In recent years, Lee Lee Nam has become one of the Korean artists receiving the most domestic and international attention. He is considered by many as a rapid success. I have held two exhibits for Lee in Shanghai this year and last year, during which I was impressed by how popular his works were. That said, after learning about how he became who he is today, I have to say, his success did not fall from the sky, but came from his long-time exploration.
Ten years ago, Lee Lee Nam was still traveling constantly between Gwangju and Sunchun in Korea, dedicated to animation production. He was working on the so-called ¡§clay animation¡¨, where he used clay to form all kinds of objects, and camera to shoot continuous pictures of them. In college, he majored in sculpture, so I was not surprised at that fact that he was into this form of animation production as the use of clay is more or less associated with the study of sculpture. However, it was until when I visited his studio that I found out that, compared to animation, he was even more passionate about imaging art. At that time, he had a complete set of equipment and technical supports, which he relied on in the experimenting with imaging art. I was very impressed by what I saw.
In recent years, Lee Lee Nam has completely shifted his focus to image production. He uses digital technology in creating his own unique style, taking a foothold in the art circle. Just like what some critics call his works, ¡§moving paintings¡¨, he uses imaging techniques that ¡§give Eastern and Western masterpieces life.¡¨ It was a certain matter that instant attention was attracted to him right after this series of works, full of novelty and visual fascination, was introduced.
Let¡¦s review Lee¡¦s earlier works first. In ¡§New-Chochungdo 2¡¨, butterflies are flying, bugs are jumping, the tender wind brings fine strings of drizzle, and then the snow begins to fall. In ¡§Mookjookdo¡¨, covered in snow, bamboo leaves are dancing in the wind. Looking at the pictures, viewers feel like they are in the natural scenery, experiencing the change of seasons. Lee turned Bernard de Menthon¡¦s ¡§Girl With a Pearl Earring¡¨ into a picture with life--- one drop of tear of sorrow comes slowly down from the girl¡¦s cheek. The artist¡¦s emotions, strong and real, are about to jump out---emotions that could not be found even in the original. ¡§Dream¡¨ is a juxtaposition of two monitors showing Claude Monet and Heo Baek Ryeon¡¦s scenery paintings. One of them is a pleasure boat (Monet) and the other one an old man fishing on a small boat (Heo). Going between these two pictures, the viewer finds himself going between the East and the West. In addition to moving images, Lee Lee Nam also has a series of works that is consisted of two or more pictures, in the form of a dividing screen.
Giving a painting life is the core of Lee¡¦s works. He gives a still image, usually a historical masterpiece, motion and life, which viewers find very interesting and full of life. Historically, man has made relentless efforts to give things life. When an object can move, even if it is not a living thing, it appears alive. With the invention and application of automated machines, the definition of ¡§motion¡¨ and ¡§life¡¨ has been changed. The invention of robots and other bionic machines is a result of man¡¦s passion for life. This aspiration for life is not limited to scientists; artists have also made numerous attempts to include motion in their artworks to show that everything ¡§alive¡¨ is filled with livelihood and joy. Lee Lee Nam¡¦s works remind me of a Greek mythology, ¡§Pygmalion¡¨, a story about Pygmalion, a sculptor who refuses to get married because he is in love with his own sculpture. Finally he turned to Venus, the Goddess of Love, who turns the sculpture into a young and beautiful lady. And they live happily ever after. In reality, Lee Lee Nam gives still paintings life by his imaging skills.
Strictly speaking, giving a still picture motion is, after all, merely an imitation of life. What really merits our attention in Lee¡¦s works is that his long-time experimentation with different creations does not only target on ¡§moving¡¨ paintings. Arranging still pictures in a sequence, making them seem like a moving picture, is only an invented process. This technique itself does not mean much, particularly in today¡¦s digital world. Not just Lee¡¦s works, the same thing can be done with a lot of every-day objects. With the advancement of scientific technology and digital imaging, the line between ¡§reality¡¨ and ¡§illusion¡¨ is getting even thinner and it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the ¡§real¡¨ from ¡§virtual.¡¨ Illusions can be concretely presented, while the ¡§real¡¨ world is going through changes as well. A new order is being established. Lee¡¦s choice to pick masterpieces as the objects of his digital image creation also proves this point. Duplication of masterpieces has been around for a long time, and is also a very common form of creation. Lee¡¦s reinvention of these masterpieces is not really that ¡§cutting-edge¡¨; what distinguishes him is the fact that he does not treat these masterpieces as over-the-top artistic works, but as objects for his reinvention. The charm the originals used to bring to people has gradually faded away. Hung in the museums, these paintings witnessed themselves going from ¡§classic¡¨ to ¡§mediocre.¡¨ ¡§Masterpieces¡¨ is nothing more than a concept, as the line between ¡§original¡¨ and ¡§duplication¡¨ becomes so fine. Even the frame, necessary to any painting, can now be classy and tacky at the same time.
