Seulgi Lee, U: A pile of eggs =  A tricky situation, 2018, Korean silk, 76 3⁄4 × 61". From the series “Blanket Project U,” 2017–.

Seulgi Lee, U: A pile of eggs = A tricky situation, 2018, Korean silk, 76 3⁄4 × 61". From the series “Blanket Project U,” 2017–.

Seulgi Lee

Seulgi Lee reinvents folk artifacts from Korea and elsewhere, expanding on their symbolic status. Her maneuvers often reach back to premodern times, when material, image, language, shamanism, and the artisanal commingled in harmonious chaos.

The most eye-catching works in Lee’s recent exhibition “damasese” were the nine pieces from her series “Blanket Project U,” begun in 2014, each a large geometric color field in the form of a Korean nubi blanket, a traditional type of densely quilted bedding. Lee designed the planar patterns to evoke a series of proverbs (giving the simplest forms to the words as they appear in the proverbs), and selected colors familiar to Korean eyes thanks to their similarity with those found in traditional dyed-silk costumes. The designs were executed by master nubi artisans from Tongyeong, a port in the south of South Korea, where the technique has been well developed for hundreds of years. In U: A pile of eggs = A tricky situation (all works 2018), three oval shapes in brown, yellow, and pink sit within a yellow-green rectangle; the colors and shapes hint at the textual references in an abstracted and sometimes cartoonishly exaggerated manner. U: My three-foot nose = I’m too ground down to help anyone else places a pink isosceles triangle in the center of an ocher background, while a cerulean-blue line crosses the top of the frame. The moment you read “nose” in the title—and the titles are key to deciphering these quilted icons—the composition becomes an image of a face with a very big nose. 

Although the works look modern, Lee connects the artisans’ repetitious stitching to the intimate act of praying or wish making, as if creating what she calls a “shamanistic sculpture.” The act of interpreting a proverb imparts a sense of community and shared knowledge; the artist appears to enjoy the way in which accumulated experience leads to a sense of collectivity. While proverbs usually teach moral lessons and common values, Lee’s reinterpretations are less pedagogical and closer to pictograms or hieroglyphs. Lee wonders if sleeping in these sheets would affect one’s dreams; her playful, spirit-like folklore or superstitions, arrives from beyond the boundaries of rationality.

While researching the oldest basket-making practice in Burkina Faso for the series “Basket Project W,” 2017–, Lee found out about the Xula, an association of female basket weavers in Mexico. Visiting the village of Santa María Ixcatlán, in the state of Oaxaca, Lee became aware of a disappearing language, Ixcateco, that is used by Xula artisans among themselves while weaving. Attracted by this invisible tie between a language and the production of artifacts, Lee designed a series of woven baskets with poetic interpretations and gave them names in the Ixcateco language. W/Hwagutchaku, the title of one of the four baskets displayed here, means “sunset,” and the work itself portrays the dome of a sombrero covered in a bigger basket, like a descending sun. The baskets sat on contrastingly slender custom-made brass towers created by the master framer of the Louvre in Paris.

Other works in the show included Project B, an installation of intense yellow ginkgo foliage from the Songpa borough of Seoul; Project O, consisting of circular rims from boisseaux—French bushel baskets—redesigned with strips of colored wood cutting across the rings as if the baskets measure chroma; and Dafiso Project, a short recording of a shamanistic ritual in an African village. Lee’s unbiased and innocently voracious curiosity was not only refreshing but shed a new light on the humanist vision of art.

Shinyoung Chung