SUNGMI LEE

TRANSCULENT ARCHIVAL IMPULSES

BY DING REN

 

We all have daily rituals: brushing our teeth, putting on shoes, washing dishes. Some rituals we don’t think about twice, they are so much a part of our everyday lives that we accept them as symbols of social normality. Others are unique, stemming from personal emotions, thoughts, and situations. These personalized rituals are driven by an internal psychology and contribute to making each day different. The work of Brooklyn-based artist Sungmi Lee finds a space between repetitive daily rituals and those that are personally inspired.

 

Taking the ritual of collecting to the level of sleuths detective work, Lee collects traces of left behind objects in her day-to-day travels. For six years now, Lee has collected shards of tempered glass on the street. She first started in Baltimore, where she received her MFA degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and then continued in her new Brooklyn neighborhood. By picking up these broken fragments of her glass left behind by acts of violence, Lee is not only recycling objects that would otherwise be trash, but also calling attention to a similarity in two cities she calls home. In both Baltimore and Brooklyn the acts of violence may be different in nature, but the traces of their existence are the same.

 

For the installation Melting It, Melting Me (2008-2009), Lee uses the fragments of found glass and constructs them into a large stalactite-like sculpture that hangs from the ceiling to confront the viewer. The title refers to her process in creating the piece. The tedious gesture of using each shard of glass, bit by bit, to form a larger shape, becomes a type of personal therapy. The repetition allows her to gain an inner peace and melt away anxieties. When juxtaposed with the acts of violence that provided Lee with her materials, the piece becomes a duality of opposites. It merges healing with aggression into a singular entity and becomes a stark representation of everyday realities, as we all have felt both love and pain.

 

Other collections of found objects include dead tree branches she collected for a month. She then used the branches through a period of a year to create a life-size tree mold out of clear cellophane tape. Titled Re-Birth (2005-2006), this installation gives a weighty natural object an unexpected dimension of airiness. Using clear pushpins to surround the trunk adds to the effect by creating a translucent “soil.” Lee is drawn to the way translucent objects naturally interact with their environments and in their ability to blend into a space, hovering between visibility and invisibility.

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Re-Birth, 2005-2006 (Detail View)

The title of this translucent tree, Re-Birth, also refers to one of the most literal themes in Lee’s work: to find beauty in discarded objects so that they are given a new life. For Lee, incorporating aspects of real life is essential because it is a means to create a personal visual diary. Since each object is found in a different location and under varying circumstances, memories and emotions accumulate as she adds to her collection. It may have been cold out one day, a lingering smell may have filled the air on another, and on another, she may have been particularly giddy. All these factors are then channeled into her very tedious practice, so that her pieces have both a conceptual, process-orientated meaning and tangible final product.

Is it a performance, drawing, sculpture or installation? Is it all or neither? Categories are seemingly futile in Lee’s work. However, it is the performative process that adds the most intriguing dimension.

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White Air (Triptych), 2006-2008, 11”x14”, C-Print on Aluminum

White Air (2006-2008), an ongoing series in which Lee takes a photograph through her studio window every dat, is a piece where the performative rises to the forefront. The photographs, all taken from the same spot and during the same time of day, document a cloud of white steam that is emitted from a rooftop chimney that her studio window overlooks. This series of photographs isolates something that is ever changing and ephemeral by giving it a recorded pattern. Although the white steam might be different with each passing day, the act of photographing it remains the same and becomes an archival impulse that Lee must perform. When displayed, with each image side by side, the physical performance becomes equal to the end product as a photographic series.

In this way, White Air differs from works like Melting It, Melting Me and Re-Birth. The latter pieces, though physically translucent, are both large objects. They allow scale to outweigh process and distract from the performative history of collecting the glass shards and tree limbs. The final sculptural products act as weighty bookends to what was once an infinite bookshelf—they put an end to the archival narrative. There is an air of the unknown in Lee’s ritualistic collection process however. She has no control over how the white steam will look, or when and in what contexts she may come across her materials on the street. It is these unpredictable in-betweens, undocumented moments in which she has no control over, that provide conceptual translucencies in her work and give it room to breathe.

 

This notion of documentation and the “final product,” whether necessary or not, remains a topic of continual debate for both performance-based artists and collective memory archivists alike. It is like imagining the moment that Chris Burden is shot in the arm in his infamous 1971 performance Shoot, versus seeing grainy photographic documentation of the aftermath. That decisive, but unpredictable moment, when the bullet hits his arm, can only exist as a conceptual thought in the viewer’s mind, but is the most vital. The photographs become a postscript, but are necessary for posterity. 

 

Usually, solutions to the “final product” question create a conundrum of paradoxes. Take 1960s conceptual art for instance. Artists such as Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner tried to go against the grain of massively produced “final products” by creating ephemerally based works that did not need to exist in a tangible form. Barry sent radio waves through a room, released inert gases into the dessert, and closed a gallery, while the 3rd point in Weiner’s 1969 Statement of Intent reads that, “the piece need not be built.” Although pushing for intangibility, both Barry and Weiner photographically documented their ephemeral and “unseen” pieces. Albeit mainly images of empty rooms and gravel fields, the documentation is there for us to refer to 40 years later. Thus, complete translucency may never actually exist in the art world. Actions can never just be.

 

Because of the Zen-like nature of Lee’s work, her practice being a personal meditation and healing process, the notion of just being, sans over-documentation or the final product, becomes a natural counterpart. This idea of living in the moment, just experiencing a gesture, emotion or smell, is perhaps the only ritual that is necessary for both the viewer and Lee herself. 

 

 

— REN, DING . “SUNGMI LEE : TRANSCULENT ARCHIVAL IMPULSES.” ARTVOICES, 2010 (ISSUE 23), pp.26-27.

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