Review: Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area
“This is very difficult,” South Korean performance artist Lee Kun-Yong laughs as he tries to eat a biscuit with his right hand.
Lee attempts to complete this banal task with his right arm bandaged with wooden splints. Unable to bend his wrist or elbow, he must take a deep bow to reach the biscuit on the table and then drop it into his mouth. There are collective groans from the audience as the biscuit continues to miss Lee’s open mouth, falling to the floor. As he fails repeatedly, he narrates: “Since the Korean War, Korean people have been struggling to eat.” He recalls that in 1970s Korea, when he began to develop his avant-garde practice, all he could eat was barley. In 1972, South Korean president Park Chung-Hee introduced martial law and Park’s unyielding regime restricted the body and conscience of Korean citizens. Eating Biscuit was first performed in 1975, under Park’s military dictatorship. These precarious political conditions affected the development of the human body as an artistic medium and Lee’s struggle to eat is mimetic of the struggles of everyday people in authoritarian Korea.
Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art presents Lee’s oeuvre alongside the works of three Australian artists. Performance art is still largely understood within a Euro-American art-historical context and 4A aims to revise this singular Western narrative. By galvanising understanding of South Korean art history, 4A expands the study of performance art by inviting audiences to contemplate its development in different contexts. However, 4A simultaneously circumvents a purely nationalistic approach by including Australian artists Daniel von Sturmer, Huseyin Sami and Emily Parsons-Lord. These artists respond to Lee’s works through a series of their own ‘performances’ that expand Lee’s ideas on the relationship between the human body and architectural space. Their works present an intervention to a more conventional display of a single artist. As a result, we are simultaneously able to appreciate Lee’s work within the Korean avant-garde alongside the global resonance of Lee’s observations on the significance of human gesture. Over four weeks of the exhibition, a live performance program changed the 4A gallery space as the four artists’ performances left marks on the gallery walls, and floors.
Lee’s Method of Drawing series (first performed in 1976 and re-performed in 2017) was the first performance in 4A’s first-floor gallery. In his performances Method of Drawing 76-3 and Method of Drawing 76-2, Lee paints facing away from the canvas, either with his side or back to the canvas, swinging his brush around his body, recording the trajectory of his arm. His comment, “I am not painting with my brain. I am painting with my body” demonstrates the body’s primacy, expanding the definition of performance art as simply thought enacted through the body. The Method of Drawing series depict a distinct Korean avant-gardism, discrete from the Euro-American canon. The exhibition is detailed with historical analysis through the use of wall texts emphasising the importance of context. Lee’s performances highlight the possibility for artistic action during the political turmoil of the Korean government from 1972-1979. However, the works also provoke bigger questions about the ontology of art and human autonomy, represented by the blank space of the tabula rasa. Lee’s work interrogates the use of the body for communication beyond his immediate context. Forty years later, in Sydney, we are able to appreciate Lee’s exploration of the body’s limitations. As Lee states himself, “art does not concern the individual artist only… there is a certain point where new ideas are created.”
The works of von Sturmer, Sami and Parsons-Lord explore this point by creating new perspectives on Lee’s ideas regarding the potential and movements of the human body. As a visitor returns for a new performance the space has transformed, creating a dynamic and thought-provoking approach to Lee’s oeuvre. The first intervention is Daniel von Sturmer’s Electric Light (facts/figures/…) (2017). Light installations of geometric shapes move across the gallery floor, ceiling and corners, illuminating parts of the gallery that we do not consider, such as the liminal spaces between canvas and floor. Von Sturmer invites us to reconsider our perceptions of our environment, echoing Lee’s performance, Logic of Place (first performed in 1975, re-performed in 2017). Lee draws a circle on the ground and stepping inside he proclaims “here”. Then stepping outside the circle, pointing to the centre, he states “there”. The repetitive act questions what ‘here’ and ‘there’ really are. Both von Sturmer and Lee, by marking with either charcoal or light, delineate space and consider how boundaries dictate our actions. Both works heighten our awareness of perception and reveal that place is contingent on our positioning.
Emily Parsons-Lord’s intervention further explores the relationship between the human body and occupied space, through a raging event of continual noise (the sun) (2018). Whilst von Sturmer’s work activates the gallery space by anthropomorphising light, Parsons-Lord materialises the very air around us. By filling the gallery with smoke and explosives, the air becomes a dynamic physical material. Tendrils of smoke permeate throughout the gallery and globes of glittering fire are suspended as the invisible is transmuted into visible, haptic spectacle. Just as Lee’s performances are confronting in his assertion of the reality and space in which we inhabit, Parsons-Lord’s intervention further heightens our awareness of the ‘space’ around us.
Both Parsons-Lord and Lee rely on elements of chance that influence their work, creating tension between their premeditated acts and unforeseeable environmental factors. Huseyin Sami also navigates this balance in the second last night of live performances with his Painting Cut Performance (2018). Like Lee, Sami subverts traditional approaches to painting, expanding the definition of painting by interrogating process and action and relying on elements such as gravity. Armed only with a razor blade, Sami advances towards his four blank canvases into which he makes incisions. As the painted undersides of the canvases fall forward, it is this act of cutting which becomes painting. The falling shapes are all unique, different in size and – in the way it folds over – moulded by gravity. Sami’s painting becomes sculptural and his painting becomes performance, thereby conflating these boundaries and deconstructing the process of painting.
The interventions by the three artists highlight new connections, creating a rupture in a singular linear narrative of art. 4A’s spatial strategy reconsiders how performance provides for the continuation and cross-pollination of knowledge. For visitors who did not have the time to attend all four evenings of performances, they must simply imagine how these marks were created, which may be taxing and inaccessible. Their only visual cues are splattered paint, cut canvas, wandering lights and paths of smoke, ash, and charcoal. However, simultaneously, this is the exhibition’s strength. Whilst they are remnants of actions and signifiers of memory, they simultaneously activate the space and constitute the exhibition. Hence, each performance evolves the exhibition leaving behind a new imprint, line, or mark so that the exhibition unfolds over time. These visceral and expressive traces are powerful alone, and without documentation, they are a testament to the power of human gesture. It is this assertion of the control over our own bodies that Lee used as a subtle resistance against the authoritarianism of the 1970s Korean government. By revealing our jurisdiction over our bodies, Lee focuses on individual authority, celebrating individual capacity. These traces therefore remain as provocations of human presence and therefore human agency. These ideals are universal and common, or as Lee Kun-Yong states: “regardless of how much power you have… you will have equal areas.”
Soo-Min Shim is finishing her Bachelor of Art History and Theory (Honours) at the University of Sydney and is a freelance Art writer based in Sydney.
Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area was presented at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney 20 January – 25 February 2018. The exhibition featured Lee Kun-Yong alongside Daniel von Sturmer, Huseyin Sami and Emily Parsons-Lord and was curated by Micheal Do and Mikala Tai (Curatorial Assistant Con Gerakaris).