Artists make various attempts to reinvent a creation by giving it new life and a new meaning. Living in the world of capitalism and pop culture, people¡¦s desires are expanding interminably. Indulged in masterpieces and brand name products, modern people¡Xand this has become deep-rooted in our minds¡Xonly value brand-names. Lee Lee Nam challenged and criticized this phenomenon with his recent series of artworks; he told everything he wanted to say with it.
Today,¡¨ purely still imaging arts¡¨ can no longer satisfy Lee; what he wants is to re-present masterpieces in a more diverse, free and novel way, turning them into a whole new image. During this process, different images that he drew are put together in an overlapping manner. For instance, in ¡§New¡VGenmgangjeondo¡¨, the original ¡§Genmgangjeondo ¡§, a work by one of Korea¡¦s most representative artists, Jeong Seon, Gyeom Jae takes up most of the space, in addition to neon lights, cranes on the construction sites, and a few world-famous skyscrapers. And then we have snow, along with light mist, or heavy fog; we also have the rotation of night and day, while the original starts to fade away. The original is a portrait of Mother Nature and the universe, and Lee successfully added the element of ¡§mechanization¡¨ when giving the original some motions, making it a brand new artwork. The new piece is, in fact, a perfect depiction of extremes in the modern city life: ¡§Natural and artificial¡¨, and ¡§past and present¡¨, which culminate in the last, incomparable part of the piece, ¡§Genmgangjeondo---Winter.¡¨
In ¡§Conversation between Monet and Sochee¡¨, with two monitors, Lee used a skill he developed after ¡§New¡VGenmgangjeondo.¡¨ Monet¡¦s ¡§Impression, Sunrise¡¨ and Sochee¡¦s landscape painting were juxtaposed, similar to one of his earlier works, ¡§Dream.¡¨` The boats in the originals now can float freely between the two monitors. What is different about this piece is that Lee added more of his own 3D animation so that we can see more of his creation in the combination of the originals. Shanghai¡¦s scenery, the change of weather and the rotation of day and night are outlined. Lee¡¦s creative concept has changed compared to his earlier stages. Now he is creating a whole new scene by adding substantial changes to the originals.
When I last visited Lee at his studio, he was working on his latest piece, ¡§Circulation ¡V Nature ¡V Human1.¡¨ I was surprised to see that this time, his materials and subject matter are so different from before, which indicates that he is stepping into a new stage of his career. More importantly, this time, no ¡§masterpieces¡¨ are involved. He now has his own flowing water, his own skies---all 3D images. A murmuring stream and a sky of clouds are overlapping and moving slowing. It was a peaceful and gentle sight. However, if you look closely, you will find that the fish that swim in the river, though beautiful in a distance, are deformed; the airplanes that fly over the plains are all combat jets. It turns out, in the seemingly simple and tranquil world, the ugliness of modern civilization is everywhere. If we compare Lee¡¦s previous works as essays with a straight story line, then this new piece will be a modern poem filled with metaphors and meditation that really make us think deeper.
Image creations today begin to see developments in mechanical and electrical devices, as well as electronic games. With the rapid development of digital technology, we have become accustomed to digital technology in art creation. However, it is not easy to utilize image devices as the media to express a profound content. Therefore, it is truly exciting and praise-worthy that Lee Lee Nam, as an image artist, uses devices such as monitors and screens in creating something of artistic value. I am particularly pleased to see that Lee is still conducting deeper contemplation and exploration, while he continues to improve artistically. It is my sincere hope that Lee will never lose his artistic soul and will never stop his searching and efforts so that we will see more of his fascinating personal style. It might be too outdated to talk about ¡§artistic soul¡¨ today, but I still hope that Lee Lee Nam and other imaging artists can persevere in their artistic souls in this very difficult time.