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Lee Kun-Yong

Bodily Communication


Photography JAE KIM

“Where have you been hiding all this time?” Lee Kun-Yong first heard this question at the 8th Paris Biennale in 1973. Lee, a pioneer of the Korean avant-garde, redefined the body as an artistic medium. From his signature “event-logical” performances to paintings, Lee’s oeuvre communicates with us. This remarkable playful artist, just into his eighties, allowed us to peek into his vigorous life. He was not hiding—we just didn’t know him.

Bodyscape 76-2-2022, 2022. Courtesy of the artist & Gallery Hyundai

Hayoung Chung: Let’s start with your childhood. After the Korean War, surely Korea was not the best environment for a boy to cultivate an interest in art. Was there a moment when that interest first flowered?

Lee Kun-Yong: I was the firstborn of my pastor father and nurse mother. I have been told that I was always full of curiosities and questions. I asked so many outrageous questions that adults avoided me. Since I was an oddball who was curious about absolutely everything in the world, I think it was only natural that I also took an interest in art. One day, my mother brought me an image of a taxi and asked: “Can you draw this?” So I did. My mother, who was pretty dexterous, fixed the flaws in my drawing and told me that it wasn’t very true to the taxi image. So I asked my mother if the drawings must be true to life. To that, my mother exclaimed, “What a headache!” I grew up through middle and high school, always asking such questions. 


HC: That big question reminds me of the beginning of modernism. How were you able to find the answer to your question?

LKY: Since I loved reading, I usually got my answers from books. My father, who was a passionate lover of reading, owned about 10,000 books, and I read most of these books covering literature, philosophy, religion, and other genres. Although I didn’t understand everything completely, it made my way through them, thinking continuously of everything that evolved around life.


HC: That’s a profound idea for a child. It seems that your extraordinary experiences in adolescence, which I encountered in the previous articles, became the basis for your work. Any memorable anecdotes?

LKY: It may have been when I was in 9th grade—when I deliberately chose a rainy day to place an easel outside and painted watercolor on paper. Reactions were split in two. Children passing by on their way home from school would watch me with interest, repeatedly asking why I would do this kind of thing. There were adults too. One who was passing by pulling a cow peered into my watercolor for a while, then, clucking his tongue, decided that I was out of my mind. The young ‘I’ wanted to investigate a situation where the action happens where a small being, a human, paints something—and the offbeats that happen as external natural events, like rain, collide with human actions. I also wanted to focus on the act of ‘painting’ itself by intentionally selecting a rainy day instead of making the commonsensical choice for a sunny, quiet day. Although it was a landscape, the rainy day watercolor I painted on the dikes aligns precisely with my paintings today in the sense that I present phenomena as they are: paint dripping down when I paint without looking at the canvas, lines dampening with rain, or lines simply being drawn.

Bodyscape 76-2. Archival Image, 1976. Courtesy of the artist & Gallery Hyundai

HC: The actions of your childhood seem to have been spiritual nourishment for your phenomenal performances since Indoor Measurement and Same Area in April 1975. In particular, Snail’s Gallop and Relay Life were used respectively as the titles of your retrospective exhibitions at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and the Busan Museum of Art.

LKY: Performance Art, as it actively emerged in the 1970s in Korea, tended toward sensationalism or eye candy. On the contrary, I wasn’t interested in shocking someone through performance. In the performance Event-Logical, which I introduced in the mid-1970s, I wanted to present a simple yet definite art that, like its title, even a child could agree with the logic. It was a work that elucidates its logic. Snail’s Gallop is exemplary of this, where I demonstrate both drawing and erasing to question the essence of painting.


HC: I would like to borrow your description of Snail’s Gallop from the previous interview with curator Ryu Hanseung in 2016:  “In 1979, I inched across the floor on the soles of my feet while I drew constant lines from side to side. The simultaneous happening of drawing lines with my hand and erasing them with my soles gave rise to a slow formation of a lifeline. The generation of the lifeline was not my intention. Instead, it was by certain inevitable and necessary actions.” I assume that your performance supposes that the audience exists in that place and witnesses the actions.

