On the occasion of Art Berlin and the Berlin Art Week, we interviewed artist Jeewi Lee to learn more about her practice and her perspective on the city art scene. Jeewi (b. 1987, Seoul) is currently artist resident at Villa Romana in Florence and has just opened a new show at Sexauer gallery in Berlin. Her new work “Einschlag” (Impact) which ingeniously inverts the actual purpose of a wrecking ball as an instrument to bring down walls and demolish is currently on view at BNKR in Munich.
Mara Sartore: Let’s start with the exhibition that is opening just before the start of the Berlin Art Week at Sexauer gallery. The show investigates the history of your homeland, South Korea, and its division from the North. Could you tell us about this body of work and the creative process behind it?
Jeewi Lee: For the occasion of the exhibition, the piece “Incision” takes form as an extensive floor installation. The whole of the 225sqm gallery space is covered with gravel. Half white and half dark gravel. The two colours form a line, a sharp border. Visitors of the show have to decide whether to step over that border, not cross it at all or blur the line so that both colours mix. Leaving the border to the influence of the visitors’ movements. Handling 14 tonnes of gravel was quite a challenge because the crane couldn’t deliver it directly to the gallery. My gallerist and lots of supporters made it possible and of course Terranit Natursteinhandels GmbH that provided the beautiful material. The work refers to specific periods of my country Korea’s past, which simultaneously reveal the everyday life of the people. I used an ancient Asian technique to make paper prints of Korean trees that are rooted precisely on the 38th parallel. The age of the trees was a relevant criterion since I tried to choose trees that grew before the division of the region in 1945. By their very nature, trees are unable to leave their homeland by themselves. For me, they function as metaphorical living testimonies of the 1945 division. As the central line of demarcation, the 38th parallel also constitutes a manifestation of the complex Korean conflict. I pinned ten equally distributed points along this line, five of those points are located in South Korea and five in North Korea due to border policies. The fact that I am not able to enter North Korea and therefore the work is „not completed“ on five points, is an important conceptional element in my work. It represents the on going political situation.
As for the five points in South Korea, I chose trees that met my criteria of age and location to make Hanji prints of them, using the traditional Korean printing technique of Takbon. These prints of their barks symbolise “fingerprints” of the trees as witnesses to the history of the division. The artistic translation of the line through my prints represent for me a visualisation of my home country’s ever-present wound.
M.S.: Your main focus in your practice are everyday human traces, which can also be seen as traces of history which we can basically see as traces of our history. How do you apply this interest to your art? Which are your favorite tools of exploration?
J.L: I have been working on an artistic cycle of works that deal with the visibility of traces for several years. In my work, I focus on human traces as well as historical ones, that inscribe themselves on various materials and so bear witness to history. The traces provide conclusive evidence of something or someone’s existence. I often use traces and leftovers as pictorial elements because they are visually minimalistic and abstract but contain elements of narrative and time, which I find very interesting.
M.S.: You are currently working in Florence as part of the Villa Romana award which you received in 2018. Could you tell us about the residency and the project you’re working on? How do you spend your lifetime in Florence?
J.L: That might be the question I´ve been asked the most this year. Florence is very enriching and to be at the Villa Romana is the greatest gift to my art production. The city is filled with history and traces and as with the old Villa, which has existed as an art institution since 1905. One of the latest work I did this month is “Impianto II“. “Impianto” is a project, where I interfere directly with the architecture, especially with the facades of buildings by filling in the blanks or replacing ‘missing parts’ with marble that is considered a traditional and valuable material. Highlighting the blank-space and referring to its time and story – an intended revaluation. I was inspired by my stay in Florence, where I got the chance to observe and study a culture and society that emphasises and cultivates the preservation and revitalisation of the past. I question the value system and the meaning of restoration work.
