VALUE OF LIFE IN A CAPITALIST SYSTEM

Interview with Lee Wan

Let’s begin with an overview of your works with a special focus on the ones exhibited at the Korean Pavilion for La Biennale di Venezia this year. I think Proper Time is a good starting point for the interview. Proper Time began as your exploration of the question, “How much time do different individuals from around the world need to labor in order to afford a single meal?” Words such as “world,” “individual,” “meal,” “time” and “labor” in this question are also keywords that describe the themes explored in your art world.
Proper Time is a statistical analysis and a formulaic evaluation of people’s lives in the contemporary world. Over the five years it took me to create the Made In series, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people and hear their stories. These encounters inspired me to start my new installation piece Proper Time, which speaks to the stories I heard from people around the world. First, I conducted interviews, both online and offline, with people from around the globe. The interviews consisted of collecting information, including the interviewee’s name, nationality, date of birth, occupation, annual income and personal memories, tied to memorable meals. The information of a total of 1,200 individuals was collected. To calculate the global average, I used this collected information and statistical data made public by governments. Next, I substituted this value for the speed of light in the proper time formula actually used in physics. The average cost of a meal in relation to the global GDP was set as the standard value, 1, in my “proper time algorithm.” Calculations from individual data substitutions yielded values such as 1, 0.5, 2.5, 3.3 and 0.2 (all relative to the standard value 1). I collaborated with electrical engineers, electric circuit engineers and programmers, and used these numbers to develop a digital circuit that can control the movement of analogue quartz clocks. When a calculated value is applied to the digital circuit, the designated clock is designed to move at a particular speed. The 670 clocks installed in the Korean Pavilion’s clock room all move at different speeds, just as everyone’s life moves at a unique pace. Directional speakers are installed in the clock room, and the audience can hear people I met throughout the project speak about their stories of memorable meals.
Why did you decide to discuss Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in this work?
Proper time refers to the time flow specific to an object when the object is moving at a particular speed. The theory applies equally to all objects, regardless of the speed at which they travel. This established theory of relativity explains that a certain object’s speed is calculated differently when it is measured using the proper time of another object. I wanted to show the differences between people’s lives by tracking their varying expenses for a basic necessity of life. For Proper Time, I studied people who live under different circumstances but embrace the same trading principles of capitalism. Meals are universal necessities that transcend borders, classes and religions. By presenting the costs of breakfast meals in different conditions (determined by GDP, culture, tradition, religion, wealth, labor and biological differences) as statistical values, I aimed to quantify the time each individual labors in terms of Einstein’s proper time theory. My 10,000 won meal has a different meaning from another person’s 1,000 won meal. Yet I wondered if it is even possible to evaluate one’s life based on such economic standards. I wanted to use capital, which functions as both a barometer and motor in the contemporary world, to question the value of life in a capitalist system.
The Made In series, which is shown alongside Proper Time at the Korean Pavilion, shows you traveling to ten different Asian countries and producing local products there. These videos document local scenes and the lives of people there. They function as ‘behind the scenes clips,’ in a sense. What inspired you to create the Made In series?
Made In series is a reflection on the era of maximum efficiency. Perhaps I was trying to go in the opposite direction in an extreme way by thinking, ‘I’ll show how inefficient I am.’ I wanted to reveal the other side of our present era in which things—not just my ‘inefficient’ actions and the sense of beauty in my practice—are only shared as superficial images for the sake of efficiency. Prior to traveling to each country for Made In, I spent at least one to three months researching. Once I decided on a product to make, I found people who could help me with production. I held meetings with them to figure out where I had to travel to in order to make the product. Once the agenda was in place, I traveled to the country as if I were an explorer and made the product locally.
I assume it wasn’t easy to decide what to make at each country.
