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Yongbaek LEE

Yongbaek LEE, Total Museum of Art







Angel Soldier(Installation View), 2011

Mixed media,

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Yongbaek LEE's Art and Its Hidden Side

"I am an artist working with various media.  I believe that art is a dynamic process of life experimenting on yet another possibility of life breaking down social prejudices and forced formality…" (Lee Yongbaek) 
Lee Yongbaek works in all fields of contemporary art, from media art, sculpture, and photography, to painting, and he has achieved artistic triumph, freely manipulating formations characterized by sensibility, form, and behavior.  Lee achieved a global formality with a mechanism of his own development, which is a highly unusual feat for an Asian artist.  However, Korea’s art community regards him too abstractly as a postmodern artist.  Declaring that Lee Yong Baek is a postmodern artist is absurd in light of the fact that postmodernism is an ideology or movement that denies values such as totality, universality, historical macro discussion, the firm ground of existentialism, and the undoubted possibility of knowledge.
  In art as defined by Lee Yongbaek, the artist sets the scope of self-actualization and self-limitation and clashes against these walls with the strongest determination and energy so as to disclose his artistic view to the outside world, that is, art is an indescribable shock wave.  Here, the scope of self-actualization and self-limitation may be thought of as seinsverbundenheit (existential boundedness)' as Karl Manheim describes it.  Existential boundedness means that a thinking and acting subject cannot be free from the ground where he/she is rooted.  However, we are well aware that when an ideal that one dreams of is based on limited nourishment and turns into a form, boundedness is not a negative value but reveals the circumstances of the era and is transformed into sympathy that transcends time.   Lee Yongbaek was born at a time of military dictatorship, and the art community was then beholden to very black and white ideas.  Art must not be created from any political impetus. Korean artists tried to interpret the forms of monochrome, minimalism, and abstract expressionism by connecting them with the spirit of Zen Buddhism, the moral training of Confucianism, and the elegant appreciation (of art) of Taoism.  In other words, it is a dual structure in which the artists laid the newly translated language of an Asian style onto Western forms.  Secondly, Minjung art (art about the lives of people as historical subjects after the Gwangju democratic uprising) became prolific and analyzed the capitalist pathology of the military dictatorship using the shamanism of the Korean Peninsula, an indigenous religion of exorcism, and the realism of socialism.  Meanwhile, the Korean government liberalized its policy on travel and study abroad in 1985.  However, as the socialist states began to collapse in succession in 1989 onwards and power was peacefully transferred to a civilian government in Korea in 1993, the intellectuals who had studied abroad returned to Korea and the two forces faded.  In the 1990s, Western art flooded into Korea.  Media, video, photography, and installation works were all new to the Koreans.  Viewers could not at first decide what they thought of them, and critics lost their own point of view and instead depended on the rules of Western postmodernism.  The 1990s was a period of transition in which the two centers of power let the world fall to pieces and the world became divided multilaterally.  At the same time, plural individualism became pronounced, and the division between good art and bad art disappeared.  That is, the model and example disappeared during this period.  In such a confusing situation, Lee Yongbaek appeared in the Korean art world at the end of the 1990s.  He was one of the artists who contemplated the voluntary creation of artistic forms and the meaning of Korea’s contemporary art.   2.
In the 1990s, Lee Yongbaek refused all conditions of postmodernism.  He considered postmodernism nothing but shock treatment to escape the lethargy and weariness of modernism, and the third degenerated body germinating from the body of modernism, as if capitalism and socialism were ideological twins that were inevitably born from Western history.  He absorbed the historical and social context of Korea and Asia as his nourishment.  When one compares his art with modernism and postmodernism, the characteristics become clear.  Since modernism is a perfectly rationalized art created according to existing rules and orders that request an artist to seek the ultimate nature of a genre that cannot be restored, it always reveals reproductions.  