Lee Minha: Science of fire, embodied language, and “ unforgettable things”
Namsoo Kim, Choreography critic
#1. “Light plays upon and laughs over the surface of things, but only heat penetrates.” (Gaston Bachelard, Psychoanalysis of Fire)
#2. “If the nature of such life or moment required that it be unforgettable, that predict would imply not a falsehood but merely a claim unfulfilled by men, and probably also a reference to a realm in which it is fulfilled: God’s remembrance” (Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator)
By presenting a form of intentional anachronism Lee Minha’s work reminds me of the artwork of the ancients, who have been banished into the future (the present). The work is archaic in style, as if it were scooped out of the historical tides of time, and brings forth a sacred language, not decorative, into the present, as “grand marks carved in the sky” and “the scribbles of the language of god”. What does it mean to recollect the sacredness of the past in this hyper-connected, mega-machined society? Which aspects of this contemporaneity in the artwork harnesses a form of sacredness, which is sometimes not unlike the ideology and business of religion? Lee’s work is a vivid example of a “secret treaty between the primitive and now”—a form of contemporaneity espoused by Giorgio Agamben. The work ties different eras together and make a tight knot, reminding us of a Gordian Knot that leads to a unified spirituality, not an insoluble mystery. A sudden appearance of an enigma, so to speak.
Tanning of sheepskin and inscribing text with a heated iron on the smooth surface is considered as a vernacular practice, and it is now treated as an ancient tradition before the modern era, from which it takes place. Not unlike shepherds who lived in caves and nomads of the nomadic era, something once visible disappears into an invisible realm. In this respect Lee Minha is a very special visionary who shows what has disappeared. According to Collin Wilson, a “visionary” starts from a point where anyone can understand, and jumps to a higher realm where the ordinary cannot reach”. She opens the hidden dimension as a visionary in the dark, by writing the life of the other side through a science of fire. The opening and closing of the hidden dimension is most prevalent in deserted sites. This is why the wilderness holds a special space in Lee’s work.
What Lee Minha is performing in her work is not a simple scorching nor branding of text onto leather. Here is an artist who desires (if this can be named) to willingly sacrifice herself in exchange for visualizing Gnosis, or knowledge of spiritual mysteries. Lee takes risks when engraining the existential condition in her work because it requires not only skillful hands or technical gestures, but the artist as an empirical self who endlessly throws herself into a kiln. A recognition, that a life of a scapegoat and that of a human are not just marked as equal, but are considered equal, makes this self-immolation possible. It is impossible to bring the hidden dimension forward without a sacrifice.
An artwork that is technically seamless indicates nothing more than its being taken into the fold of the fabrication of the modern era. Meanwhile, Lee Minha struggles and gives herself up to the expression of text as marks from the hands of god to the realm of the mortals. The concept of exchange bridges a sublime infinity and the limited.
#3. “In order to satisfy the Arabs, the enclosed space must have (…) an open view..” (Edward Hall, The Hidden Dimension)
As a philosopher once said, “language is the house of being.” Lee Minha dwells in language. To be specific, it is the language of a larval-subject [sujet larvaires, Gilles Deleuze]. The ‘larval-letter’ crawls and roars — like Roaratorio by John Cage — and its calligraphy wiggles and squirms. The strokes of the letter, the tracks and the traces are signs of its vitality (also its angle and direction). The larval-letter shouts out into the direction of a fork — this way!— as if to engrave the eternal trace of the way. Some letters that once belonged to god cannot be pronounced.
Therefore, ‘the house’ is a place to return to. When one is born ‘the presence’ is blessed and anointed, but we all forget their faceless beings — pristine, unrefined yet chaotic, without characteristic eyes, noses, and mouths. The house is a place for seeds where all the beings gather to recover their original existence, prior to language or the texture of things. Lee Minha writes stories and a history of people in a simple and clear language, with the power of fire and iron, so that the scorching sound and smell sends them back to ‘the house’. This is what ‘the house’ is for.
The above is one possible thought for the reason why artist Lee Minha attempts to reveal gnosis, or spiritual knowledge, by scorching sheepskin with an iron like a tanner. However, the method, ironing as a fruit of the science of fire (though modern science cannot answer to what fire really is) is another aspect of the work that deserves attention. The artist imprints text on sheepskin with an iron heated by the fire of god—instruments from an ancient era. Yet, unlike palimpsest, her inscription is conducted once and for all. Written without corrections, the work is a book written with the language or science of fire. Consequently, all living beings have a place to return, ‘the house’ that will last, and the history of a visionary that reveals this hidden dimension continues. Hence, Lee’s work requires us to see it with a dimension of myth and adventure. It is inevitable, in regards to the spiritual aspect of the work.
Ironing, in the work of Lee Minha, is not of light but of heat that penetrates. This heat recalls a scorching sound on skin, the burning smell and pain from a collective unconscious passed down from the ancient age and the medieval age. On the surface of textured sheepskin, the chronicling of a collective memory is revealed. It forms a tableau the artist works on that carries archetypal memories accumulated under the skin. The surface bears traces of life, its hardship, and the ethical imperative of remembering. This is only possible within ‘god’s remembrance’ (Walter Benjamin). In this regard Lee’s work is accompanied by a religious aspect. Those who bear every corner of life—some would dare call it empathy—, from its unfolding, its severe depth, and its ups and downs, come closer to a Leibnizian concept of god. Therefore, it is god who is confessing—some confessions are divine.
