Seoul

Lee Seung Taek, Untitled (Burning Canvases Floating on the River), ca. 1988, C-print, 32 1⁄8 × 45 5⁄8".

Lee Seung Taek, Untitled (Burning Canvases Floating on the River), ca. 1988, C-print, 32 1⁄8 × 45 5⁄8".

Lee Seung Taek

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) | Seoul

Less is not always more, as the art of Lee Seung Taek shows. “Lee Seung Taek’s Non-Art: The Inversive Act,” curated by Bae Myungji, offered a welcome elucidation of Lee’s complex, maverick, and frequently erratic visual language, which has occupied a key position in the South Korean avant-garde since the 1960s. Moving beyond Lee’s best-known works—sculptures and performances that engage with natural elements and therefore could be easily misconstrued as a South Korean variant of post-Minimalism or Land art—the exhibition demonstrated the full breadth of the artist’s uncategorizable experimentation.

As aptly evoked in the title of the retrospective, the notion of inversion persists throughout Lee’s practice in varying guises—in the refusal of preconceived notions of sculpture and the obliteration of material forms, as well as in the mockery of state authorities and the rejection of Western worldviews. The retrospective first traced the development of nonsculpture, Lee’s term for a practice that rejects traditional sculptural media and affords new agency to everyday materials. Here, for instance, were works Lee made by stacking amorphous onggi pots (traditional Korean earthenware extensively used to store food), the results of which were shown freestanding or hung from the ceiling (Growth [Tower], 1964/2020, and Untitled, 1962/2020), as well as steel structures tightly wrapped with sheets of urethane vinyl whose artificial sheen stands in polar opposite to the warmth of the onggi series. Such material experimentations then coalesced around a single act of tying; Lee has tied with cords and twine such diverse objects as exhibition catalogues, stones, readymade sculptures of female torsos, white porcelain, and a heap of bills. These pieces revealed that for the artist, tying is a paradoxical gesture—one that simultaneously restricts the object by foreshortening its movement and liberates it from its inherent material qualities by contradicting its solidity and rigidity with a sense of malleability.

Subsequent works focused on formlessness within non-sculpture. Whether by installing a cord with long strips of blue fabric between buildings that flutter in the breeze (Wind, 1970) or by sending canvases gliding down a river as they slowly burn (Untitled [Burning Canvases Floating on the River], ca. 1988), Lee complicated the idea of materiality. In so doing, he expanded the Conceptual underpinnings of non-sculpture to include dematerialization or, at times, utter destruction. Such projects also set the stage for the more performative dimensions of the artist’s practice, such as Performance Art of Burning, 1989, an inspired act of arson, presented here as an ambitious eight-channel video, in which Lee pokes his previous works with burning twigs and splashes petroleum over them.

Though Lee’s more performative works possess a daring directness that verges on kitsch, they also enable a more comprehensive understanding of his output. In Suffering of Green, 1996, a miniature photographic print of Lee wearing an all-green outfit is affixed like a paper doll to the lower right of a series of otherwise abstractly painted wood panels. In The Earth Touring Beijing, 1994, the artist has painted a giant balloon representing the planet on top of a photograph of himself on a bike. The insouciant humor that emerges so strongly in such works reminds us that Lee’s art is grounded in a desire to dismantle accepted norms of expression and encompass what is often deemed rude, risqué, or even vulgar. Encompassing the full range of Lee’s heterogeneous output, the exhibition convincingly made the case that Lee’s artistic language was so raw and uninhibited—and his practice so adept at navigating the boundless territory where folk traditions, Eastern philosophy, environmentalism, institutional critique, and material experimentations freely converge—that it cannot be distilled into an identifiable signature.