‘I was stunned. He refused warmth and beauty, using inhuman concrete. I struggled against this wild architecture. My idea was to react on the space, which was given to me by Le Corbusier.’ Lee visited the countryside monastery for the first time in April. Then Friar Marc Chauveau from the monastery visited Lee three times in his Paris studio, showing him plans and photographs to help Lee conceive his exhibition. Indeed, it was Chauveau’s initiative to ask contemporary artists, from François Morellet in 2009 to Anish Kapoor in 2015, to exhibit in the monastery. Lee also spent eight days there at the beginning of September, to create six site-specific installations and to hang his paintings.
‘I tried to make something that appeared as if it had always been here and remained ambiguous,’ says Lee. ‘I reflected on the character of each space and that gave me the motifs for this exhibition. I wanted something soft.’ Creating a ‘room within a room’, he carpeted the floor of one room with sheets of slate, associating the naturalness of slate with the artificiality of concrete. ‘Concrete is symbolic of industrial society while slate has a primitive side,’ says Lee.
‘I reflected on emphasising the ground and the walls and the typology of the space,’ he says. In a third room, he extended paper around four columns to create an intimate bedroom installation with a door-shaped entrance.
Meanwhile, in the chapel, Lee reflected on the question of evoking history. On the ground, he has created a sculpture with white gravel encasing brown earth, a painting with white to dark red gradations on top of it. ‘I wanted to make something that resembled a ruin or an archaeological site from the Roman era or the Renaissance,’ says Lee, whose palette echoes the dark red pews and stone walls.
‘It wasn’t really about creating something but about resuscitating something that had existed before.’
Born in a rural area in South Korea during Japanese colonial rule, Lee moved to Japan in his early twenties. After studying philosophy at Nihon University in Tokyo, he contributed to the Japanese movement Mono-ha (School of Things, 1968- 1971) as a theoretician and artist. Like the Arte Povera movement, when Italian artists began employing modest materials, Mono-ha endeavoured to establish a new foundation for art. The work that attracted Lee to Mono-ha was Phase – Mother Earth (1968) by Sekine Nobuo – a cylindrical hole dug into the ground that had a cylindrical sculpture, made using the excavated earth, next to it. Exhibited in a park in Kobe, it resonated with the Land Art movement in the US. Shortly after, Lee’s essay about it, Beyond Being and Nothingness: On Sekine Nobuo, and his next essay, In Search of Encounter (about how artists should foster an encounter between a viewer and the world), were critical in shaping the ideas that Lee would expound in his own artworks. As Lee once said, ‘Art should not involve itself with man’s universe but with the essence of the true universe that includes man.’ In the 1970s, Lee began titling all his three-dimensional works Relatum, conveying their relationship to the universe, and began juxtaposing iron plates, a symbol of industrial society, with stone, a symbol of nature.
Stones have intrigued him since childhood.
‘As a child, I would lie down among the stones on the bank when I was tired of swimming in the river, I and the stones would become one with the sky,’ Lee wrote in a catalogue text for his exhibition at the Château de Versailles in 2014. In Versailles’s baroque, landscape gardens designed by André Le Nôtre in the 17th century, Lee placed massive, age-old French stones next to large iron plates. A steel arch that was supported on each side by natural boulders, with a long metal mirror – a pathway – underneath, was installed in front of the palace’s facade. ‘I have always wanted to create an arch-shaped work, like a rainbow standing above a big road, and walk through it,’ Lee wrote about his minimalist piece, which managed to chime with the grandeur of Versailles.
Over the last five decades, Lee has exhibited widely. And in 2010, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando completed a semi-subterranean museum dedicated to his friend’s work on the Japanese island of Naoshima. France has also strongly championed the work of its adopted artist. Besides his exhibition in Couvent de la Tourette, Lee was the focus of another show, Pressentiment, at the CCC OD (centre de création contemporaine oliver debré) in Tours, centre-west France, which ran until the 12 November. Here, Lee explored familiar themes through a sequence of six room-installations in a black gallery. Conceived especially for the space, the meditative show was concerned with obscurity, light and shadow, space and matter, emptiness and presence.
‘I could have asked the museum to paint the space white but it’s not in my Asian character to do that,’ said Lee.
The metaphysical austerity of Lee’s oeuvre came to the fore in this sober ambience. In one dark room, the sole presence was that of a white canvas with unctuous paint having a tonal gradation from white to grey in its centre. In a second space, a large black stone stared at an empty white canvas – an ancestral presence of the earth observing a man-made construction. Metaphorically, the piece demonstrated the passage of time, something that Lee is preoccupied with. In a third room, a small black gesture had been painted onto a white canvas laid onto a platform on the ground – a work that exuded simplicity and purity.
Revisiting The Arch of Versailles, Lee inserted a steel archway into a fourth space, creating a tunnel. The ‘mineral garden’ room fascinated with five stones that projected shadows painted onto the ground, while real shadows cast from artificial light created a second set of silhouettes. In the last room, the flame of a candle on a mount of earth provided a faint light source, recalling a funereal tomb or distant civilisation.
‘What I’m after is [to generate] an experience through your perception and to evoke something different from what we see in the world normally – something original, poetic and transcendental,’
Beyond Memories - Lee Ufan at Le Corbusier, Couvent de la Tourette, near Lyon, France, until 20 December 2017.
Pressentiment, ccc od in Tours, France.
Lee Ufan: Untouched Space by Okyang Chae-Duporge is published by Éditions Cercle de l’Art.