- Use on Vacation:The Non-Sculptures of Lee Seung-taek
Historians have long been enamored of narratives of recuperation, yet few are as intriguingly problematic as those surrounding Korean artist Lee Seung-taek. Best known for his sustained engagement with problems of freestanding, three-dimensional forms and materials in the 1960s and 1970s that he described as “non-sculptures,” Lee has been something of a cause célèbre among critics and art historians seeking to trace a history of the Korean avant-garde outside established narratives which position Korean art as the subsequent result of delayed interaction with European, and to a lesser extent, American and Japanese artistic developments. Grappling with the newly imported term “installation art” in the late 1980s, critics looked to Lee’s large-scale works as a presumptive point of historical origin from which to construct a distinct history of Korean installation art.1 Others, exhausted by the barrage of debates taking place in the Korean art world in the 1980s and 1990s over the normative value of so-called modernism versus the social realism championed in the name of Minjung, or “people’s” art, have turned to Lee as a presumptive starting point for a different kind of avant-garde lineage unfettered by the demands of crude nationalism or from chasing the so-called international art world.2
There is little agreement, however, as to what uses Lee intended his non-sculptures to fulfill. Hence there are many Lee Seung-taeks. There is the Lee Seung-taek who not only made his works in apparent isolation and often without the promise of an audience, but whose attitude to materials so deviated from assumed norms as to compel others to predictably brand him a “heretic.”3 There is also the native savant Lee Seung-taek whose use of traditional and folk objects, and perhaps more importantly, whose juxtaposition of such objects, represents to certain viewers the possibility of affirming the presence of an autonomous Korean modernity, a goal itself forged in the crucible of authoritarian nation-building.4 Lee’s own statements seemed to preemptively endorse such interpretation; as he wrote in 1980, his goal was to “transform the present into the past and the past into the present” by embracing the “allure of folk objects.”5 Then there is the Lee Seung-taek whose three-dimensional works and photographs are so conceptually and formally sympathetic with works classified as Land Art, Mono-ha, or Post-Minimalism as to beg comparison.6 In many instances, Lee’s non-sculptures were made almost concurrently or even slightly before their supposed cognates.
Of these Lee Seung-taeks, the third is far less compelling than the other two, although it is the Lee most likely to attract more attention from historians of modern and contemporary art, especially those looking to reconceptualize the international art world around instances of concurrence rather than precedence. This article focuses on the Lee Seung-taek of which the first two were emblems: an artist who took materials or objects originally made for a specific purpose and then reconfigured them in ways that fundamentally compromised or, more specifically, vacated from these materials and objects the practical or symbolic use for which they were originally intended. His non-sculptures of the 1960s and 1970s framed the idea of use as a question directed toward the ways in which certain forms and materials were themselves used by the postwar Korean state.
Much of this framing turned on the issue of agency: what could artists and artworks do given a particular set of circumstances? Born in 1932 in Japan-occupied Korea, Lee’s early career was initially mediated by the exigencies of ideological struggle between pro- and anti-Communist factions, the devastating culmination of which was the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 and the consequent division of the Korean peninsula into North and South. The matter of agency was further intensified by the activities of the South Korean state under former army general Park Chung-hee. Almost as soon as he seized control of the Korean government in 1961 in a largely unopposed and bloodless military coup, Park set about building what he...