Story by: Remy Raitt, Photos by: Lee Jee-young
‘STAGE OF MIND’ ARTIST LEE JEE-YOUNG RECREATES FANTASTICAL IMAGERIES
In her tiny 3.6-by-6-by-2.4-meter Seoul studio, artist Lee Jee-young has been constructing and capturing her own dreamscapes without the luxury of outside help. This means no other contributors and, a more rare occurrence these days, no Photoshop (or any other kind of digital manipulation, for that matter).
Blurring the lines between mediums, she packs a multilayered punch that combines painting, sculpture, installation, theatrical performance, videography and staged analogue photography. Netizens with an eye for the ethereal were blown away last year when the Web was flooded with images from her photographic series “Stage of Mind,” which was exhibited at Opiom Gallery in France this year.
The Hongik University graduate says she chooses not to use Photoshop because of her personal art philosophy. And although she does get a kick out of people’s disbelief, she says that what is more important to her, and hopefully the viewer, is the subject matter.
Another fundamental component to the artist is the reflective yet laborious task of installing and taking apart her surreal and fantastic creations. “The final format is photography, but to me the making and the breaking process is an integral part of my work. My work always portrays my mental condition at the time. I recreate the imaginary scenery from my mental landscape, record and document. After that I destroy the set, returning it to nothing, or something of the past.”
Working since 2007, Lee has officially released the original 4-by-5-inch large-format film camera photographs of 27 of these artistic elucidations, each set taking at least two months to complete. Unsurprisingly, her biggest challenge is the time limitation, but that’s the price to pay when recreating, completely by hand, a tableau that is only otherwise visible in the mind.
These mindscapes, sometimes whimsical and other times of a more somber nature, are an exploration into Lee’s head. “In my work, I reconstruct my feelings. The background props and objects in them reenact these scenes in a metaphorical way,” she says. “My work is about sublimating my complicated emotions into a form of art. From a personal level it helps me analyze and understand ‘me,’ and often then I feel healed.”
Besides the fact that she is the artist, the presence of Lee herself in most of the photographs further discloses the personal and reflective nature of her work. “My works are based on my personal stories and the model represents my ego, I feel it is a self-portrait of sorts,” Lee says. Always engulfed in her surroundings, the model — Lee — is never looking directly into the camera. “The model is never the main focus of my pieces; the focus is more on the situation the person is in,” she says. “The model is the only living organism on set, and if she looked straight into the camera it would dominate the piece and disrupt the narrative. That is not what I want. The characters in my pieces are passive. They do not fight or resist the situation they are in. I feel that element resembles me in real life.”
Likened to American installation artist and photographer Sandy Skoglund for her transformations of room-sized installations into fantasy spaces and their shared obsessive-compulsive use of color and pattern, art critics have also linked Lee’s work with German sculptor and photographer Thomas Demand, another artist who builds life-size models, photographs them and then demolishes them.
What sets her apart from these two, however, is her Korean identity and the significance of this in many of her pieces. Referencing Korean folk tales and her own experiences as a native to the country in the modern day, Lee explores the influence her country has on her. “I feel a strong sense of belonging here in Korea,” she explains. “I grew up in Korea fully immersed in its social fabric, and my identity is rooted in the experiences I have accumulated in this social sphere. It determines my actions and thoughts. I cannot be completely free from social pressures, conventions or other elements that are imposed on its members.”
And while referencing these societal benchmarks, Lee more importantly expresses her own experiences with them: “Individuals often find themselves caught between their own needs and social convention. I touch upon the issues of conflicting interests between myself and my society in my work.”
By reverting the imagination to the tangible and the private to the public, Lee uses her art as a form of catharsis. “Looking at yourself objectively is a difficult task, and I am no exception,” she discloses. But in this artistic struggle for self-acceptance, understanding and healing, Lee says she finds meaning and clarity.
Perhaps, then, it’s not just the breathtaking level of handiwork and unbelievable imagination Lee pours into her art that makes it so incredible, but the honesty that underlies it all.