Tag Archives: 작품론

2019. 11 The Devotion to the World in LEE Minha’s Art (Choi Yoonjung)

The Devotion to the World in LEE Minha’s Art

 CHOI Yoonjung | Art critic, Chief Curator at Oil Tank Culture Park

  Exploration into LEE Minha’s works led me to face my own limitations and self-contradictions, along with any inherent violence (as both the offender and victim) and negligent attitude. This discovery was the biggest challenge in writing this criticism. I felt as though I had to answer the question of how I see the events around me and related phenomena throughout history, and what I am doing about it in order to gauge my relationship with the world I inhabit. Thus, I gave my best efforts to be as objective as possible, a task that proved most arduous. Ultimately, the artist works tasked me with answering the question on what attitude we must take on in looking at the labors of humanity and myself. As this question besieged my innermost thoughts, it was like asking myself if I were capable of remembering and empathizing with the feelings of others as they go through certain situations. Such was the message that her works delivered me.

At the very least, my endeavors to recollect specific senses and memory-emotions had a certain clarity to it. I suddenly remembered Palimpsest (named after the archaic lambskin manuscripts that had the original writing effaced to make room for later writings). The text overlaid atop the faint remnants of scraped off letters served as the mirror of the human history of discrimination and violence. The reference to this recycled parchment became a keyword for me to determine the context of the artist’s previous works. This was her interpretation and modus operandi for studying human psyche and nature when faced with exposed (albeit in concealed and neglected ways) situations (history and events), which in turn drove her to take actions on her own terms.

In her solo exhibition Palimpsest (2013), she wove together bits of leather inscribed with prayers written in different languages, and donned the resulting cape held together by weft and warp. Vested in Prayers (2009) is read like a preview of sorts on her following works. When the weft and warp come undone, the leather patches become an atlas of a world rife with massacres and conflict, as seen in The Scorched World (2018 – 2019), or the testimony of someone suffering through the history of discrimination as in Anamnesis (2017) and Immolation (2017). The act of prayer “Kyrie eleison,” this human cry for salvation reminds us of the emotions of compassion and the direness of the situation. For the artist, “prayer” goes beyond an element of religious behavior to serves as a mechanism for studying human nature. Whether it is derived from the desire to achieve personal gains or the reverent, righteous plight borne of conviction and faith, prayer is a concentration of many complex layers of humanness, incorporating both human weakness and strength, avarice and nobility, anguish and joy. The physical symbol of clasping hands together while bowing the head appears sacred yet vulnerable, evoking the tragically painful limitations of human existence. As a part of conventional human habits and behavior, prayer is related to certain situations wherein bodily movements are generated or respond to external stimulations. As a close observer of human nature, the artist does not remain a mere spectator to such situations.

In Anamnesis (2017), she is shroud in leather. Migratory women participate in the work by branding the leather covering her with their experiences of being discriminated against in Korean society. The act of branding the leather with indelible marks appears akin to inscribing runes with spells that would grant these women the internal fortitude to overcome their difficulties. Therefore, these women are frail yet strong. As the sufferings of individuals disregarded by mainstream society leave permanent marks, each letter transforms these weak victims into the attackers now, exposing the skeletons in the closets of the powerful. Under the leather being branded, the artist lies naked with her eyes closed. With merely a sheet of leather between her and the women, she expresses the rage, sadness, and suffering of the women through her body. The artist appropriates this ritual of making an offering to listen to the women’s emotions and vivid testimonies, sharing the experience with her body. In this work, the artist’s body does not simply serve as a sacrifice of atonement, but also becomes ‘a body as a living proof of the testimonies’ of the women.

Her works expose the ugly underbelly of the mainstream society. At the suggestion of the pansori artist Song Hui Kwon, the artist collaborated on Trinity: Rewriting the Heungboga (2019) to rewrite the lyrics of the pansori piece into modern Korean and prove how the world portrayed in the song is little different from today’s mainstream society rife with discriminatory and violent perspective on women. Although the work still addresses both verbal and physical patriarchal abuse of women as well as the ridicule involved therein, they are delivered by the pansori artists who sing directly into the camera. Their expressions of range and intimidation resound potently throughout the work, piercing directly into the hearts of the modern audience: “You grab the woman carrying well-water back home by her ear, kissing her. You rape a nearly grown-up girl, you frame widows and dig traps on the road” – original Heungboga; “You forcibly kiss women on the street, rape high school girls, hit on divorced women and dig up holes…” – modern translation.

