Moving Masterpieces. An interview with Lee Lee Nam.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Moving Masterpieces. An interview with Lee Lee Nam.

South Korean artist Lee Lee Nam applies animation to art history in a manner befitting a master gardener turning and tailoring the natural beauty of the land, in order to enhance the view. Nam sees art as an open invitation, in which even those works from the classical period that appear hermetically sealed by time are ripe for recasting as the living breathing set for a tender technological intervention, or ‘reinvention’ as is more in keeping with the artist’s intentions.

Moving Masterpieces. An interview with Lee Lee Nam.

South Korean artist Lee Lee Nam applies animation to art history in a manner befitting a master gardener turning and tailoring the natural beauty of the land, in order to enhance the view. Nam sees art as an open invitation, in which even those works from the classical period that appear hermetically sealed by time are ripe for recasting as the living breathing set for a tender technological intervention, or ‘reinvention’ as is more in keeping with the artist’s intentions. For Nam, perceived by some as graffiting great works of art, his playful interference is entirely considered. In that he will animate only the essential elements of a still-life and landscape in order it becomes more than the sum of its parts. Applying as much sensitivity to a work as it might appear sensational, Nam wants to navigate through the visual constructs of representation itself, in a calculated attempt at creating narrative where for century’s there was only assumption.

Moving through classical and contemporary art history like a child running the length of the metropolitan museum, Nam has previously animated Shin Saimdang’s 16th century still-life Egg Plant and Grasshoppers, in which the contrasting colours of the botanical plant and butterflies are enhanced by an au plein air atmosphere. Just as Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe is opened to the sounds and slender sentiments of those partaking, and Leonardo de Vinci’s Mona Lisa becomes unabashed at attempting a broader smile. And more dramatically Gyumjae Jeongseon’s 18th century ink and colour rendering of Park Yeon waterfall, has by Lee Lee Nam’s hand minute characters that cascade from the precipice into the opens waters below, as though collected up by Nam in an act of impressive petulance. And it is as if these works are deserving of the bursts of energy that motivates the slightest of movements that might well lead to gentle swaths of action.

And for Nam choosing seminal works of art proves a privilege that is as much about the work’s imbued significance, as it of their visual possibilities. As for Nam “the task of ‘breathing life into classical artworks’ goes beyond a mere application of animation effects. What it needs is an imperceptible inner sentiment along with a narrative capable of evoking such emotions – something I continue to explore and investigate. I hope to see the day when I can unequivocally say - Yes, I do see myself as that kind of artist.” 

Artdependence Magazine: For an audience less familiar with your animated works, can you begin by explaining and exploring the principles of your practice.

Lee Lee Nam: I believe that a self-absorbed art is a dead art. Artists will eventually die but their spirits live on because people continue to remember and cherish their works. It’s the reason why I pursue the kind of art that lets me interact and communicate with a contemporary audience. 

AD: When entering into your works there is an incredible sensitivity to the way in which you animate inanimate images. How do you go about determining what to dramatize, and how much of the pictorial scene to influence and interfere with?

LLN: Movement plays an important role in my work, an excessive amount of it can distract the audience from being immersed in the experience. I try my best to use movement in a non-invasive way so as not to spoil the essence of the original. Since elaborate effects and overly sophisticated expressions can strip the original work of its classical air. I lean toward bringing in movement that lends a retrospective sentiment to the underlying artwork. 

AD: Are you convinced that the images you animate are somewhat less sufficient inanimate, or are you applying technology to a scene and situation in order to enhance the experience, and to draw attention to the circumstances of what was originally captured on canvas?

LLN: My answer is similar to my previous comment. Movement is needed to support the classical works. And it is this movement that captures the audience’s attention and will aid them in their understanding of the message intended for them. Movement for the sake of movement is unnecessary.   

Lee Lee Nam, Dreamscape 1, digital limited edition © Lee Lee Nam, courtesy of www.seditionart.com

Lee Lee Nam, Dreamscape 1, digital limited edition © Lee Lee Nam, courtesy of www.seditionart.com

AD: As an artist born and based in Korea, how important was Nam-June Paik to you and to your developing practice?

LLN: I have the highest respect for Paik Nam Jun’s visionary mind and his artistic world. He is a pioneer who initiated a new form of art. Personally I love his imaginative mind and wit. A lot of times when I feel like I’ve hit the wall he becomes a larger than life figure. His approach to art is something I try to emulate in my life. A beacon that guides me in my explorations of new ideas and vision, Paik also represents a challenge I will need to overcome.

