Kang-Seung Lee

Lee shares the idea of querrness in the context of Korea.
Illustration by Ojima Abalaka

Every city has more than one story to tell and one face to show. Regardless of the artistic background, each place is full of inspiring individuals making its own culture and story. In Plus’s online initiative, ‘City Talks,’ we feature 10 creatives representing the designated city per season, asking contributors to share personal relatedness and building an engaging community that gives a sense of belonging. 

The second season takes place in Los Angeles, and this week, we discuss with multidisciplinary artist Kang Seung Lee. Lee was born in South Korea and now lives and works in Los Angeles, and his work frequently engages the legacy of transnational queer histories, particularly as they intersect with art history.

What is the first thing you do when you wake up?
I have the best partner who wakes up earlier and makes a pot of tea for me every morning. I gave up coffee a couple of years ago but it opened up a whole new appreciation for tea. Currently, I am working on one of my New Year’s resolutions, which is to avoid checking my phone right after waking up and feeling anxious and bombarded with emails, messages and other to-do lists. Instead, I try to spend time with my puppy, Wolfie.

Where is your favorite (go-to) restaurant in LA? Why?

I love going to Kobawoo House on South Vermont Ave in K-Town. Their specialty is Bossam but I love their Chung Guk Jang, fermented soybean stew with tofu and kimchi. It’s really thick and pungent. I also recommend their Eundaegu Jorim, spicy braised black cod with radish.


What are your ways of recharging/ taking breaks?
Binge-watching sci-fi shows.


What kind of song are you listening to these days?
These days I play Kirara’s new album, 4, all the time. She is a transgender electronic artist based in Seoul. Her music is full of powerful and energetic beats with massive drum loops, and is always pointing towards the future. Best track for me is Bearded Lady Juggling Show. Another song often on my playlist is Nari Yuko Jin by Byul.org, a collective that has been active over twenty years in Seoul. I am a big fan of their multifaceted practice, music to art and design.


Your work relies heavily on research/archives and could you talk about what you are trying to rediscover through your practice?
I think my interests on archives came from the frustration with the lack of representation of queer people in the media that I felt during my childhood in Korea. In that sense, my mining of queer archive reflects the desire to be connected and be part of a lineage of history. I believe, whether we realize or not, we all are the sum of everything that existed before us, and it is important to question the erasure of others who came before and who remain unseen.
Ultimately my work is about the power of legacy. In other words, what kind of a future can we build with what we rediscovered from the archives?


What particularly draws you to the usage of fragile materials – plants, loose threads, dried flowers?
I am drawn to plants, flowers, pebbles, soils, and other non-human beings as they have been on this planet much longer than human beings. They are witnesses to our histories, memories and traumas and at the same time they give us a perspective to look at our lives beyond the human body and one single cycle of life. These materials are also fragile and require care like our memories need collective and multigenerational responsibility and care to be preserved.


Could you talk more about your solo exhibition, ‘Briefly Gorgeous,’ at Hyundai Gallery? You showcased over 40 works in diverse media including drawings to embroidery, and as an artist, what does it mean to explore a wide range of mediums to depict your narrative?

In Briefly Gorgeous, multiple histories and memories of queer communities from different generations and locations were woven together as I tried to create conversations across time and space through the works. I employed various mediums such as drawing, embroidery, and ceramics as a tool of appropriation and an embodiment of histories. As a result, my labor and the process are pronounced in these works. I do a lot of research and am quite intentional in choosing materials with specific meaning but also try to make intuitive decisions, especially while making work at the studio. It is also important to mention that Briefly Gorgeous was in collaboration with so many other artists and friends from my queer communities both in Korea and the U.S.


Can you expand on your exploration of queerness in the context of Korea?
It was not easy growing up in Korea as a queer kid and coming out in the 90s. I think it still is quite an oppressive and homophobic society that is violent against queer people.

However, I am increasingly reluctant to speak on Korean culture in comparison to the West because it is often used to reaffirm the narrative of “the belated queer Asian,” considered coming out too late, never quite arriving on time, compared to the timeline of the Western queer history.

Having said that, I have been very lucky to have had opportunities to work with a younger group of queer artists, researchers and activists based in Korea over the past few years. They are so brave and amazing. I believe the invisible memories of queer lives in Korea are sustained and preserved by the care and creative potential of these people. I hope I can be a small part of the change they are making along the way.


If you could have any artwork in your house, what would it be?
It would be fantastic to live with/in Candice Lin’s installations. So many things are in transformation in her work—organic materials getting fermented and mushrooms growing—and you become part of the work by breathing in the smells and feeding them your dead skin cells.


How has living in LA affected your art practice?
This weather and space, for sure, but most importantly the people from my art and queer community in LA have hugely influenced me and my work. I am lucky to be surrounded by a great group of inspiring people who keep setting an example for me.


What changes would you like to see in the art industry at large?
I hope we will become more conscious about the amount of trash we create at studios and exhibitions. 


Which three qualities in yourself are you most thankful for?
I am quite hardworking and try to be generous. I also appreciate beautiful things.


Listen to all the favorite songs picked by our City Talks contributors HERE.

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