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>)