STEPHANIE ROSENTHAL
ON LEE WAN

Interview by Michaela de Lacaze

Curator Lee Daehyung chose the theme of “Counterbalance” for the Korean Pavilion as a result of disparities that he identified in a variety of domains, from the socioeconomic and political to the cultural and environmental spheres. The title you selected for the Biennale of Sydney, The Future is Already Here – It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed, suggests germane notions of imbalance and inequity. How do you view this shared concern between the BOS and the Korean Pavilion? How is Lee Wan’s work a response to the Pavilion’s theme of “Counterbalance: the Stone and the Mountain”?
What I was interested in for the Sydney Biennale was this idea, the fact that there is such huge inequality in the world and that it is growing and growing. And a lot of artists are concerned with the fact that the more digital we go, the greater the gap becomes between people who have access and those who don’t. So Daehyung’s idea for the Korean Pavilion has a similar idea or exudes a similar urgency regarding changes that have happened over the last decade and that are creating greater problems for certain groups of people, while probably the wealthiest people are benefitting more from this outcome.
What I think is interesting with Lee Wan’s work is that it captures the different layers of this situation. He doesn’t make clear statements or points about someone very intentionally. It’s rather by bringing several different individual voices that he makes clear that there isn’t a black and white picture of the world. I find that very interesting and that is very much what my approach was with the Sydney Biennale—not to issue a statement saying “this is clearly like this” but rather to point to different sets of challenges that we have nowadays.
You just mentioned the role of technology—“the digital”—and how it may be contributing to the acceleration of inequality both in the sphere of art and the world at large. Lee Wan’s work seems to revolve around these very simple, everyday objects. Do you feel this is his deliberate way of resisting this push towards adopting new technological innovations that may be contributing to the widening of an inequality gap?
How I would put it is he is trying to find things that concern all of us and are not relevant to just a certain group of people. Consuming food or breakfast is something we all experience, and it really doesn’t matter what background we’re coming from. In terms of medium, I do think he is quite advanced in the way that he works. He is very much an artist of the 21st century and the way that he works is not in any sort of way “retro,” like so many other artists. I feel like he really knows how to use different technologies and just uses them according to his best interest.
What drew you to Lee Wan’s work? Were there aspects of his work that you particularly liked or struggled with as you penned your essay for the catalog? Have you always had an interest in Korean artists?
Why I was very interested in Lee Wan’s work is because I really feel he does two things I always appreciate. On one hand, he has a documentary approach. He does research. He brings in the facts. He has his statistics. He uses mathematical formulas, but, at the same time, he still does what I think is the important thing in the field of art. He blurs the lines. He doesn’t try to be a news journalist. He creates works that are visually attractive and that bring in different layers of meaning. His approach is very thorough and uses the form of documentary, but then also goes beyond that or sidesteps it and does an installation with it.
In relation to my interest in Korean artists, I’m German and I was raised in the south of Germany but my family comes from Berlin. The German history and the Korean history have so many fascinating correlations, such as the split of the country and the involvement of the Americans in that. There are a lot of things I’m interested in in relation to the historical trauma of separation, and I think this is really something that connects me to the artist’s work in Korea. Even if, of course, it’s all super different and we speak on many levels a different language. But I think there is a connection with artists, who work in Korea or were brought up in Korea.
Although geographic markers seem to be increasingly superfluous in our globalized (art) world, the Biennale still organizes its participating artists according to nationality. To what degree has Lee Wan undermined or underscored the validity of regional/national labels?
I feel like he really talks about Korea a lot. And looking at his work and what’s happening in Korea right now, I feel that for once these country pavilions make sense, because Lee Wan is so clearly making us aware of the history of Korea and what’s happening there right now and how absurd it all is—these puppets we have nowadays in our politics, like Trump and Park. Of course, on the one hand, he talks internationally but, on the other hand, he also very much talks about the specific issues, which are happening in Korea right now. And yes, he brings in America in one of his works, but I feel it’s very clear looking and confronting his work that there’s this awareness of how much other countries, like Korea or Germany, were influenced by America after a period of war. So Lee Wan somehow manages to find this very difficult line between making thorough political statements and not being a boring educator. So what he does is actually quite national, but it’s done in an international context. Take his Made In work, for instance. We all go to the supermarket and realize that all these products were not made in the country in which we are living but, by Lee Wan actually going to the countries where these products were made, it becomes a lot more absurd. And I think what Lee Wan introduced to me is the idea that for Korea—but, even more so for less developed Asian countries, like Cambodia and Vietnam—Asian countries are just used as factories by first world companies, who go there to produce.