Right now, I am working on an intense research based installation. I was inspired by hangers left in the wardrobes at Villa Romana. Hangers represent the human body. Metaphorically they carry our everyday life, but are always locked back in the closet. I noticed some parallels between a closet and an archive system. The Villa Romana archive has got a lot of private photos and letters from the former artist, showing their everyday life during the residency. All these documents are sorted in closed folders in book shelfs. Since every artist is questioning every year, who used to work in earlier days in their studio space, I decided to track back traces from my studio room named “Toscana“.
I am producing by my own wooden hangers and engrave on each of them the artists name who worked and lived in my studio. Since there is no documentation about who was in which studio in the Villa, I started my research from archive materials, old catalogues and private contacts.
M.S.: You studied painting at the Berlin University of the Arts and divide your time between Seoul and Berlin. What is your relationship with the city of Berlin? Does the city itself inspire your work?
J.L: I grew up both in Berlin and Seoul. My parents are also artists and they studied at University of the Arts Berlin when I was a kid. So Berlin feels like home for me. To have two places I feel home is very inspiring and enriching itself. I am bringing materials form Korea to Germany and ideas from Germany to Korea. Thank to this situation I always have a heightened awareness of my surroundings.
M.S.: We’ve recently published My Art Guide Seoul / Gwangju / Busan a paper guide dedicated to the biennales that are currently running in the Republic of South Korea and we’ve explored a new artistic panorama. Now we are coming back to Europe with the Berlin Guide. How do you perceive these two realities in terms of art scene and cultural ground?
J.L.: This is a very difficult question, since it is impossible to reflect upon this objectively and it is very complex. The art scene and the cultural ground is very different in those two cities, since cultural development and the understanding of society differs. One thing I can say for sure is that I hope that the arts in Korea have more visibility and presence with society.
M.S.: My Art Guides likes to recommend to its readers unique places to visit in each destination, not necessarily connected to contemporary art, in your opinion, what are the absolutely unmissable places, landmarks and spots in Berlin? And would you recommend something not to be missed during the Berlin Art Week?
J.L.: I love to walk through the Museum Insel at night in Berlin, when the amazing buildings and the streets empty and the tourists disappear – it has a very special atmosphere. Sitting at the waterfront in the dark gives you a totally different perspective of Berlin compared to that of the daytime. Everybody in Berlin loves Tempelhofer Feld. So do I. It is very refreshing to have such a huge public space with no buildings around in a metropole such as Berlin. I would recommend going there early in the morning, before it gets crowded or on warm, windy days I really enjoy going there. Not far from there, there is a exhibition space called Kindl – Centre for Contemporary Art, which has nice shows and architecturally speaking, it is amazing too. If I have to recommend another art space, I would say Haus am Waldsee. It is an art institution, which is in Zehlendorf – a small distance from the city centre but they have wonderful exhibitions and also being surrounded by nature after seeing an exhibition is quite nice too. In Berlin there are so many nice bars. Especially, the old school ones, called “Kneipen” in German. Unfortunately due to gentrification in Berlin they are slowly disappearing but if you look carefully you can still find them. One of my favourites is Zum kleinen Mohr (even the name is terribly politically incorrect) and Lützowstübchen in Schöneberg. If you are in Schöneberg, of course you shouldn’t miss Kumpelnest. Combining Kumpelnest with Victoria Bar is even nicer. The most important landmarks in Berlin in my opinion, which are disappearing over time, are the abandoned buildings. Despite the gentrification in Berlin, there are still some blank spaces in the city, which define the character of this city and you should keep your eyes open for them.
- Jeewi Lee © Kira Bunse
- Jeewi Lee, "Inzision", 2018 © Mischa Leinkauf, Courtesy of the artist
- Jeewi Lee, "Inzision", Making of © Mischa Leinkauf, Courtesy of the artist
- Jeewi Lee, "Impianto II", © Marcus Schneider, Courtesy of the artist
- Jeewi Lee, "Impianto II", © Marcus Schneider, Courtesy of the artist