wing models were buried along with the dead’s personal and prized belongings. Later on, bird feathers, were attached to the hats of revered statesmen of the Korean government and to the garment of traditional Korean costumes. Eaves of the traditional Korean houses were symbolically decorated with winged ornaments. Even in gesture, these winged symbols brought the human spirit closer to what it desires and what it longs to have.
Whether it is to defy the laws of gravity or to transcend the real world, the symbol of bird wings is inherently drawn in our minds. Although conventional, the imagery of wings is often used to rattle against the cages of societal norms. Soaring upwards and beyond, the wings in the art of Mina Lee elevate beyond the aforementioned imagery, and in fact, escapes the practical meaning of a winged icon. Through the proliferation of lines, directivity, and the sensation of movement the art derives overflowing vitality. Although Mina Lee’s abstraction of lines is fluid, the concrete imagery captivates the viewer to watch the piece. However, as one would not fully understand the depth of the supernatural, Mina Lee’s meaning is hardly limited to this world.
The inner contour of Mina Lee’s work consists of dense, hair-like lines. The precisely knitted lines resemble the roots of trees or even the beat of a breath. When stretched to its full extent, the lines seem to speak of time and term. The image of the wing is articulated well in its use of utility, illustration, and expression of the crafted lines. Moreover, East Asian influence of deriving meaning from individual line strokes is also present.
Mina Lee’s work contains an extremely large black void. This exaggerated element with in the work exudes an emotion of desolation, sublime horror, and sheer awe. Deep smoky lines connect the structure of the wing. The affect of these lines is an emotion of continuing escape, stretching and moving into infinity. The work as a whole, reminds us of our own mechanical limitation to see the true nature and true depth. In fact, the massive nature of the work, both conceptually and technically, at first seems like an unsurpassable mountain; however, through labor, discipline, and restraint, the artist uses self-curative methods to transcend.
The physical act of creating the sheer number of lines across the massive surface is an act that is assuredly feathered in unpredictability. Each element of the work’s creation must consider the factor of the time; furthermore, at each element, the artist is faced with the horror of uncertainty. These factors elevate Mina Lee’s work. The work’s dimension clearly shows the devotion and discipline of the artist. Simultaneously, the lower edges of the work celestially bridges reality and the realm of existentialism. Mina Lee’s work corroborates different elements to form evidence of the sublime and idealism.
Mina Lee’s wing is a collection of unique, minute lines that merge to not only create a greater image, but also to convey the individual life of each of the lines. Each line does not seek to replicate or to exist to give form to the greater image. The lines in the work represent a personalized existence – similar to that of a feather. The hue and depth of the ink employed by the artist creates a black aura that lives with in the monochromatic surface. This combination depicts an unknowingness that is stretched into darkness and fear. However, the darkness is also symbolic of the origin of nature’s creation. It is in darkness that the womb cultivates life and the possibilities of the life’s future are portrayed in the affirming chords of color. On this tangent, the black color was chosen to represent the unknowing depth and natural curiosity of one’s origins.
Art is often used to trigger introspection among its viewers. Perhaps for that reason, artists hope that viewers can mirror their own emotions of reverence, fear, sublimity, and admiration in the work. However, the monochromatic surface of Mina Lee’s work does not simply reflect or is a mere reproduction of an emotion. Via this simple observation, the artist’s work is far from existing pieces. Mina Lee’s work is more of a statement that is issued to the viewers. This statement forces the viewer to use her work as a flight point – a point in which internal conversations, or perhaps a topic of meditation, can be begun. Mina Lee’s work portrays the conflicting emotions of tranquility and destitution, which urges contemplation and introspection. The balance between, or even paradox of, articulated meaning versus beauty, is represented in this piece. The expansive nature, both in depth and dimension, of the wing, the viewers encounter both the breath of each line as well as the infinite state and sublimity of the icon portrayed. To this effect, the work should be categorized as an installation drawing; a monochromatic ink drawing that utilizes its physical nature to bring forth new dimensions of understanding and contemplation that creates a space for its viewers to release its psyche.

from the leaflet : March. 2007