LKY: I inhabit this life of mine right now. I believe my works should be enjoyed by those who inhabit the same time and space as I do. The goal of my work is communication. Overly metaphysical and conceptual material cannot be communicated. There are tendencies in the art to narrate things nobody can grasp—perhaps those are simply the artist’s personal stories. So I aim for art that conveys my living body in the present through a medium, and I have strived to mutually communicate with audiences through such actions. Lee Kun-Yong’s art aspires for points naturally revealed within the medium I am located in, my corporeal condition, and the relationship between them. That way, it can induce empathy from everyone in the world, from children to adults, regardless of ethnicity or nationality. 


HC: Almost 50 years after its inception, you still create variations, for instance, the latest Bodyscape series. I wonder if physical aging affects your process or guides you to approach the body of work from a new perspective.

LKY: I have not essentially changed at all, but my body ages, and the work changes naturally as well. I intend to fully embrace these changes because I emphasize starting naturally from that precise point where I am creating art daily. 

HC: Notably, Corporal Term received more favorable reviews in Korea after being exhibited at the 8th Paris Biennale (1973). I felt that this coincided with the recent spotlight after you decided to collaborate with the Pace Gallery in 2018. What do you think about the rapidly growing international attention to the Korean art scene?

LKY: I’d like to state that Korean Contemporary Art was already international art in the 1970s. When I exhibit abroad, they always ask me: “Where have you been hiding all this time?”. To which I respond: “It’s just that you didn’t know of me.” They are surprised when I tell them I have participated in international exhibitions like the Paris Biennale and Bienal de São Paulo. I will say, however, that cultural creation takes extensive time and effort to earn recognition from just individual talent. It requires support at the national level. There are countless marvelous exhibition spaces abroad, as well as staff and organizations for the space that assist in presenting great exhibitions. 


HC: Agreed. I noted that efforts to redefine the history of modern and contemporary Korean art have been in full swing only recently. For instance, Awakenings at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2019 or the recently published book Korean Art from 1953: Collision, Innovation, Interaction.

LKY: Yes, in the past, Korea lacked in-depth study of artists and artworks and the effort and preparation for organized support. 


HC: Maybe that was the reason you started the study group Art News after you graduated from Hongik University.

LKY: When I went to see exhibitions with friends as a student, they would comment like, “This person painted well” or “That person didn’t paint so well.” But evaluating didn’t entertain me. I would dig through the school library and bookstores to quench my thirst for new information and theories on art. At the time in Korea, it wasn’t very easy to obtain information on contemporary art. As soon as I graduated from college, I opened up an art academy near the front gates of Ewha Women’s University. Since I had ample space, I created the Art News group to exchange information on art and organized debates every weekend. The members would translate and print out key essays and theses and come to debates with our comprehension of the readings. And why did we need to debate? We were certainly not international scholars who shaped new theories on art, but we wanted to widen our scope of thought and have mutual exchange based on what each of us understood. It was a time when the desire to encounter a new world stood out above all else.


HC: The study group was the starting point of the historical Korean Avant-garde group ST (Space and Time), established in 1969. 

LKY: Yes, there were internal demands to concretize the group further into an exhibition organization, which is how it evolved into the ST (Space and Time) group….Art groups at the time usually had more poetic names, so this one was comparatively dry (critic Kim Boo-Young came up with the name “ST”). Public seminars organized by ST saw participation from people from very diverse backgrounds—even middle and high school students were eager to participate. 

I believe my works should be enjoyed by those who inhabit the same time and space as I do. The goal of my work is communication.”

HC: You still have your studio practice. What are you focusing on now? 

LKY: I had the tendency to use different colors, but recently I am utilizing an even more varied palette, which came naturally. Now I attempt various transformations from color. I also wish to approach issues outside art with more seriousness. I am planning to work with a sustainable message of overcoming problems like urbanization, dehumanization, and environmental destruction. You will probably be able to see works reflecting this kind of concern at major exhibitions I participate in this year. 


HC: Is there any last thing we haven’t discussed that you would like to share with our readers? 

LKY: It took a long time for wider audiences to get to know me, and I am still in the process of trying. Yet, I can say certain things with confidence after devoting my whole life to art. First, your ideas are most important. Then, if those ideas are really good, you don’t give up on them. To continue efforts through time and multiple opportunities is also important since understanding yourself takes time, and so do people around you understand you. Do not give up because you overthink or make a hasty decision that you cannot make it. I want to say that good things always have an opening towards empathy and come with the opportunity to realize it in this world. 

This story is from Issue Five.



Transformation of physical spaces