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