AD: Artistically whom else was influential to you?

LLN: Paik Nam Jun has had the biggest influence on me but my answer would not be complete without the mention of the late curator Lee Won Il, who had once told me to “study like you’re studying to get into college”. His words, which still resonate in my heart remind me to always stay humble and hungry for learning.  

AD: You are described as a video artist ‘breathing life into classical artworks’, do you see yourself as an artist who has the power to alter replace history paintings with more rewarding animated story-telling?

LLN: I aim to be one. The task of ‘breathing life into classical artworks’ goes beyond a mere application of animation effects. What it needs is an imperceptible inner sentiment along with a narrative capable of evoking such emotions – something I continue to explore and investigate. I hope to see the day when I can unequivocally say, “Yes, I do see myself as that kind of artist.” 

AD: With regard to your animated works, more specifically BOOK – Landscape (2015) in which the entire scene of a 16th century image comes alive to a natural soundtrack and the movement of individual characters. Are you by your subtle intervention intending to explain the scene better, or by animating it give life to representations of the real?

LLN: I think the latter would be closer to what it is. The mere fact that a painting is animated does not hold any significance. What I wanted to convey here was the idea that life was bestowed upon the source of the movement. As with most people it is this life force that captivates and pulls you in.        

AD: Dreamscape 1 (2015) is another work in which you develop what could well be described as a cinematic scene that is layered with a soundtrack and story. As the original landscape is reshaped as an impressive cityscape, only for everything to dissolve to dirt. By altering everything, only for it to reappear like a sleeping dinosaur, are you convinced that humanity’s imposition upon the landscape is a temporary one? Whereby everything will return to how it was?       

LLN: Perhaps I have in me the teachings of Taoism that sees the return to the original purity and simplicity. What I wanted to convey here was the inexplicable nature of eternity.    

Lee Lee Nam, Dreamscape 2, digital limited edition © Lee Lee Nam, courtesy of www.seditionart.com

Lee Lee Nam, Dreamscape 2, digital limited edition © Lee Lee Nam, courtesy of www.seditionart.com

Lee Lee Nam, Dreamscape 2, digital limited edition © Lee Lee Nam, courtesy of www.seditionart.com

 

Lee Lee Nam, Dreamscape 2, digital limited edition © Lee Lee Nam, courtesy of www.seditionart.com

AD: And sequentially in Dreamscape 2 (2015) you take two iconic images by Chinese artist Guo Xi and Korean Kyon An respectively, and inflate them with the virtues of life. And it is as if we can longer go back to the original works without wanting more. Again are your sophisticated reconstructions of those original works a homage to those who would venture into the untamed landscape to record its grandeur? And are they also about what isn’t present in those images? 

LLN: What is projected through a digital medium may resemble the real thing but it is after all a false image is it not?  But what I believe to be real and true is the emotion and the resonance of the heart the audience takes with them. Artworks on digital screens may disintegrate into pixel dust or fade out at the end of its running time, but what remains is the emotional connection conceived through an artwork which I believe is nothing short of being real.    

AD: By animating these idyllic landscapes do they become for you small universes, in which everything is subject to the elements as we are? Whereby you appear to want to return the original scenes to the outside world. Is representation for you only a layer of what can become aestheticized as reality?

LLN: Isn’t there a Utopia that sits at the core of our imagination? I wanted to depict digitally an ideal world that humans can only dream about. I had ruminated on how human faith gets easily swayed by visual experiences and how frail and marginal it is. Though digital images can give off the perception of being real they can never exist for real. In the end they are merely false images – which brought me to wonder whether we think they exist because we believe what we see. Thus what constitutes truth and falsehood? Is the emotional resonance left behind by the virtual images real or just a figment of our imagination?      

AD: With certain works such as Van Gogh’s original Sun Flowers (2012) still life, you dissolve it entirely of its staticness, in order you amuse an audience with your orchestrating an elementary narrative. By animating the work and altering it entirely are you reintroducing an ‘ordinariness’ to the original scene?

LLN: Looking at the original painting of Van Gogh’s Sun Flowers, I had decided that the degree of movement that I was about to add on was more than enough. Sometimes we can understand each other without much need for words. This particular work falls in line with that premise.   

Lee Lee Nam, Horse - Flowers Blossom On A Horse, digital limited edition © Lee Lee Nam, courtesy of www.seditionart.com

AD: There is something almost theatrical about the work HORSE – Flowers Blossom On A Horse (2015) that appears like a corrupted video game. In which a space invader style aesthetic is applied to a very elegant reproduction of a standing horse, in the vein of English painter George Stubbs. What is it about these jarring opposites that appeals to you?

