Korean by birth, Korean-American by circumstance, Lee resides in a conceptual space between Korea and America. Her art is “diaristic,” she says, a mode she adopted in an attempt to nurture herself when she did not have a nurturer available. Her autobiography, however, is the element that ultimately infiltrates her seemingly reductive work.
Sungmi Lee, Light Shower, 2005. Fiberglass, customized electric lights, dimmers, motion sensors, and metal; 96x72x72 in
This narrative found throughout her art most obviously begins from the time when she moved to the United States at the age of 15 to attend boarding school in Lake Placid, New York. It all started when she began speaking English everyday; her English was limited, yet she had a 15-year-old teenager’s level of speaking and reading the Korean language as a result of shifting from her native land to an adopted country. Living in the United States now, although for more than a decade, she does not feel completely present in all aspects of English-speaking American culture because she retains a heavy accent. In her native Korea as well as in America, she describes never feeling completely connected to either culture, as she elides between both in a place neither here nor there.
As a response to her life situation, Lee aims to make art about beauty from the discarded or mundane as if she were an alchemist turning lead into gold, symbolically—much as she had to find a way to contend with the linguistic and cultural limitations of her life once she arrived in this country. In her sculptures and installations, she uses tape, glass, smoke, wax and office supplies such as push pins—some of which she finds discarded on the street during daily walks in her Brooklyn neighborhood. I visited her studio to learn more about her work and, afterward, continued the conversation about her work as our schedules permitted.
Lee’s installation works, like Light Shower, consist of large, eight-foot by four-foot by four-foot circular fiberglass and metal walls with open areas into which the viewer enters. When one stays inside of the wall, motion sensor lights appear briefly and then disappear. The effect is much like a meteorite shower in its evanescence. On her website, a short video documentation of this piece: “It is a shower, which is a personal and private place and space.” Yet, she has constructed the object large, so that it surrounds the viewer while not completely enveloping him or her. The heat and sound of water, the ritual of cleansing oneself and the sensuality of the wetness are what is absent here.
Instead, there is a quiet spray of light emanating from sources embedded within the fiberglass wall, and which seems to respond to the viewer’s very presence. At rest and illuminated, the color of the surface has a familiar quality, like aged plastic cups in someone’s kitchen cupboards. This color also becomes a part of Lee’s real accomplishment here: in the work, she invites associations with a real shower, creating a semicircular space of comfort without incorporating its negative associations—as places of potential exposure and vulnerability or as even more grim suggestions of concentration camps. In it, she conveys a delicacy and a prettiness undermined by the distance between the viewer and the semi-circular container—the engagement of the visual instead of the pleasure of touch.
Lee also accomplishes legions in her drawings. Formal, reductive strategies in art are often deceptive because the artist takes the art to the extreme. The artist’s detachment, as expressed through a nearly blank canvas or a minimally manipulated surface, confounds the viewer with the presence of the object or scenario. Such is the case in Lee’s drawings, as evidenced by Erasing Memory of 2005. In this work, Lee has used White-Out (office correction fluid) as the medium to create concentric circles, symmetrically arranged on a single sheet of vellum. Through the circles are skillfully drawn in beautiful arcs, evidence of the artist’s hand remains in the slight widening or narrowing of a line. Eva Hesse made several works, in both sculpture and in drawings, using the concentric circle. However, Lee’s work combines a sense of winter with the pale surface of whitish gray vellum and the brighter white of the fluid.
In looking at Lee’s various works, I found myself thinking of Albert Camus’s 1952 remark, “In the midst of winter, I discovered within myself an invincible summer.” Lee, to me, has captured a quality of the handmade, the simple, in her materials on which she capitalizes. The reference to Hesse is multi-dimensional, but Lee takes the vocabulary of the body more literally, as evidenced by her occasional use of the figure in other works.
—Swartz, Anne. “Sungmi Lee.” N.Y Arts Magazine, July-August 2007.