In A Concrete Box for Human Storage (2018), the artist presented a new installation work featuring a lotus flower design. Based on the Garibong Honeycomb slums where Korean women factory workers lived in the early phases of the Korean industrialization, this work takes the form of floor matting branded with the blueprints of the slum housing. The artist preceded this work by carving up the wallpaper of an actual house in Garibong Honeycomb to create the mandala design in Lotus (2017). As if representing the lives of previous incarnations, the mandala lotus addresses the suffering of those who once lived in the neighborhood. In place of Korean women factory workers, the neighborhood is now inhabited by impoverished senior citizens and foreign laborers. By observing the realities of life generated by the mechanisms of discrimination and oppression inherent in mainstream Korean society, she sought to step structurally closer to the phenomenon. Sometimes that meant searching around her immediate vicinity, while at other times she had to choose a point of perspective that would adjust or enforce a certain distance to ensure objectivity.

Burning flesh. The stench of burning branded leather fills the air. Stained by religion and ideology, human conflict has led to unresolvable (both intentional and not) disputes and massacres throughout history. When the artist happened to meet someone from the Syria Conflict, she built upon her interest in human conflict to further engineer her perspective on conflicts and massacres around the world, conducting specific research to underpin this effort. The Scorched World (2018) initially covered Europe, Africa, and Asia in 2018. Each point of coordinates marking a conflict zone was branded with a short prayer. The work presents the audience an opportunity to act as a distant observer that monitors the world from an omniscient point of view. The following year, the artist expanded the scope of The Scorched World (2019). The coordinates include the Americas as well as Australia, to address the apartheid issues in the latter. The work addresses cases of extreme conflict such as religious disputes, racism, history of invasion, and territorial disputes that lead one to question human nature itself. Each time the plotter stops at the designated coordinates, a laser marker substitutes a branding iron to inscribe a short passage of prayer, creating little flames and thick smoke in the process. Broadcasted live on an enlarged screen, the scene is as shocking as observing an air strike in a conflict zone via an airborne infrared camera. The written records of conflict and war evoke various emotions and become visualized as three-dimensional constructs in her work. The coordinates marked by the plotter are where the artist begins her investigation, the locus of her focus. The prayers symbolically branded therein demonstrate the direness of the conditions thrusted upon the people in those locations, and highlight the awareness on the cruel violence conducted by the state in the name of the state. Observing how these prayers unfold the leathery atlas evoke images of violence in human history in an increasingly unsettling manner. Next to this work is Stigma (2019), providing at such close proximity the representation of the shell of humans who can barely carry themselves throughout their despair and anguish (perhaps “Prayer” could have been an appropriate title as well). A study on bodily movements associated with grief, this work casts wet leather into the form of a specific body’s mannequin. Although the leather shell is shaped like a person, it is faceless, like a phantom that merely mimics the human form. It feels as though the muttering of prayers and cries of anguish echo within the empty cavity of that shell. Such sounds of lamentation are muffled within the wrinkles in the leather, only to be expelled into the surrounding ambience. In this work, the artist unveils an unsettling picture that nobody really wants to witness due to such uncanny resemblance of themselves or their acquaintances.

Burning flesh and smoke. Lastly, I would like to focus on the “billowing smoke” as a result of transcribing with iron in her work. Amidst the destructive behavior stemming from humanity’s ugliest facets—discrimination, conflict, and massacre—prayer arises as both a testament to human resilience and admission of our own frailty. In such context, the “billowing smoke” in her works plays a sort of a ritualistic role to serve as a symbol and mechanism that captures the quintessence of her pursuits. Created throughout the process of sharing and recording our deepest scars in visual manifestation, the smoke holds a primitive yet transcendental power to heal and ameliorate our pain while infectiously spreading the desire to empathize and bond. While dead leather cannot heal with new flesh, that very finite character of leather provides a new form of manifesting the frail human nature alongside the billowing smoke. Although human nature is often found rolling around in a cesspool, humans are also creatures who strive towards their best and most noble selves in pursuit of hope. Perhaps the artist’s explorations are ultimately motivated from her extreme devotion to humanity. And this was a clue I dare not miss in my deep conversations with the artist.

(This article is extracted from <IAP Residency Annual Report 2019>)

2018.11 Science of fire, embodied language, and “ unforgettable things” (Namsoo Kim)

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.