LLN: I try to restrain movement as much as possible and keep it lyrical, but when it comes to the presentation of art I am very much drawn to the contrast of situations. The stronger the contrast the greater the intensity of its output at which point the intended messages become clearer. I think this explains why I was initially attracted to exploring the dynamics between the opposites of lyricism and violence, the beauty and the ugly.         

AD: Of the explosive floral display that mushrooms from the recreational rocket fire, you say “flowers blossom where the bombs have exploded, symbolising the process of healing and repair”; is there a politics to the playfulness of it all?

LLN: This has a dual meaning: my somewhat drastic gesture aimed at addressing the politics of art and a metaphor represented by a knife hidden in the flowers – something the haves use to keep control over the have-nots.

AD: You have also previously animated Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Eduard Manet’s Le Déjeuner dur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass). By recalling and reconstructing leading works from art history what are you intending to do? And is there something more to it than mere amusement? 

LLN: There’s an aura about the classical masterpieces. It made me wonder whether the aura that radiates from these great works of art was real or just an illusion. I wanted to see if the aura would continue to exist even after the original lends itself to a digital reinterpretation, or whether it would manifest in a different form.     

AD: In that sense you appear always to want to intervene upon existing art history, in a similar vein to a graffiti artist leaving a ‘tag’ on a billboard advertisement. Therefore might your interventions be seen as art anarchy than visual valour?

LLN: The Book of Genesis talks about the universe being created in the midst of chaos. My act, though uncivil and disordered to some, in and of itself holds significance for a new birth to take place. 

AD: By the use of such major works why do you recall art history as the visual wallpaper for your animated works, when you could begin again with a blank canvas?  

LLN: This is in a similar vein to the aura I had mentioned earlier. Classical paintings exude aura and this is something I want to explore further. So in that sense I may continue to work in a similar fashion even if I were to begin with a blank canvas.   

AD: You have previously talked of your fear of being ‘ostracised’ as an artist, and of your wish to be ‘recognised by contemporary audiences’. Therefore by intervening upon iconic works of art are you trying to canonise your own practice; your own appeal? 

LLN: There is an element in the classical masterpieces that facilitates the communication of the work with the public. But I do not think the usage of these iconic arts enhances my appeal as an artist to the public. Just as many artists research for materials to work with I have found these classical paintings to be my source of material.      

AD: Has your original anxiety of going unnoticed, been decided by your introducing your interest in animation through art history?

LLN: I think my encounter with the classical works was somewhat predestined. It came about when I was searching for the subject matter and materials that would enable me as an artist to communicate better with the public. 

Lee Lee Nam, Book - Landscape, digital limited edition © Lee Lee Nam, courtesy of www.seditionart.com

AD: In a museum setting there is obviously a tendency for modern audiences to photograph a work of art and continue to walk, without digesting any of its detail; is your acting upon a painting a slightly perverse way of drawing attention to each of them again?  

LLN: On the contrary I think it brings on a change. Inside the digital domain people expect changes to occur. I believe I have offered the audience a chance to remain longer with the artworks they see. 

AD: And by taking existing works of art, and they becoming the surface for your animations, do you see your digital endeavours as a new layer upon a work, by which everything existing is enriched even further? 

LLN: My goal is to co-exist with the original works of art, not so much to revive them. Classical masterpieces already dazzle in their artistic value and aura. I want to incorporate my own story into the narrative and by doing so I hope I’m not doing a disservice to the original works. In my view pushing to embellish the beauty and the richness of the original work is like trying to add a fifth wheel. I see the classical paintings as a vessel containing the aura I seek. And this aura I seek is an aura made distinctive through the touch of digital reinterpretation – something abstruse like when elements of the classical and the modern era coexist or when the Eastern and the Western cultures cross paths.

AD: Do you have an archive of images you turn to for each new animation?

LLN: I collect images from magazines and the internet on a regular basis. They surround the walls of my studio and give me inspiration more or less unconsciously, popping out unexpectedly into my consciousness at much needed times. 

AD: What are you working on now? And besides animation what other mediums and methods interest you?  

LLN: I was a sculpture major at college so I am working on a number of projects that involve merging objects with digital media and also integrating transparent displays into digital art. Going forward I want to inject my own personal stories into my work. And I am hoping that through this process I can find new ways to communicate with the audiences of the digital age. 

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

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