I chose from the country’s main export items or selected products, whose traditional meaning or use had undergone major transformations in the modern era. Take Taiwan, for example. Taiwan’s sugar is closely associated with the country’s colonial period under Japanese rule. About a century ago, Japan raked in huge amounts of tax revenue by industrializing Taiwan’s traditional sugar farming. Even after Taiwan’s liberation, the industry remained strong and had a major influence on Taiwan’s economic development. In Myanmar, gold and sacred objects made of gold were once spiritual symbols of the nation, but today, they have turned into capitalistic symbols with high exchange value. When I was in Cambodia, I visited a farmer. He was a Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide and it is possible that he may have taken part in the killing. I rented a plot of land and planted rice I received from this Cambodian farmer. I experienced a range of emotions as I farmed rice on Cambodia’s fertile land, where triple cropping is possible. In China, I went to the Labrang Monastery located at a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The media reported that protests and conflicts were fierce in the region, but the monastery I saw was bustling with tourists. I obtained a block of discarded wood that was once the flooring of the Labrang Monastery and made a pair of disposable chopsticks. I wanted to show that even millennia of history can become a material for a disposable good. As I built a table in Indonesia and squeezed palm oil from palm fruits at a plantation in Malaysia, I analyzed the problems arising in Asia.
For a Better Tomorrow is a plastic sculpture inspired from a propaganda image from the Korean 1970s. It reminds us of your massive butter sculpture Does Anybody Have More Butter? (2013)
I am very interested in propaganda images from the past. In the past, power controlled the people. The fact that this system is still valid led me to appropriate propaganda images in my attempt to show Korea. My parents’ generation lived through the days of rebuilding and developing the country left in ruins by the Korean War. The American lifestyle that the country saw in the post-Japanese colonial era became an example for Korea. “For a Better Tomorrow,” “Export is the only way out,” and “Today’s sweat is tomorrow’s happiness” are some slogans from the time. The Korean government, at the time, promoted propaganda slogans and images that promised a better tomorrow as a result of one’s hard work in the present. Time passed, and now we are living that future. But look at our country today. The daughter of the former president, who ordered these propaganda slogans, became president and was impeached recently for being involved in a major political scandal of corruption. South Korea hasn’t seen war in the past 60 years, but the mortality rate of young adults is among the highest in the world.
Is A Diligent Attitude Towards a Meaningless Thing a work related to Dansaekhwa, which has recently been in the spotlight?
I received a lot of different comments after exhibiting this series of painting. Some were compliments, “The critique of Korea’s Dansaekhwa boom is brilliant,” or “You used the concept of Dansaekhwa to create monochomore paintings that aren’t Dansaekhwa.” Others said, “You are seeking attention” or “You needed money.” Frankly speaking, I am not at all interested in Dansaekhwa. I find ZERO group’s experimental art more interesting than Dansaekhwa. (ZERO was a group of artists in Germany, and Dansaekhwa has its roots in their concept.) One must be more interested in how images become history than in the responses of the art market. My work addresses the art market as a system in which value is created through the acts of an influential collector, purchasing an artwork. I experimented with this idea through paintings that are meaningless to me. The works in A Diligent Attitude Towards a Meaningless Thing series resemble Dansaekhwa paintings but, in fact, are not infused with much significance. Most of the paintings from this series sold after the solo exhibition in February. That means my paintings now have commercial value in the art market. Exchange value is equivalent to significance and meaning in markets.
The Korean Pavilion’s theme is illustrated through the symbolic figure of Mr. K, who is also a key figure in the archive project Mr. K and the Collection of Korean History. This archival work clearly reveals your interests in Korean modernism and the question “What is individual existence within the realm of history?” Unlike other works, you directly address Korean history in this work. This archival project has been exhibited a few times previously as Personal Collection: Korean Politics and Power, 1870 – Present. Could you tell us how the work got its title?
Personal Collection: Korean Politics and Power, 1870 – Present was put together as a result of my hobby, which is object collecting. I have been paying particular attention to the circumstances in Korea as I work. That extended my interest from contemporary Korea to the Korea before I was born. In 2010, I started collecting objects related to Korean politics and power. More than 1,000 objects were collected. The collection includes the Japanese Government General of Korea publications, appointment certifications and medals awarded by former presidents, handwritten texts or books by them, presidential records, newspapers from the past, notes issued by community village offices, wristwatches, voters directory and more. The Mr. K archive is only part of the many objects I collected.
What aspect did you focus on in juxtaposing Mr. K’s personal photographs and historical documents or objects that symbolically show Korean history? What are the differences that arise between using archives as art materials and using objects to create your work?
I don’t distinguish between collected materials and objects. Neither do I place any particular meaning on images I collect. Images themselves reveal messages so my responsibility is to organize them so that they tell a story. I also don’t use the objects to explain my artistic concept. Perhaps this is in line with my methodology, where I reveal the procedures of a story.