Thus, modernism is a rational method of thinking that is both colorless and odorless.  On the contrary, the art of Lee Yong Baek is essentially voluntary creation and formation.  His creation is not ‘a creation from nothing’ but a creation from a given historical and social reality.  For this reason, his art shows that he is not a passive observer of the world, but a discoverer actively seeking values in the world, and an activist who tries to realize his discovery into the concrete form of art.  Thus, the reality of Asia, the history of Korea, the relationship between the region and the world, and the global trend of the 21st century can be found in Lee’s works.  The method used to form these characteristics is based on symbols that leave an empty space for interpretation rather than concrete messages.  While the sensibility of material and the diversity of meaning in his pieces are in a relationship of constant pulling and pushing, the two forces maintain a taut balance, forming an extreme tension.  As the peculiar meaning of a specific region and the universal sensibility of matters with a global sense encounter each other, he creates a new energy, one that can at the very least be said to have never existed before in Korea.
 Lee Yongbaek had already built the foundation of another piece transcending New Folder-Drag, which generated a great deal of buzz when shown to the public in Beijing, in 2005. After spending six years in self-reflection and development, he completed at last the final edition of Angel-Soldier in 2011.  This work presents the essence of camouflage used by humans.  It shows that the means of survival in the animal world are apply to the human world, at least to Korea’s situation.  Korea can be defined in two words: wartime capitalism.  The immoral and unjustifiable ruling ideology has deceived people.  The rulers have claimed that there is no way to defeat brutal socialist enemies except by economic pressure.  Thus, they have closed their eyes to the disparity in wealth, social discrimination, human rights abuses, and lack of freedom of thought and freedom of assembly of labor, always promising to deal with these issues in the future.  Although most people, except for a few chaebeol (conglomerates), high-ranking government officials, and privileged social leaders, have been driven into invisible isolation, few people are aware of their situation.  The mainstream media, the hegemony of sports, the feast of corruption, inhumane TV dramas, the morbid myths of fetishism, large Korean-style churches that gained power by tapping anti-communism, and the fabulous faces and bodies of TV entertainers are not only Korea’s angels but also its soldiers.  People wearing a flower-patterned military uniform, who are angels and soldiers at the same time, slowly sneak through a fake flower jungle.  The strategy to hide an uneasy truth with a splendid appearance of oblivion really is similar to what we see in the animal world.  When this piece appeared, the relationship between South Korea and North Korea was rather peaceful, and thus the true quality of this piece was not well understood.  By 2011, the South and the North had nervously had a number of incidents, revealing the nature of both.  To the extent that their relationship is characterized by hostile coexistence and the hiding of nature, both nations exist with the camouflage of allomorphism, an angel and a soldier.  Apart from the complex social dynamic symbolized by this work, the sound effects of the work, the sounds of grass insects and wind, are quite pleasant.   Another monumental work by Lee Yongbaek is Pieta.  The original form of all religions and cultures has the mechanism of a victime emissaire, a scapegoat.  The mechanism of a victime emissaire is a kind of charm against evil influence that tries to prevent the possibility of many sacrifices by choosing a sacrificing target.  It conducts an economic function that prevents the sacrifice of humans by using animals and the function of spells that block bad violence with good violence.  Also, a victime emissaire offered as an object of sacrifice becomes perfectly passive.  As all members of a community fervently react to a victime emissaire, it serves to prevent the violence of a larger disaster.  That is, it is not dedicated to a symbolic god but to widespread violence.  Examples of this rite include the Holocaust, which occurred in Europe during a period in which economic conditions had worsened and fascism was complete; the slaughter of native Americans, which is hidden in the history of western settlement of the US; the massacre of 6,000 Koreans by Japan after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923; and the 1980 Gwangju civilian uprising.  