KIM Wonbang
Ban Ejung
Lee Jinmyung


John RAJCHMAN | Art critic, Columbia University, New York


The possible as aesthetic category : some possibility or else I’ll suffocate.
(Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? 1993)


What is possible, and impossible, for an artist today- possible in the aesthetic sense, vital, a little bit of fresh air? What is it now, for artist as audience, to move in contemporary waters in which earlier segments of the grand old story of modernist art float free in a global production and on a scale without precedent?

The camouflaged angels, cracking mirrors, battling Pieta robots populating the 2011 Korean Pavilion testify to these questions, as if an elaborate allegory of the new conditions of contemporary art, its audience, its functions. Arriving in Venice in a new adapted guise from a show in Beijing, these high-tech figures and spaces were themselves born of a specific itinerary that would first take form in Seoul, in the riots and tear gas of 1987, when Lee Yongbaek was studying painting and sculpture at Hongik University. It is then that he would formulate the key questions from which the eventual invention of these figures would derive, then that he showed his first work and formed his first group, already preoccupied with moving freely outside the logic of black and white.

‘Contemporary art in Korea began in the 1990s against the background of all this social and political chaos’. [1]

The June Democracy Movement of 1987, when over five million people took to the streets in twenty days of protest, would have a dramatic effect on the Korean art world. It not only helped spawn new informal art spaces in Seoul, in which students, disillusioned with national politics, started to look at American, Japanese and Korean pop culture; it also translated a new aesthetic and generational divide. Lee’s art teachers had all been minimalists, tied up with the Korean monochrome (dansaekhwa) that had emerged after the War via Japan, during what Lee calls the ‘military-dictatorship society’ in Korea, in which his mother had lost her father and siblings, instilling a kind of generalized visceral fear. Championing ‘art for art’, these Korean minimalists had avoided political issues and discouraged experimentation in art-practice. In opposition, making murals, banners and leaflets during the protests was the Minjung group, proponents of ‘art for the people or masses’. The division between the two did not sit well with young Lee Yongbaek. He sensed it served only to recast the ideological divide of the larger militarized cold-war divisions encapsulated in Korea itself, both sides lethal, leading to massacres. The formalist aesthetics of the minimalists, the nationalist politics of Minjung seemed to Lee a false dichotomy concealing a more submerged condition even in the new democracy and the aesthetic and pedagogical ‘slumbers’ that would accompany it. Lee Yongbaek’s peculiar inventions, his search for new aesthetic possibilities began with this visceral sense and diagnosis. How to rethink and reinvent aesthetics and politics? How could artists avoid the kind of borders or boundaries of the grand ideologies for which they had been called to fight, at once ‘angels’ and ‘soldiers’? How could they instead open up ‘neutral’ spaces, in between, moving from either side of the sort of lethal dichotomies that had once mobilized the energies of artists? How in this new, neutral, almost ‘neutered’ (jungseong) condition [2] can art then start to move? Instead of patrolling or crossing ideological borders, how might artists instead think at them, creating new vital possibilities contained in neither? Such became the questions Lee hoped to introduce into the ‘political, social and educational slumbers’ into which he sensed the Korean art-world had fallen, in the post-Minjung, post-dansaekhwa atmosphere that had grown up in the 90s. But how?

He started to look about for new means. In many ways he would find them outside Korea, in the new Europe then emerging after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where, taking advantage of a fellowship, he went to study. There he would see art, experiment with new media, and encounter Nam June Paik and Hans Haacke, gradually developing his new vocabulary. It was in 1996, with his return into the Seoul of a global ‘new Asia’ of superblocks, displacements, pop culture and the financial crises of neo-liberal economics, that the peculiar figures of his aesthetic universe would be born: submerged salesmen, lifeless cows, melding sounds of old Seoul streets, flora and fauna of a pop new media menagerie as if suspended between life and death, in which art itself would function as a kind of oxygen. With these new figures, now located in Korea, he would start to work in his own way as a ‘global’ artist.