(MMCA Residency Goyang)

2019. 11 이민하의 작품론: 지극한, 세계를 마주하는 (최윤정)

이민하의 작품론: 지극한, 세계를 마주하는

                최윤정 | 미술비평가 / 현 문화비축기지 전시담당주무관

  그의 작품을 연구하면서 나는 나 스스로 가지고 있는 한계와 모순, 내재해 있을 폭력(가해/피해)과 방관자적 태도에 대해 짚어보는 상황에 직면했는데, 이는 이 비평에 임하는 나의 고된 과제였다. 내가 발 딛고 있는 세계와의 관계를 가늠하기 위해, 나에게 맞닿아 있는 사건 그리고 관계된 역사의 현상에 대해서 ‘나는 과연 이를 어떻게 바라보고 있으며, 이를 위해 무엇을 하고 있나’하는 의문을 해결해야만 할 것 같았기 때문이다. 스스로 객관화하고자 애썼다. 그것은 지난한 노력이었으며, 결국 그의 작업이 내게 준 과제는 인간의/스스로의 고(苦)에 대해서 우리가 어떤 입장을 취할 수 있는가에 대한 물음이었다. 내 안으로 좁혀오는 이 물음은 결국 어떤 상황 속에서 발생한 타인의 감정들을 ‘너는’ ‘기억하고’ 공감할 수 있느냐고 스스로에게 되묻는 기분이었다. 이는 그의 작업이 나에게 던져준 메시지다.

그나마 ‘명료해지는’ 것은 나에게 구체적으로 닿는 ‘감각’을 혹은 ‘기억감정’을 되새기는 일이었다. 문득 수년 전 작가가 자신의 개인전 명칭으로 사용했던 ‘Palimpsest’(복기지, 양피지 위에 쓰여진 글을 긁어내고 재활용한 고문서)를 떠올렸다. 지우되, 남은 옅은 흔적 위에 중첩하여 기술한 내용은 차별과 폭력의 역사, 인간을 바라보게 하는 거울이 되었다. 내게는 이민하의 전 작업의 맥락을 가늠하는 중요한 열쇳말이 되어준 용어다. 다시금 그것은 벌어진(은폐되고, 방관된 형식으로) 상황(역사, 사건)에 마주한 인간의 심리, 인간의 본성을 탐구하고자 하는 작가의 해석이자 형식이었고, 그의 실천을 이끌었다.

개인전 《팔림세스트(Palimpsest)》(2013)에서 작가는 여러 나라의 기도문이 새겨진 가죽을 씨실과 날실로 엮어 망토를 만들어 직접 입었다. <기도문을 입다>(2009)는 마치 작가의 연속될 작업에 대한 하나의 예고편으로 읽혀진다. 그 씨실과 날실이 풀어져 학살과 분쟁이 벌어지는 세계의 지도 <그을린 세계>(2018-2019)가 되기도 하고, 차별의 역사 속에서 고통받는 누군가의 증언 <아남네시스(Anamnesis)>(2017)와 <제물>(2017)이 되기도 한다. 기도의 행위 ‘주여, 우리를 불쌍히 여기소서’, 구원을 향한 인간의 외침은 연민의 감정과 절박함에 대한 상황을 상기하게 한다. 작가에게 종교적 관심 이상으로 ‘기도’의 행위는 인간의 본성을 탐구하는 하나의 기제가 된다. 사적인 이익을 희망하거나 혹은 신념과 신앙 사이에서 경건하고 올곧은 외침으로 드러나거나, 기도란 인간의 나약함과 강건함, 속된 욕망과 고결함, 고통과 희망 사이에서 오락가락하는 인간의 중층적 측면들이 복합적으로 응축된 행위다. 손을 모으고 하늘을 향하고 고개를 숙이는 기도의 몸짓형상은 성스러우면서도 짐짓 약자일 수밖에 없는, 혹은 그저 비통하고 고통스러운 인간의 존재적 한계를 연상하게 한다. 그것은 인간의 보편적인 습관/습성의 일부이자, 몸짓형상이 표출되는, 외부적 자극인, 어떠한 상황들과 관계하므로 인간적 본성에 천착하는 작가의 시선은 마땅히 그 상황을 좌시하지 않았다.