These tragedies show a common point: when a community or civilization develops, the leadership class makes members positively accept their role or passively remain as spectators by killing opposing forces, and the members end up contributing to a societal mood that is excited with rising development.  We need to remember that any civilization at any time is a physical accumulation built on widespread suffering and pain.  Today’s civilizations and communities are no different from past ones.  The moral training for a complete personality is impossible in a society of limitless competition in the era of globalization.  Contemporaries have become tools as quantified individuals.  They are guaranteed institutional freedom as individual beings, but their affluent lives end with sentences of execution.  This contemporary era provides us a hint that it is an era of self-sacrifice.  That is, the reasoning as to why Pieta by Lee Yong Baek recalls the image of a cyborg should be read.   Now, let's look at a series of paintings: Plastic Fish.  In this series, plastic fish simply fill up the canvases.  The pieces have an equal system without a main theme or discrimination.  This equality is in fact a source of confusion itself.  It is a fatal gesture of fake items that tries to assume the value of genuine ones.  The word ‘honor’ in the West denotes a life that establishes morality, pursues universal values, and is dedicated to a community.  However, the word is misunderstood in Korea, which is blindly loyal to Western culture, as a word indicating the rich regardless of their tools and methods.  The word ‘sorry’ in the West connotes a strong sense of personal responsibility.  However, the word in Korea implies behavior inconsistent with the word itself, and is a double-faced attitude without responsibility.  A society in which moneyed success achieved in any possible way is thought of as honor has no future.  On the other hand, in addition to a misfortunate premonition, viewers can find in the series an indication of hope.  The series shows that the dissolution of centralism, that is, a society of multilateral values, is being introduced to Korea and Asia.  Totalitarianism is a horror play in a secret room, and its society is controlled by coercion in a closed space.  Now, the curtain has come down on the final act of the horror play.  Recently, the democracy of multilateral values and the mood that equally admits an individual life and the cause of an entire society were formed in Korea.  This new movement is quite splendid.  This work by Lee Yongbaek also effectively manifests the meaning of the present era rooted in the region of Korea.  As can be seen through his works, the strongest asset of Lee Yongbaek is that he does not remain in personal sentimentalism or habit.  All of his pieces reveal that he is existentially confident about the world.   Finally, I will discuss the position of Lee Yongbaek’s art in Korea’s art world.  In the 1990s, when the civil government came to power, after black and white ideas such as monochrome art and minimalism and the modernism of abstract expressionism and Minjung art had lost their power, Korea’s art had no forms of its own.  Instead, the Korean art world uncritically accepted Western art and Korea became flooded Western-style art of various movements.  Criticism had to be deferred for some time.  However, Lee Yongbaek clearly recognized the wall of his possibility and limitations and made efforts to knock it down.  He has made his efforts at his own initiative constantly for the last 20 years.  Looking at his artistic journey, it becomes clear that the first criterion of quality art during the confusing period of Korea’s art is form that is consistent with the life of the artist who realized the form, and when the artist’s work is the result of a journey made through rough times and trial and effort, the art has genuine value.  The second criterion is an avant-garde spirit.  Avant-garde is defined as the art of an artist confronting the history of existing arts, clearly examining the inner necessity between existing arts and past times, keenly understanding the secret relationship between their lives and their era, and finally realizing this keen understanding as a form.  The third criterion is the artist’s spirit in creatively germinating the seeds of all problems of the era and society of the artist based on his/her sensibility that his/her contemporaries can respond to.  The last and most important criterion is that a macroscopic view should always be maintained according to which the weight and depth of life that an artist recognizes should come before the formal excellence of his/her artworks.  These criteria are small but great virtues that, thanks to the 25-year art career of Lee Yong Baek, people have finally started to recognize.


