Kang Seung Lee

The primary focus of my artwork is the concept of liberating the archive through the exploration of the creation of critical/cross-cultural histories. By researching, excavating, and appropriating images/text from public and private archives (art/artifact collections, publications, libraries, etc.) I allow for alternative historical and personal voices, counter-narratives and strategies to emerge. My work places emphasis on marginalized individual experiences and personal histories that disturb the established structures and orders of the traditional archive, and challenges singular mainstream knowledge/history.

I was born in South Korea and thereafter lived in various countries in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America before relocating to Los Angeles. Because of this, my work comes from the desire to challenge the narrow perspective of the biased, first world oriented timeline of history, and speaks about the potential to intervene in systems. The work manifests itself in the form of visual marks, traces and as index. I seek out the path in both re-emphasization and re-imagination of archival information, which is primarily realized in labor-intensive mediums such as tracing, graphite and colored pencil drawings, embroidery, collecting and multimedia installations.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been exploring the possibilities of drawing as a thinking machine and the embodiment of histories. Two recent projects, Untitled (la revolución es la solución!) and Absence Without Leave, employ similar strategies, by removing the human body to re-render figureless tableaux in graphite prior to adopting various methods of display: framed drawings and photo light boxes on wall installations, tapestry, hardened fabric sculptures and neon works, etc. 

Images in Untitled (la revolución es la solución!) co-opt the work of photojournalists taken during the LA uprising in 1992 and continue to implicate the subjectivities of human bodies through graphic depictions of violence, perpetuating the stereotypes of racialized figures. My removal of the bodies is aimed to challenge the popular representation and invite a movement towards the radical emancipation of otherness. I am particularly interested in the fact that the uprising, commonly understood as a white-black conflict, was also a boiling point for tensions in the Latino and Asian communities. At the same time I am hoping to instill a solemnity for the lives and memories lost and injured and communities destroyed in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the uprising.  Works exhibited at Artpace San Antonio (summer 2017) also appropriate various commercial methods of display and repetition of visual imagery such as large prints, a billboard size tapestry, posters and neon, all of which have political connotations with the style of propaganda.

A previous project, Absence without leave begins with a selection of iconic representations of male bodies and moments of AIDS pandemic in public and domestic spaces documented by photographers. In some photographs, the bodies remain anonymous (works by Alvin Baltrop, Leonard Fink, and William Yang); others profess an intimacy with their subject (a portrait of David Wojnarowicz by Peter Hujar and Martin Wong by Peter Bellamy), and are also examples of the artist’s oeuvre (Isaac Julien’s film noir staircase and Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait). Each image conjures the departed through absence but also alluding to presence.

Covers (2015 -2016) was my direct response to the current art education in the US. In Spring 2015, I researched all the exhibition catalogues and artist monographs in the CalArts Library collected since the art school was founded in 1971. The vast number of catalogues at the library, approximately 20,000 titles, purchased by librarians as the result of student or faculty requests, and also donated by art professionals and collectors, reflects the poor representation of women artists and artists of color, as well as the Western oriented history of contemporary art that is being currently taught in the United States. The resulting project includes five handmade books, each representing a decade of CalArts existence, and a wall installation. Each book contains a selection of photocopied covers of the monographs and solo exhibition catalogues by women artists and artists of color published during that period of time that were part of the CalArts library collection. In an installation at the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, I filled the large wall space with the 1,400 photocopied black and white covers in chronological order of publication from 1971 through 2015, and selected one cover each for year, replacing these with pencil drawings of the covers, thereby inserting my own personal history.

My most current project is loosely based on Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness, UK and the numerous objects and assemblages he created for the garden in the early 90’s before his death from AIDS. The project is an exploration of the idea that memories not only belong to human beings but also to other beings of the planet, such as plants and rocks, and that there are different ways of writing histories, especially a history of disease, through the invisible connections between humans and objects and memories carried by nature. In September of this year, I visited Jarman’s garden in Dungeness for research and gained access to his cottage and garden for further studies with Keith Collins who was Jarman’s last partner. I also met with the prominent AIDS activist Simon Watney and Jarman’s artist-friends, James Barrett and Michael Petry who shared their archives related to Jarman’s film sets. Juxtaposed with Derek Jarman’s garden, I am also researching biographies of artists/writers from South Korea, such as Joon-su Oh, who created works using plants and minerals and died of AIDS in the 90’s. This multimedia installation consists of drawings, ceramic objects, and wood-carvings that are appropriated from Jarman’s and Oh’s object-making and writing, as well as sound and moving images. The work is part of my continuous attempt to address marginality, interpretation, rewriting and labor through the indexing and archiving exercise.