What was then possible for this particular Korean artist working in the contemporary conditions that took shape the 90s? Lee Yongbaek’s itinerary, passing through Stuttgart, would coincide with the larger shifts in contemporary art practices that were taking place in this period. For in many ways 1989 marks a turning point. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we see this in Germany in a striking way in Hans Haacke’s questioning of the very idea of Volk (and by extension Min) in the context of a new Germany (and so Europe) and the larger questions and prospects of a ‘trans-nationality’ to which artists would then appeal and through which democracy itself would be rethought or reinvented. At the same time, we see the shift in the new role Asian artists were starting to have in the ‘large-scale exhibitions’ in Europe that were to so impress Lee as well as in the new Korean institutions that Nam June Paik would help introduce: the Gwangju biennial, the start of many others to follows, and the construction of the Korean Pavilion itself in Venice, both opening in 1995. Lee’s search for the fresh air of artistic possibility beyond the formalist-populist divide of his youth became inseparable from such larger globalizing changes. His turn from Korean ‘modernism’ towards a new contemporary art belongs with a more general turn from a ‘world’ to a ‘global’ kind of art history, in which earlier forms and practices free themselves from the fixed stories and logics within which they had so long been enclosed.

For who today still thinks that even minimalist art, in its encounters with Asian ink-wash or ink-brush traditions, must follow an internal modernist logic, passing through its famous ‘crux’, with the monochrome as its apotheosis? Warhol himself, for example, revisiting Pollock and returning to painting in his last years with the great Rorschach paintings, already suggested another role for ink, just as Do Ho Suh, whose work took off in this period, started to move in a new history in which minimalist strata would find new forms in a global situation. [3] At the same time, during these years, we see the rise of a new contemporary art in Mainland China, working on a different calendar and in different ways from the post-war Japanese situation within which the whole idea of ‘Korean monochrome’ took shape, mobilizing East Asian ink traditions in other ways. For the ‘Chinese contemporary art’ that took off only in 1976, 1949 was the key date, not 1945 or the role it would assume for the ‘trauma’ of post-war Japan; and, punctuated by the fate of its democracy movement in 1989, it would find its own new ways to adapt to the speed, scale, ambition and feel or sensation of contemporary art, so unlike the paired-down Asian minimalisms. [4] Lee Yongbaek’s specific dilemma in Seoul belongs with such larger seismic shifts in global art. Thus the very idea of a Korean modern art was no longer to be found either in the self-abnegations of the Korean Monochrome artists or in the nationalist self-assertions of the Korean Minjung artists opposed to them. In the new global situation that began in Korea in the 1990s, the problem was less the vexed question of Korean national identity as how the histories specific to Korean art might give rise to new artistic possibilities. For more generally the question posed by global art and art history after 1989 became: how to make one’s peculiar artistic itinerary inventive, creative, vital, mixing up earlier strata, rethinking old and new.

It was then in this larger context that, in the early 90s, Lee Yongbaek saw the work of Bill Viola, James Turrell and Bruce Nauman in Germany and started to use digital technologies or ‘new media’. At the same time, this turn to new means formed part of a complex encounter with Nam June Paik and his work. Earlier figures or strata of the Fluxus movement started to enter the crucible of his imagination, and so eventually to figure among his new transnational angels: Duchamp, Cage, Beuys, Nam June himself. Two works shown here date from this formative period, Broken Mirror and Inbetween Buddha and Jesus. In the first, a CRT monitor was transformed into a mirror, cracking loudly in interaction with the audience, thus disrupting or disorienting the classical illusionist space, in each case restored again, as if in an endless loop. Unlike the ‘classical mirror’ found in Michel Foucault’s famous analysis of Velasquez’s Las Meninas (where it indicates the place of the King), or even the ‘mirror phase’ of the narcissism that Rosalind Krauss found in the feedback apparatus of early video art (which involves rather the Viewer), the mirror-monitor discovers here a new role, interactive yet interruptive. This way of using new media is then pursued in Inbetween Buddha and Jesus, where the morphing techniques of the day are put to a new aim, exploring a neutral space, in between two iconic figures: suffering Christ, smiling Buddha. In contrast to Michael Jackson’s morphing music video of the day, Black or White (with Michael himself in the end as a new Black Panther), Lee Yongbaek worked not with interviews and celebrities, but with photographic images of the two great spiritual or religious figures, morphing them together in such a way as to eliminate any original image. Taken together, these two early projects start to explore the conditions of contemporary art: the ‘participating’ audience and the easily manipulable conditions of digital media, increasingly available to all.

