brilliant 30: Dongi Lee
Bridging between everyday life and art
Dongi Lee, standing at the Frontier of Korean pop art
The Pop art movement in America has been interpreted as an escape from the hold of abstract expressionism, and asserting of popular or "low" culture against the ingrained elitism of fine art. Dongi Lee, an artist representative of the bourgeoning of new civil consciousness in Korea during the 1990s, would concur that his work ‘Atomaus’ was conceived in a similar context. Lee’s first public exhibit, <Young Korean Artist ’92> at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art played a critical role in setting the pace for Korean contemporary art in the post-'90s era. However, it would be wrong to label Lee’s work as "pop art" alone. Rather, it is a meticulous observation and larger critique of the excessive amount of imagery generated by new media in contemporary society.
The subjects present in Lee's bodies of works make their appeal with a vague familiarity. The ambivalent identities of Lee’s characters minimize the subjectivity of the artist, leaving room for an open interpretation for the viewer. Thus, Lee’s works are not defined and concluded by the artist; rather, their continuing life - as Bernhard Serexhe (Chief Curator at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe) put it, the “viewer’s active response and emotional engagement.” The artist opens up the process of representation, inviting the public to try to seek meaning in his work without applying social or culture preconceptions to it. In order to extend this invitation to a wider range of viewers, Lee’s oeuvre to date includes figurative and non-figurative paintings. He does not dwell on the extent of Korean pop art; instead, Lee sees his position in terms of a catalyst for interactions among the works, the audience and their surroundings.
Q. Tell us how your signature character ‘Atomaus’ became prominent during the beginnings of Korean pop art in the early '90s.
Back in the '80s, the trend in Korean art shifted from hyper-realistic Taoist humanism towards a more realistic Korean “Min-Joong” civil consciousness. I tried to break away from this system and its prejudices to experiment with something entirely new, because I realized that social and cultural preconceptions can get in the way of diversity and complexity in art. I frequently experimented with cartoons back in college, and that was when the idea for “Atomaus” first came to be. “Atomaus” is a combination of my two favorite TV shows: “Atom” and “Mickey Mouse.”
I have struggled with the dilemma of two similar works of art created by different artists where one is deemed more valuable than the other. The notion that “the subject communicates an objective and universal truth to the audience” is no longer possible. - Dongi Lee -
Q. What are your thoughts on contemporary Korean pop art?
I feel as though there is a misconception that pop art is an easy genre that appeals to popular taste. But Andy Warhol’s contribution to culture both in his era and now lies not only in the freshness and immediacy of his art, but also in his ability to create art from the resources around him.
Q. What would you consider to be the key elements making up your work?
My work does not stem from the influence of pop art, per se. I consider Warhol to be an outstanding figure and artist, but I was more affected by the works of young American artists in the '80s. In college, I enjoyed flipping through art magazines; through this channel, I came to know of Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and Robert Longo. I was also influenced by numerous works by Korean artists; I was heavily influenced by the images of Lee U Fan and his study, for instance. I adopted a certain attitude and approach to art from Park Seobo and Yoon Hyoung Geun. On a slightly different tangent, I was also influenced by the Min-Joong civil consciousness and movement.
Q. Please explain the story behind your large-scale work entitled ‘Saussure’.
I am not familiar with Semiotics, but this passage from the theorist Ferdinand de Saussure made a big impact on my work: ‘Signifiers and groups have been arbitrarily combined.’ My interpretation of this passage was that signifiers and groups do not normally belong together. A while back, I read an article from the magazine <Space> regarding Jacques Derrida’s dissertation on “Differance” and wanted to express visually what I felt about Saussure.
From a visual standpoint, images and content in the mass media may not necessarily have a feasible relationship with one another. I have struggled with the dilemma of two similar works of art created by different artists where one is deemed more valuable than the other. The notion that “the subject communicates an objective and universal truth to the audience” is no longer possible.
Q. What is the seed of your imagination?
This may sound generic, but I’m inspired by rock music. There was a time when I wanted to pursue the path of a musician, and attempted to write my own songs. In the West, no matter what the genre, if one reaches a certain level of expertise, this entitles one to be an artist. In the same way, because I feel that everyone creates something in their respective lives, I believe everyone is an artist.
Q. What makes your art brilliant?
Being observant of my environment before translating it onto canvas – I think this is what distinguishes my art from that of others.
2014. Acrylic on canvas. 360 x 840cm
2014. Acrylic on canvas. 180 x 720cm
<Woman in Tub>
2014. Acrylic on canvas. 90 x 160cm
<Cat Riding on Pencil>
2014. Acrylic on canvas. 210 x 200cm
2013. Acrylic on canvas. 90 x 160cm
<Man with Glasses>
2013. Acrylic on canvas. 90 x 160cm
2013. Acrylic on canvas. 130 x 150cm
2010. Acrylic on canvas. 130 x 150cm
Dongi Lee received his B.F.A. in painting from the College of Fine Arts at Hongik University, and his M.F.A. in painting at the Graduate School of Hongik University. Lee is recognized as working at the frontier of Korean pop art because of his “Atomaus” series. Lee seeks to re-examine the role of painting within mass culture, expanding and re-interpreting the possibilities of painting in contemporary society. Parallel to his pop art practice are abstract paintings. Since 1993, Lee has had 25 solo exhibits and over 100 national and international group shows. Lee’s work can be found in the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Gwacheon), at the Samsung Leeum Musem, at Il-min Museum, the National Dr Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (Taipei, Taiwan) and at 13 other art institutions internationally.