<아남네시스>(2017)에서 작가는 가죽을 덮어쓰고 있다. 그 가죽에 참가자인 이주여성들은 한국사회에서 겪은 차별의 경험에 대해 인두로 새긴다. 가죽 위에 인두로 ‘지진’ 글은 사라지지 않을 생채기를 내면서 동시에 그 상황을 이겨낼 내면적 힘을 구축하는 주문처럼 새겨진다. 그렇기에 가련하되 강건하다. 문제없이 흘러가는 듯한 주류사회에서 구체적인 개인들이 안고 있는 고통의 국면이 은폐를 벗어나 지워지지 않을 흔적으로 기록되고, 한 글자 한 글자 직접 써 내려가는 글은 비록 약자라도 상황을 직시하는 자로서 이미 강자의 폐부를 훑는 공격자가 되었음을 지지한다. 기록이 새겨지는 가죽을 덮고 작가는 눈을 감은 채 알몸으로 누워있다. 가죽 한 장의 두께 사이로 작가는 고스란히 그들 내부의 분노와 슬픔, 고통에 공감하는 몸을 표현한다. 번제의 의식을 빌어 그들의 감정과 생생한 증언을 경청하고 연대하는 몸인 것이다. 그것은 단순히 번제의 제물이 아니라 ‘증언을 증거하는 몸’이다.

주류사회의 폐부를 찌른다. 그가 여성 판소리꾼(권송희)의 제안으로 함께 협업한 <트리니티: 홍보가 다시쓰기>(2019)는 흥보가의 가사 일부를 현대적 언어로 바꾸어보고 그 향방이 ‘지금 여기’ 여성에 대한 차별적이고 폭력적인 주류사회의 시선과 다를 바 없음을 증명하는 작업이었다. 여성에 대한 발언과 행태, 비웃음과 조롱을 여전히 마주하지만, 그 곡을 다시금 판소리꾼이 정면의 시선을 놓치지 않고 노래한다. 직시하고 분노하고 겁을 주는 표정으로 그 울림은 강력하다. (“물이고 가는 여자 귀 잡고 입 맞추고 다 큰애기 겁탈하고 수절과부 모함 잡고 길가에 허방놓고”_흥보가 / “길가는 여성한테 강제로 키스하고 여고생 강간하고 이혼녀에게 추근대고 구덩이를 파서…”_현대어 번역)

<인간보관용 콘크리트 박스>(2018)에서 작가는 한국의 산업화 시기 여공들의 숙소였던 가리봉 벌집(쪽방촌)을 무대로 현장에서 작업했던 내용을 토대로 하여, 장판지에 인두로 공간을 기록하고 연꽃을 새긴 설치작업을 보여주었다. 작가는 실제 비어 있는 가리봉벌집 쪽방 한 벽면에 지난 삶의 시간을 보여주듯 겹겹이 붙여진 벽지를 도려내면서 만다라 형상 <연꽃>(2017)을 새겼다. 연꽃은 고통 속에서 피워낸 인간의 삶을 어루만지며 그곳의 삶을 증언했다. 과거 여공들이 살았던 그 장소에, 현재는 노인들과 외국인 근로자들의 가난한 삶이 자리한다. 한국 주류사회의 내재화된 차별과 억압의 기제로 양산된 불안한 삶의 현실에 대해 작가는 관찰하면서 구조적으로 그 현상에 다가가고자 하였다. 때로는 자신이 발을 딛고 있는 가장 가까이에서, 때로는 객관화된 거리를 설정하여 모두가 바라보도록 조절하는/강제하는 시점을 택일하면서.

