The place was a studio at London’s Chelsea College of Arts in 2006. An older student of 40 from faraway Korea was filling a white canvas with an Eastern landscape of hills and mountains, rivers, and trees. After watching him work for a while, a middle-aged woman told him, “I’d like to buy your work. Please give me a call when it’s finished.” The artist, Sea Hyun Lee, couldn’t believe his ears. Never once in the years since he had first picked up a brush had he sold one of his pieces. “Burger Collection,” read the name card the woman left with him. Between Red, the red landscape first discovered by the “super collectors” of the Hong-Kong–based Burger Collection, would go on to receive major attention from the global art scene, becoming part of the holdings of the Bank of America head office in Manhattan and the James Yu collection. A famous story recounts how Uli Sigg, another super collector who has discovered numerous Chinese artists, was so enamored of Sea Hyun Lee’s red landscapes that he bought around a dozen of the artist’s works.
The artist Sea Hyun, Lee has been well-known for painting beautiful Utopia with red landscape.
Having first gained recognition for his skill overseas, Lee has established himself as one of Korea’s leading artists in the decade or so since. Following the launch of a Between Red series–themed scarf with the luxury brand Ferragamo, Lee is now working on a packed scheduled that has included the inaugural exhibition of the Korean Cultural Center in Hong Kong this past January, a special exhibition called Jeju 4 is Now Our History at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, and the solo exhibition RED SANSU: The Moments (April 5–May 2) at Busan’s Centum City.
What is like to actually encounter Lee’s red landscapes? What explains the wild response they have elicited from so many people? The red landscapes filling the walls of the study exuded a strength beyond compare with the images circulated online. Uncomfortable, intense, beautiful—the power to somehow swallow all of these unsound emotions! Mountain ridges familiar from travels, traditional homes evoking a sense of nostalgia, alleys lit by street lamps, large rocks and the military tanks and North Korean checkpoints visible in the spaces in between . . . Mixing these warm landscapes from our daily lives with icons of division, his works are “bald-faced lies” that live and glow—utopias and dystopias that exist nowhere in reality.
He is taking a breath in his spacious studio
Now that I’m seeing them for myself, your works possess an overwhelming power. It seems like they have an even greater impact because you’re only using the color red.
I deliberately use the red of ink pads, talismans, and fortune tellers. It’s a shade of red that makes you feel anxious and want to flee as you approach it, but which has a splendid and beautiful ambiguity when viewed from a distance.
I think the first question on everyone’s minds is, “Why does he only work in red?”
It all started with a night vision scope. I’ll never forget the North Korean landscape I saw through the scope when I was doing my military service as a guard at the Pocheon front. After all I’d heard about unification, it was such a peculiar feeling seeing North Korea for the first time in the military. There are no trees, and the landscape is so bleak you find yourself wondering how anyone could live there. The landscape I saw through the night vision scope was actually green, but I thought red would be better suited to representing the ambiguity of North Korea as someplace beautiful yet frightening.
I’ve heard the “red series” has a rather dramatic origin, emerging just as you were getting ready to graduate as a student in London.
Early on in my time studying abroad, I tried to interpret and understand myself through Western grammar in things like installations and drawings. But at some point, I got the sense it was all just fakery, imitation. I decided that instead of doing the most “English” work, I should do the most Korean work out of England. I started seriously addressing things like my home, where I grew up, what kind of life I had led, what the real situation was like in South Korea. I concluded that I should do something that simultaneously showed the beautiful “utopia” of South Korea alongside the dystopian tragedy of national division. Being overseas, I think I sensed South Korea and its division all the more clearly.
It seems like your time studying in London ended up being your greatest opportunity to emerge as “Sea Hyun Lee the artist.” We Koreans have a somewhat uncomfortable perspective on the color red, which we tend to use to push a particular ideological frame, but being overseas would have allowed for a more objective assessment.
There aren’t a lot of people in Korea who express with conviction the belief that something is “good.” As an artist, you need people sharing honest assessments of your work for you to gain strength—to hear that something is “good” or “marvelous.” So that was tough. Oddly enough, the reaction was swift in a place like London. When I first presented the “red series” before my graduation exhibition, the reaction was immediate and intense. “My home is an island, I grew up there, these are the landscapes I saw in North Korea when I was a guard in the military”—after all of the imitating of Western painting styles, I finally shared my own honest story, and people nodded along and understood why the landscapes were red. I think I drew something like confidence from that. If I had been somewhat hesitant before, I now had the strength I needed to forge ahead with conviction.
You’ve recently moved beyond the landscape scene to “figure paintings”—strictly speaking, work that shows young children on the canvas.
I started doing figures after the Sewol ferry sinking. The most unbelievably tragic things were happening in front of me, and I had to express it somehow. Xi Jinping, Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth, Hitler, Brad Pitt, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Wei Tang, IU—they look like ordinary children at first, but I’m actually drawing the younger versions of famous people everybody knows. The message is that they could grow up later to become presidents, scientists, or celebrities.
You’re also renowned as an artist who does large works, using at least over 2m canvas. An artist would need to keep in mind a firm sense of things like the structural arrangement of the figures and landscapes, along with the overall message. That can’t be easy.
Red-Silly Dream has a canvas size of 5m, with over 100 children appearing in it, so I had to approach it in a different way in terms of the composition. I was compressing 100 years of time into a single canvas. They all look to be around the same age, but some of the images show the children 40 years ago, while others show them 10 years ago. Some of the children are relaxing and cooling off at the pool; right beyond them, that clashes with the image of an intense war taking place. So I’m arranging the images in ways that share conflicting messages. I also show the compression of time by presenting the younger versions of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung side by side. All of the figures are people who have a relationship to me.
We live in an era where images are consumed indiscriminately. What do you see as the significance of painting?
Of all the ways you can live your life, I think it’s the one best suited to me. Ever since I was a child, I don’t think I’ve ever imagined a life without creating images. It was the only thing I could stay concentrated on for hours on end. A painting is a halted canvas, a suspended image. I believe it has the power to lead each of us to interpret it in our own way, assigning our own meaning each time we look at it.
TEXT NA-RI PARK (Contents Director of magazine ARTMINE)
PHOTOGRAPHY WOO-JIN PARK (STUDIO KIMERA)
VOD SEUNG-HEON HWANG (VOD MANAGER of ARTMINING Inc.,)
IMAGES OF THE ART WORKS © SEA-HYUN LEE – ARTMINING, SEOUL, 2018
PHOTO © ARTMINING – magazine ARTMINE / WOO-JIN PARK