Jin Myeong LEE (Curator)


Yongbaek LEE’s Work and the Heterological Power of Digital Media

Since the beginning of 1990s up to the present, Yongbaek Lee has been working with a variety of technological media, from single-channel video to interactive art, sound and kinetic art as well as Robotics. A variety of Lee’s works suffices to be him acknowledged as a renowned artist representing this realm in Korea. However, his art is highly acclaimed not only because it experiments in technology, but because he is able to express the electronic mass media culture’s unique social issues and imagination found through the form of technology.  Drawing a few excerpts from his work from the early 1990s up to the present I will introduce Lee’s interests and visual language through these issues: “the relationship between the real and the virtual in the age of simulation”, “de-centered subject” and “the heterological and subversive strength accompanied by digital media.”   First of all, his Angel-Soldier series show that the artificial flowers that fill the artificial spaces that appear in such media as video, photography and installation, stir up the digital simulation composed purely through simulacra.  For instance, one is surprised to find a soldier perfectly camouflaged in flowers slowly marching with a gun in such an artificial space of Lee’s video work.  In this setting, the simulation is portrayed as an extreme war-zone upon which the subject depends its existence. The artificial flowers here are the simulacra that exercise a power of seduction, and the solider exists solely as a part of the simulation setting, not as a separately independent individual. In the same sense, this work in part brings up human ontological issues, such as the exchange between the exterior (electronic environment) and interior (subject), the reconstruction of the "liquid ego" (Arthur Kroker) in the cyberspace, and the dissolution of the subject.  The work also displays the fidgety overview of today’s digital war and cyber commerce that create war between the boundaries of the world of computer simulation and physical reality based on the human body.   Another work in the Angel-Soldier series is an objet installation that utilizes the soldier outfit, and this is a witty work that utters about the concept of the artist and creation in the digital media era. This installation utilizes the flowered solider outfit and other real objects that appeared in the video installation.  On each of the soldier outfits, logs such as Windows, Quicktime, Word and Explorer appear as medals, and important famous artists’ names such Beuys, Picasso, Duchamp, Nam-Jun Paik and Da Vinci are written on the name tags. This work suggests a new transfiguration of the simulation era into an artistic creation, through the intersecting of 4 elements: artificial flower pattern, soldier apparel, important symbols of the digital culture, and symbols of the artistic creation.  The work is a suggestion that Art today variably and strategically transforms into a product through the process of reproducing, editing, and transforming in the imaginative space.  The very life of Art becomes ambiguous, as Art is no longer the ‘original creation’, but a “Post-creation” that relies its expression and existence on the appropriation and re-arrangement through the simulation process.   The other work New Folder-Drag humorously portrays the collapse of the two binary oppositions that are universal issues of today: the virtual and the real.  This work is a video projection of a few children pulling a 3 meter magnification of the ghostly computer desktop icon ‘folder’ that displays the words “folder of the reality matters”. The folder icon, which originally has no material weight and is only a graphic image, paradoxically appears subversively as something that is associated with material weight and physical labor. Although we live in what is called a Cyber age, this cyber space is not a closed space but a space that is intimately associated with the real material world. Through a few clicks of the mouse, we naturally perform everyday activities, from shopping in cyberspace, to something extreme as having a cyber war. We construct the world in cyberspace as if it is a game, and through this process, we become alienated from our very own world.  New Folder-Drop cleverly portrays the mutual transformation that arises between the virtual space and the real space.   In a large context, works like Mirror(2007) and Sad Mirror(2007) can be understood in the context of the collapse of the conflict between the real and virtual.  The work is an LCD projector behind a mirror which projects the video of a mirror breaking and water (like teardrops) forming and flowing on the surface of the mirror.  Although a very simple set up, the impression of the work is powerful as the viewer cannot see the projector and the breaking of the mirror surface or the tear drop forming appears real to the viewer. It’s a different sensation seeing the same image through a monitor or projection. This work completely unifies the material sense of the mirror and the virtual sense of the projection. Furthermore, this project creates the feeling of being suspended between consciousness and a dream. Such an inquiry into the boundary between the real and the virtual is apparent since Lee’s earlier works. For example, in Window in Window, a projection of children playing is projected onto a screen that resembles a real window.  