살이 탄다. 인두질로 타오르는 가죽의 냄새가 선연하다. 인간의 종교와 이데올로기로 얼룩진 갈등은 인간의 역사가 펼쳐진 이래 해결할 수 없는(혹은 해결하지 않을) 분쟁과 학살의 국면을 만들어왔다. 작가는 우연히 시리아 등지에서 분쟁지역의 사람을 만난 계기로 스스로 증폭된 관심을 확장하여, 세계 각지의 분쟁과 학살에 대한 자신의 관점을 설계하고 이를 뒷받침하는 리서치를 구체화해왔다. 2018년 시작된 <그을린 세계>(2018)는 유럽과 아프리카, 아시아 지역을 범위로 다루었고, 불도장을 통해 각 사건의 좌표마다 짧은 문구의 기도문을 쾅쾅 찍으며 내리 새겼다. 객관화된 시선으로 시점은 저 멀리 관찰자이거나, 전지적 단계에서 세계를 관망하는 사이를 이끈다. <그을린 세계>(2019)는 그 규모를 확대한다. 좌표는 미대륙은 물론 호주의 아파르트헤이트 문제까지 확장된 형태로 종교분쟁, 인종차별, 침략의 역사, 영토분쟁 등 인간 본성을 의심케 하는 극단적 갈등상황을 다루고 있다. 좌표가 설정된 플로터가 멈추는 자리마다 인두도장을 대신한 레이저 마커가 잔 불꽃과 함께 진한 연기를 내며 짧은 문구의 기도문을 새긴다. 이 장면은 확대된 화면으로 생중계되는데, 마치 포화의 장면으로 분쟁이 일어나고 있는 지역을 적외선 카메라를 통해 항공 촬영으로 응시하는 것과 같은 충격을 만들어내었다. 글로 나열되어 기술된 분쟁과 전쟁에 대한 기록은 이민하의 작업에서 공감각적이고 입체적 실체로 시각화된다. 플로터에 새겨진 좌표는 작가의 시선이 출발하는 곳이자 집중하는 지점이고, 그곳에 상징적으로 새겨진 기도문은 극단적인 상황에 처한 인간의 절박함과 국가가 국가의 명분으로 자행하는 잔인한 폭력성을 잊지 않고자 하는 시선을 견지한다. 가죽으로 겹쳐진 세계지도 위를 가르며 새겨지는 기도문에 폭력의 역사와 상황들이 상기되는, 보면 볼수록 마음이 편치 않다. 그 곁에 <상흔>(2019)이 자리한다. 이 작업은 바로 내가 직시할 수 있는 근접한 거리에서 절박함과 비통함에 몸을 가누지 못하는 인간의 껍데기를 형상화한다. (어쩌면 ‘기도’라고 표현했어도 좋았을 작업이다) 이 작업은 비애의 몸짓을 연구하면서 젖은 가죽으로 특정 신체의 마네킹을 활용해 캐스팅한 작업이다. 가죽의 껍데기가 마치 얼굴 없는 유령처럼 인간의 형상을 하고 있되 속은 비어있다. 그 공란에 기도를 읊조리는 소리, 고통을 한탄하는 듯한 웅얼거림이 머무는 듯하다. 형상의 주름들 속에서 그 소리는 삭혀져 분위기로 뿜어진다. 주변의 사람이 혹은 나의 모습이 가깝게 연상되는, 가장 마주하고 싶지 않았던 장면을 작가는 그렇게 펼쳐놓았다.

살이 타고 연기가 피어오른다. 마지막으로 나는 인두로 필사하는 작가의 작업과정 속에서 ‘피어오르는 연기’에 주목해본다. 차별, 갈등, 분쟁과 학살 등 인간의 가장 모자란 지점에서 나타나는 파멸의 행위들, 이를 증언하고 고통에 마주하는 강건한 힘, 동시에 나약한 순간 행해지는 인간의 기도. 일종의 제의적 작용으로 ‘피어오르는 연기’는 작가의 지향점을 모아내는 상징이자 장치가 된다. 상처를 각인하고 기억하기 위해 재기술해가며 고통을 발언하는 과정에서 ‘피어오르는 연기’란, 인간의 삶을 어루만지며 고통의 정서를 순화하고 공감과 연대에 대한 감각을 전염시키는, 가장 원시적이며 초연한 힘을 쥐고 있다. 죽은 가죽에 새살이 돋을 리 없지만 그렇기에 가죽에 새겨진 기록은 피어오르는 연기와 함께 나약한 인간 본성에 대한 새로운 국면을 형성한다. 비록 인간의 본성이 진흙탕을 구른다고 해도 그럼에도 우리는 고결함을 지향점으로 삼아 희망을 품고 사는 존재가 아니던가. 문득 그의 탐구가 결국 ‘인간’에 대한 지극함에서 비롯되는 것이 아닐까 하는 생각을 해본다. 어느 시간 우리의 진한 대화 속에서 건진 놓을 수 없는 단초였다.

(인천아트플랫폼 2019 레지던시 결과보고집에서 발췌)


2017.9 Mediating the Sacred and the Profane, Becoming a Sacrifice (Kho Chung Hwan)

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 Scorching Thirst, Vestiges of Engraved Humanness (Seyeon Park)

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