French art historian, Daniel Arasse, hopes an audience might be able to stand in front of one masterpiece for at least five minutes. It doesn’t sound a big ask, but spend time in a gallery and watch how long people linger in front of even the most famous works of art. Five minutes would be an eternity for those tourists who rush into the Louvre to snap a quick picture of the Mona Lisa over the top of a crowd.
In a catalogue devoted to South Korean video artist, Lee Lee-nam, Arasse’s five-minute challenge is put forward as a reason for making works that don’t sit mutely on the wall demanding the viewer’s respect. Lee accepts that today’s audiences have a diminishing attention span, and sets out to produce works that keep them riveted to the spot. He has done this by animating great artworks from both eastern and western traditions.
It’s a technique that could easily devolve into gimmickry and bad gags, but Lee has been exceptionally inventive. Over the past ten years he has created more than 400 works, and now employs six people in his studio. He has become one of Korea’s most popular and successful artists, making large-scale installations for public spaces and even apps for smart phones.
The exhibition, Lee Lee-nam: Digitally Traditional, at the Korean Cultural Office in Elizabeth Street, is the artist’s first Australian survey, although pieces have been seen in group exhibitions. Lee is an avowed crowd-pleaser and this is a very seductive show. Its appeal lies partly in its extraordinary technical expertise, but mostly in the intelligence and wit of Lee’s borrowings and interventions. He combines east and west, past and present. He may bring famous landmarks together on one screen, or stage an impromptu convention of figures lifted from celebrated paintings. He also plays with time, showing a traditional work of 18th century bamboo painting in all four seasons.
Lee has tampered with many iconic works, including the Mona Lisa, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Michelangelo’s Pietà, although only the latter is included in this exhibition. He started using such works because he saw that viewers would respond to what is already familiar, but walk past original pieces.
By taking old master paintings and animating them he is excising one of the fundamental qualities valued by critics such as Bernard Berenson, when he spoke of the monumental “stillness” in the painting of Piero Della Francesca.
Lee doesn’t believe in stillness, or at least doesn’t believe it is sacrosanct. When we take into account the way our brain processes the information in a painting we very quickly realise that stillness is only perceived as a fragment of a greater narrative, more like a freeze frame. Lee treats every picture in this way, allowing himself the freedom to run the imaginary film forward or back.
In a large-scale projection such as A Song of Nature (2011), Lee has taken a traditional Japanese painting filled with colourful butterflies, and brought these insects to life. The effect is mesmeric, not only because it captures the fascination with which we watch butterflies in real life, but because we are conscious that each tiny form is a delicate feat of painting.
More impressive still, is Conversation Between Monet and Sochi (2009). On adjoining screens Lee has reproduced Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872), the painting that gave its name to the most famous movement in modern art; and Autumn Scene Landscape, a brush-and-ink work by Sochi Heo Ryeon, a Korean painter, poet and calligrapher of the 19th century.
Both paintings depict a body of water, but the contrast of painting styles and scenery spells out the gulf that existed in those days between eastern and western art. The contrast is even sharper when one considers Monet was painting in a radically new way that challenged western traditions, whereas Sochi was working within the boundaries of a genre that stretched back a thousand years. Ironically, eastern art – mainly in the form of Ukiyo-e prints – was a source of inspiration to the Impressionists.
Lee shows the two paintings gradually fusing together, with elements migrating from one screen to the other. He plays with the time of day, echoing Monet’s own habits, and perhaps with the seasons. Monet’s painting shows the shadowy outlines of heavy cranes and smokestacks, but Lee begins to insert skyscrapers and other buildings. Soon it seems that the landscapes of Monet and Sochi are both in danger of being engulfed by soaring new urban development.
It’s possible to read the work as an allegory of western modernisation gradually invading the east, before the east returns the favour by colonising the western side of the diptych. One thinks of Korea’s rapid rise from being one of the poorest countries in the world, to among the most affluent. These are the kind of puzzles that run through all Lee’s works, although they are rarely spelt out so clearly.
The artist tends to understate his own intellectual ambitions. Like Matisse’s famous “armchair for a tired bourgeois”, he hopes his works prove more relaxing (and entertaining?) than rooms full of paintings that cause some people to feel intimidated. Nevertheless, the goal of providing ‘relaxation’ might be best left to purveyors of ambient sounds and patterns, such as Brian Eno. Whatever his intentions, Lee manages to make works that most viewers will find quietly stimulating.
There are artists who tend to over-intellectualise their work, as if their aesthetic instincts alone weren’t to be trusted. This may be the reason why only a small percentage of artists might be credibly seen as intellectuals – too much cogitation can lead to creative constipation.
Among the exceptions to this vaguest of rules there are artists such as Robert Motherwell (1915-91), who studied philosophy before he became a painter. Motherwell was a formidably intelligent man, and arguably the most literate member of the Abstract Expressionist generation. He was not, however, the kind of artist who set out to illustrate theories. Motherwell was smart enough to keep his artwork on another plane altogether: he wanted each picture to succeed as a visual event. He knew the viewer’s primary response must be an emotional one, with the subtleties of interpretation arriving later.
These traits are on display in Robert Motherwell: collages watercolours graphics, at Annandale Galleries. The show allows a rare opportunity for local audiences to see a body of work by a major American artist. There are no large canvases in this show, but the mix of works on paper provides many insights into Motherwell’s way of working.
Coincidentally, the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, is hosting a survey of Motherwell’s prints that runs until 6 October.
Motherwell’s work is inconceivable without the example of French modernism. The influence of Braque, Picasso and Matisse can be felt in his smallest pieces. He was a devotee of collage, usually seen as one of the legacies of Cubism. Like the Cubists, Motherwell used collage as a way of bridging the gap between the everyday world and the rarefied world of the studio: pasting envelopes, cigarette packets and other bric-a-brac onto his paintings. The original touch was that most of Motherwell’s collages use paper that has been torn by hand, not neatly clipped. The gesture was a mark of allegiance to American action over European refinement.
Colour too, was chosen for lyrical, emotive purposes. In one dazzling lithograph, Redness of red (1985), an arrangement of red-on-red shapes hints at the outline of a Cubist still life. In Ferienzeit (1974) and Harvest 23 with Ultramarine (1972), he uses a deep, affecting blue. Other works are hardly more than minimal splashes and swipes, more reminiscent of Joan Miró than of Jackson Pollock.
The most fascinating part of this show is that one can feel the way Motherwell tries to creep up on himself, creating pictures that seem to well up from the unconscious. He maps out a basic structure then lets the forms emerge spontaneously, being more afraid of calculation than inconsistency. They are the works of a thinker who is determined not to let the mind assert its supremacy over the hand that holds the brush.
Lee Lee Nam: Digitally Traditional
Korean Cultural Office, until 24 October
Robert Motherwell: collages watercolours graphics
Annandale Galleries, until 4 October.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 13th September, 2014