The scene appears to be real, until technical defects such as blips of letters or blank screens appear, waking up the viewer.  An LCD monitor with the image of a corpse exercises, and the children shout “It’s dead, it’s dead!” while looking at the monitor. The important thing to remember here is that the viewer who is watching the virtual image and the image that is watching the viewer has been exchanged.  The projection of the children is not seen from one-direction like it is on a movie-screen where it is observed from the audience; the projection itself that is composed as a window frame and the children in this virtual space look back at the viewer.  Therefore, the process of being observed through observing the children directs a situation that can be called a “visual chiasmatic reiteration.”   Lee’s work not only deals with the ideas of the virtual and the real, they also speak about the transgression of the symbolic order, hybridity, and the issues of the de-centered self.  Abnormal is a project that utilizes the technique of morphing to show the digital art’s most important aspects: liquidity, plasticity, and transformative potentials. The project continues in mysterious and grotesque transformations and whirring sound.  This transformation is full of blasphemous attempt of escaping the symbolic definition of the icons, as well as displaying such blasphemous metamorphosis as death drive, pleasure of self-inflicted pain and ecstatic state.   The transgressive movements against the symbolic and cultural borders is actually the most important cultural characteristic and state of the internet cyberspace that is dominated by morphing and hybrid technology. This is the downfall refression of everything and anything borrowed, then hybridized, to become a third kind of a mutation. In cyberspace, innocence and regional boundaries do not exist.  This project displays the digital culture’s typical characteristics, as all visual symbols undergo a process of transformation and begins to disassemble from its pre-established symbolic order. In other words, this characteristic can be expressed as  being similar to the mixed coexistence of the heterogenous dimensions, and it has a close relationship with the concept of the “paganism” suggested by Jean-Francois Lyotard as the important characteristic of the postmodern culture of the 1980s. Concerning Surrealist art, Georges Bataille mentioned "a state that an formal identity is distrupted by the attack of the other", "the impossibility to define as a unique form", "a moment that the world being collapsed by diversity". Such ideas have been  linked with heterology and formlessness, and these ideas can also be found in Lee’s projects. To leap further, one can say that in this sense, Lee’s projects as well as a plethora of others in the field of Digital Arts have many things in common with Surrealist photography by artists like Raoul Ubak, Jacques-Andre Boiffard and Man Ray. More recently, Alain Renaud have defined the transformation and collapse of signs, and the liquid aesthetics in digital images, as "the des-anchored signs". This signifies the trendy simulation era’s images being disassembled from their semantic and symbolic functions.   Such matters of concern are also shown in this recent work Pieta. Traditional images of Maria and Jesus are substituted with images of cyborgs in Pieta. This project seems to observe Donna Haraway’s observation that Humans and gods, the symbols of humanism, have disappeared and blasphemous hybrid cyborgs and other biotechnological monsters are taking over. As seen in Pieta, the technical composition of the oscillating monitor hidden in the glass box, has also been diversely applied in other past works. For example, the work Twins in Monitor shows the abnormal, the mutant, and the split subject through a 3-dimensional image as if through a magical illusion. This image is like a conjoined twin that’s been taken from the placenta.  This is actually the image that is played from the monitors that perform oscillating motions on the small rail.  Hidden in the semi-transparent glass, it’s as if we’re watching an illusion-like 3-dimensional projection. To the viewer, the surreal image of the floating twins that don’t disappear in the darkness appear as a regressive fantasy, and operates as a disturbing fact, as the monstrous being disturbingly mirrors us as our own identity. 
It should be reminded the fact that many artists have already been exploring the de-centered self, the disassembled physical body, and the multiple transfigurations of the body, since the onset of the Media Arts.  For example, artists in the past, such as Peter Campus or Dan Graham have used the medium of the video and the crafty angling or the use of time-exposure in camera as a kind of ‘mirror reproduction’ that reveals the breaking of the reproduced image of the self and its failure to identify with the subject.    Through Lee Yongbaek’s noted works, we can see that his works emphasize the "com-mutaion" not the communication, and describe the images of human who is expanded, altered and splitted through media. There we can read the new horizon on which lies the high technology art today. This gives us the insight that the virtual can work as the impure and heterological power intervening the epistemological order of the real world, and that it will lead us to the new cultural horizon of posthuman and postmachine.

Wonbang KIM