#4. “Looking for one’s own nothingness in a fire that speaks of human greatness.” (Empedocles)
The topology of Lee Minha’s work contains the following: Even a divine being needs a specific context, foreshadowing, and allegory in order to present itself in front of today’s human spirit — in layers and plys, immediacy and presence, olfactory minds, and things highly Gnostic. Things that become gradually outdated and discarded within the waves of New Media art. In a time of New Media that replaces older forms of media the artist suddenly and conspicuously summons the primitive sign of the medium. She does so as if she argues that all lives are immortal, and thus should not be forgotten. It is as though she testifies that what lasts in memory is a sign that teaches us immortality. “It is a life that without monument, without memory, perhaps without witness, must remain unforgotten. It cannot be forgotten. (Walter Benjamin, An Aesthetic of Redemption (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 44). An absolute positivity lies deep inside the marks made through the science of fire, and appears as a transcended negativity – like that of a phoenix.
“ I blinked my eyes in a sandstorm and I was at Incheon.”
“A heartless act is only selfish and self-satisfactory”
“In fact I long for people deep in my heart”
“My marriage demanded me to live in a different way”
“Discriminations surged my life like rustling paper”
Lee Minha’s work is tinged with a religious promise, like the story of a human who jumps into the flame and is revived like a phoenix with the signs and marks of eternity. There is a tacit implication that an unforgettable essence works as a measure of intensity. In the project Anamnesis (2017) the artist lies down like a tableau in which the ironing is symbolically performed, and in which diverse stories of those from different regions are incised like aphorisms in their own foreign languages. In that moment the body of the artist is the Tower of Babel, as ‘the house’ where heterogeneous language returns. Lee provides her own body as a room for dispersed languages to gather to become spiritual seed. The body is simultaneously the flesh of the scapegoat, a body in flames, and a pile of ash. In the next moment, it rises as another life form from its ashes. It is “a bird of fire” for Gaston Bachelard, and for Lee, it “recollection”. Why does she recollect? Perhaps it is because of Gnosis - the fact that one, like everyone else becomes a phoenix when one realizes it. Through the ritual of sacrifice and by the science of fire, language is embodied onto flesh, appearing as the phenomenon of ‘recollection’.
In some projects Lee Minha not only performs the imprinting of text but also intones the text, bringing it into the present. By her chanting, text becomes alive with flame—it is not canned and preserved. Then, the text resonates within the space of the shepherd’s expansive cave, or a medieval library with an expanded domed ceiling. By intoning while transcribing, the very basis of recollection, the artist creates an acoustic image, opening a dimension that is both visual and conceptual. The same happens in the movie, Diary of a Country Priest, by Robert Bresson—in the scene in which a young priest of declining health writes his diary in agony—, the sentence is written on the blank space of the scene as it is read with a voiceover. The subtitles of the movie visualize the sentence, written once again. Listening to what is verbalized with one’s own voice is the foundation of an unforgettable life, and a life that is revived from the echoing of space. This spatiality is revealed in the performance of the artist.
Every life is a voyage to an ocean of pain. It is not a surprise when one encounters heavy storms—becoming nearly shipwrecked. This agony gets caught up in a vicious circle of the neoliberal agenda. Despite all this, Lee Minha does not attempt to resists the social. Rather, she argues that we can replace our existing sets of mentality with a completely new Tabula Rasa, transcribing what has been forgotten in the deep oblivion. Furthermore, she argues that this needs to be recollected. Why? Because this cannot be forgotten in the first place. Though life may be a moment in time, it is not meaningless —the instant, anonymous, ephemeral moment, are themselves signals of eternity. The temporality of the moment are captured and materialized by the language of fire. It is embodied by becoming a part of oneself, rather than through others. Because in navigating an ocean of pain through Gnosis, one might fall into an aimless religious routine, Lee asks us to see the essence of life as physical sensation, self-sacrifice, recollection and revival. No, she sends shock waves.
I would like to pose this question once again. Why does Lee Minha pursue her own spiritual language, in her work, by scorching sheepskin like a tanner? Iron has the concentrated power of fire on its tip, not unlike St. Elmo’s fire. As if Magellan’s fleet encountered the phenomenon in which a lightning strike created a glowing ball on top of the mast when they turned the corner through the vast Patagonian valley—following their destiny without any promise or religious faith. Allegedly, the crew prayed calling out the holy names of saints. Lee’s work provokes the same urge. God watch over us! Through the darkness a “muffled and distant, voice of god is unintelligible but resonates beyond the doors”. This is what we need to listen to, and burn with iron until it resonates. Iron has its secrets. A divine power is hidden at its tip as a ‘science of fire’ and with its concentrated power, drives life to be remembered forever, wherein each surface collides. Thus a “life unforgettable” is sensory. It follows the sensory channels.
The is the moment when a relief made by flames, appears and can be sensed by a primitive instinct. As I continue to ponder the Korean word, natanada (to appear), I am wrapped by a sensation of divinity all around – that which expresses itself in a language of “fire,” “smoke” and “smell”, in Lee’s work. Surrounded by five senses, we inhale the heat of life, the burning smell, and it’s stimulant all at once. All this is inevitable, in work of Lee Minha.