We may think of Lee’s encounter with Nam June Paik in this light. It was not simply that Nam June Paik’s encouraging remarks about Broken Mirror would spark Lee’s return to Seoul. He was inspiring in more ways than one. Indeed the initial intuition for Angel Soldier that Lee would go on to develop through several media and on different occasions upon his return, came from a performance piece in which Charlotte Moorman, using flowers, had played a Cage score with a bomb instead of a cello in the London of 1968, at the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement that would anticipate the theatre of the June Democracy Movement in Seoul. [5] But if Paik would himself return as an angel (and so as a soldier) in this piece, it is perhaps because he never took on the new digital ways and means that Lee’s work was entering, directing instead the mad antics of his great post-war Zen or ‘neo-dada’ wit against the ‘new cathedral’ of broadcast television and its ‘global village’, in contrast to the spread-out cyber networks of today. Indeed it is almost as if Paik’s work itself has become something of a grand submerged whale in these new waters, requiring new ideas, new aesthetic possibilities, to resurface. That in effect is the thesis of a recent book by David Joselit that looks back to Paik’s work of the 60s in the post-war televisual moment in the spirit of a retrospective manifesto for art today. [6] Joselit thinks we need to free the very idea of art from two great frames in which its ‘subversive’ potential was located at the time- mediums and media. Instead we should see both questions in terms of ‘image ecologies’, variously occupied by artists, producers and ‘guerillas’, sometimes armed with systems or information theories.

In a striking way, these are just the questions Lee himself started to raise. What matters in Angel Soldier, for example, is not medium but rather a complex theme, explored through many different media, forms and situations (photography, performance, installation, video…); and that theme has to do precisely with the kind of ‘environment’ or ‘milieu’ in which the angel-soldiers move about. Philosophically, it is perhaps Gilles Deleuze who offers a larger vocabulary to talk about such info-saturated milieus or environments, in which all black-and-white distinctions between artifice and nature, virtual and real, have become blurred. Already in Spinoza, Deleuze had found a picture of such composite milieus in which agencements (arrangements or assemblages) take precedence over divisions like life and mechanism, animal and human, indeed over ‘individualization’ itself; and the ethological or ethical question then becomes precisely one of vital possibility, as with the singular ‘spiritual automata’ Spinoza supposed each of us to be. But this ethical question was also an artistic or aesthetic one, as Deleuze went on to show, drawing on Kleist, for the kind of war that artists (like angels) must wage against the sensibilia of the powers that be. The question of such ‘war machines’ is encapsulated in Kleist’s great essay on marionette theatre, where the mechanical motions of the puppets sketch vital possibilities beyond the ‘centered’ movements to which human consciousness has become accustomed, as if in a mad new choreography.

Lee Yongbaek’s angels would become soldiers in a new context, digital rather than mechanical as with Kleist’s marionettes, confronting instead the ‘controlled’ cyber-environments of our sensibilities. Thus the angels would start to move in the waters that Lee would diagnose upon his return to Seoul, at a moment of financial crisis, leading to some of the more striking figures of his new sensibility: salesmen kept alive by illuminated bomb-like breathing-devices, trudging on endlessly, slowly, hopelessly, in a water tank; a digitally equipped cow corpse into which the audience is invited to breathe new life in an act of artificial respiration that starts as the cow re-opens its eyes; the strange sounds of gnawing insects or dripping water that take over from the Cagean liberation of sound in the visual arts to suggest a suspended condition between life and death, virtual and real, in which one needs to fight for survival-‘some possibility, otherwise I’ll suffocate!’ Deriving from Fluxus, yet moving free from old dichotomies, the angels must now confront this new asphyxiated condition. They too must move along almost imperceptibly, as if in slow motion, half-alive in a great neo-liberal water tank, which at the same time, perhaps unbeknownst to them, there yet float flowers, scattering as in earlier art-forms. Thus they give up their proverbial wings (and half-bird, half-human form) and don army fatigues, themselves shown in a performance version and related installation like T-shirts in a new-wave boutique along with cool combat boots, as if in sardonic realization of Beuys’ post-war German dictum ‘every man is an artist’. And, so, outside the Venice Pavilion, they again move along slowly, stealthfully, inexorably, in a camouflaged floral jungle, which then starts to scatter. Angels have become soldiers, but soldiers have become lost as if in an endless military service, keeping an anxious peace- the ‘angelic’ message now transpires in this new space.