I’m also working at the moment with Lee Bul so I discovered through her, as well as Lee Wan, that Park was not just the president but also the daughter of Dictator Park. And I became aware of these varied networks between her, her former family, the shaman she was involved in, and this whole drama around her as the leader of the country. I think for international curators, like me, and international viewers, who aren’t embedded in the Korean day-to-day news, for them, Lee Wan’s Mr. K installation will be very mind-opening. I really don’t think most people know about Korean politics, and I do think it’s very urgent at the moment. Lee Wan brings this up in his work in a really subtle way. This makes me feel like this is why we have contemporary culture and art because it can act as another layer on top of what we see in the news.
You recently worked as the director of the Biennale of Sydney. In its previous iterations, the Biennale of Sydney had experienced some criticism and controversy regarding its sources of funding. Echoing similar concerns through their art, both Cody Choi and Lee Wan address the link between art and wealth, albeit in very different ways. How would you describe Lee Wan’s position or attitude towards corporate capital and its influence on everyday life and the arts? And secondly, how is Lee’s work also not just about these socioeconomic concerns—how does he go beyond a mere analysis or excavation of economic systems?
I don’t think visual art can unfold this issue very well. The issue of economic relations just needs clear words and numbers and facts. And I don’t think that’s what Lee Wan wants because it would be too linear for him. I think his work is more about blurring the lines and bringing together different and generic individual voices. His works layer facts and voices and shows how these complement but also contradict each other. Of course, his work is a critique of capitalism, but I feel it is difficult to critique such a subject in a visual art installation. For me, his work doesn’t delve into the layers of capitalism as much as it brings different layers of meaning—different voices and facts—together. His key interest is the system and how individuals are nearly clashing with this system and how this changes their lives in a dramatic way—almost like a violent collision.
In 2006, Hal Foster wrote his seminal essay “An Archival Impulse” in which he examines contemporary artists, who construct or modify archives as part of their practice. How does Lee Wan’s treatment of historical materials represent an evolution of the trend that Foster identified a decade ago?
Yes, I would very much put him in line with this type of work. But I think what interests me about Lee Wan is that he is actually building or constructing an archive out of different elements. And he uses a very personal archive belonging to Mr. K and adds much more politically inflected content through his own ongoing archive and, of course, that’s always an interpretation of existing material. It’s never an object presentation. He subtly creates his own timeline. On the one hand, he gives us very concrete information but, by bringing in Mr. K, he also blurs it. By bringing in Mr. K, he also adds another generational voice to the pavilion, which, along with Cody Choi and Lee Wan, provides three different generations of Koreans with three different narratives.
Korea’s relationship to the United States is an undeniable focus of Cody Choi’s art for the Korean Pavilion. Lee Wan’s art, however, seems primarily concerned with Korea’s history and the Asian continent. That said, his piece Possibility of Impossible Things: The Stone and the Mountain does allude to American culture. How do you view this piece? What is Lee’s take on the phenomenon of Americanization?
It’s funny because even though Possibility of Impossible Things is the only work that directly alludes to this process of Americanization, it seems to permeate so much of Lee Wan’s work. The Americans were so influential in the way that Korea developed, even if you think about the North and South Korea division. A lot of the materials that Lee Wan displays for the Mr. K installation is very much referring to that trauma of separation. It really is a continuous presence. But whenever you talk about this North and South split, you have to ask why is that? What were the interests of the United States in that? The United States is very much the ghost or the elephant in the room, as you say in English. It’s always there even if it’s not talked about in an explicit way. And even the exhibition title, Counterbalance: The Stone and the Mountain gives a certain weight to this piece, Possibility of Impossible Things. For me, I was looking at that work with almost a red circle around it, because it must have been a source of inspiration for the overarching investigation and concerns of the pavilion, the theme of the pavilion.