On the eve of the great catastrophe of the European War, Walter Benjamin would also look to angels. In Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, as if looking back to the rubble, wings opened, filled with new forces, he would find an allegorical figure, at once aesthetic and political, for a war that had bombed cities to ruins, murdered millions in camps, calling for a new aesthetic of dialectical images and a time of messianism without a messiah, in other words, a community-to-come, a new war machine. But perhaps now we are confronted with a different time, a different situation of war, a different kind of allegory and of image, and of so new angels, growing out of massacres like Gwangju itself, from which a Biennial would rise, like a great global phoenix. For Lee Yongbaek’s angels are no longer like Christian Soldiers or even the Fallen Angels of a Babylonian Luther, engaged in a grand ideological or civilizational crusade of Good and Evil. They move on, barely visible anymore, without sense of end or victory, even perhaps of victim. They are not looking back- or forward for that matter- just keeping alive. It is only their milieu that contains the scattering flowers of possibility. Their question is neither redemption nor triumph; it has become a rather a matter of respiration and survival.


[1] Lee Yongbaek, interview in LEE YONGBAEK – NEW FOLDER (Arario Gallery Catalogue, 2008) (translation modified).

[2] In an interview, Lee Yongbaek calls the six angels, the battleground and floral jungle of Angel Soldier ‘a kind of symbol of neutrality’ (jungseongjuk giho)
(중성적 기호). Jungseong also carries a sense closer to ‘neutered’ (in-between genders) in English - as indeed with unsexed angels of Christian iconography. In English both ‘neutrality’ and ‘neutered’ in turn derive from the Latin ne-uter - neither one nor the other - of given divisions or genera. But drawing as well on the military sense of ‘neutrality’, Lee Yongbaek’s jungseong (중성) space is an original invention of aesthetic possibility outside generic sides and identities. I would like to thank Yun Jie Chung (MA, Columbia University), Independent Curator, New York, for drawing attention to this passage in its Korean polysemy and, more generally, for her invaluable assistance in preparing this essay.
Kim Jong-ho 김종호 and Ryu Han-seung 류한승, Korea’s Young Artists: 45 Interviews 한국의 젊은 미술가들: 45명과의 인터뷰 (Seoul: DaVinci Gift 다빈치’ 기프트, 2006), 154.

[3] See Miwon Kwon, “The Other Otherness: The Art of Do-Ho Suh,” in Do Ho Suh, ed. Lisa G. Corrin (London and Seattle: Serpentine Gallery and Seattle Art Museum, 2002), 9-25.

[4] In a new book of documentation of contemporary art in China, Wu Hung finds an important dividing point in 1990: the ‘experimental’ art that took shape after the death of Mao in 1976, was called ‘modern’ (xiandai) and fit with a ‘delayed modernization’, whereas the ‘contemporary art’ (dangdai yishu) emerging in the 90s was of a different sort, adapted to new global conditions - Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents (The Museum of Modern Art, 2010, see p. 184). In a striking piece “New Folder- Drag”(2008), Lee Youngbaek would bring his distinctive cyber-imagination to the Beijing of the Olympics, in a period Wu Hung sees as marked by a ‘sweeping commercialization, globalization and depoliticization’ that followed the 2000 Shanghai Biennial (p 400).

[5] In Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), pp. 140 -176, Benjamin Piekut gives a detailed description of the ‘cello-murder’ pieces from which Lee Yongbaek drew his inspiration, including a performance at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in which Charlotte Moorman bowed ‘her instrument with a bunch of artificial flowers’ following a score by John Cage. The performance belonged to the larger series involving ‘war sounds’ and ‘bomb instrumentations’ of various sorts, including Nam June’s own semi-nude body, both ‘played’ and ‘violenced’ by Charlotte with a ‘theatricality’ to which the Puritanical Cage would explicitly take umbrage. In 1965, the New York Times published a picture from a Judson Hall performance with Nam June carrying a candy-filled bomb along with Charlotte in a group photo, along with the caption ‘Oh dada, poor dada’. But Piekut thinks Paik’s ‘topless Asian body’ became a ‘charged symbol’ in another way in the heady atmosphere of the Vietnam War protests and its ‘flower power’, translating ‘American imperialism striking Asia’ in at least Charlotte’s recollection. It is thus striking to see the power of flowers again in the June Democracy Movement in Seoul, theatrically pinned by young ladies on gas-masked riot police, one of them recalling on television voice-over ‘When I received the rose, it was as if the thorns were prickling the conscience of all the riot police’. (translation Yun Jie Chung; see the video on In the end, the soldiers would in fact desist, as if held back by the new flowers of student protest, paving the way towards democratization.

[6] David Joselit Feedback: Television Against Democracy (M.I.T. 2007)