Hayoon Jay Lee: A Complexity Worth Knowing
Hayoon Jay Lee came to America from Korea as an adult and found herself living in Maryland. Lee received both her BA and MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, but soon made her way to New York City, where she has lived and worked for more than a dozen years. After spending a decade in a studio in Long Island City, last year she moved to a space in the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in Manhattan (as a member of the foundation), where she now makes her extremely eclectic art. Interestingly, Lee has remained active in Korea, participating in shows there, including a major solo show at the Lee Joong Seop Art Museum, Chang-dong Residency Art Gallery (2014) in Jeju, South Korea. At the same time, she has been showing regularly in New York City, including a very interesting installation, "Beyond Life and Death" (2021), exhibited at the King Manor Museum, a historic house located in Jamaica, Queens. As an artist she creates installations, performances, short films, sculpture, paintings, and drawings. The question of being a bi-cultural artist is in general becoming moot, but it still may have some relevance to Lee, whose work can feel either Western or Asian or thoroughly international. Rice is often a major component of her art, serving not only as an unusual visual material, but also as a metaphor for Asian identity and, likely, even a symbol of universal connection.
The widespread practice of an international movement in the arts, as well as the complete acceptance of learning from other cultures, we can see that we are living in an extraordinary visual mixture of influences. These influences may, or may not, belong to the artist making the work. Abstract painting, a Western invention, now occurs all over the world. Western artists look closely at historical Asian painting and derive inspiration from Zen Buddhism. This is nothing new; the circumstances I mention may seem relatively recent, but, in fact, cultural borrowing has gone on in the arts for about as long as art has been practiced. The extent of the appropriation, along with the geographical distances accompanying the borrowing, is so great as to neutralize, to some degree, the strength of the cultural attributes. Artists easily choose imageries entirely outside their own context. This has the benefit of introducing the artist’s viewers to styles and effects they likely are not familiar with. It is also possible that this problem of exoticization blurs or even blinds one’s ability to read an image.
Lee, who lived in Korea for a long time, and has been living in America for a long time, may feel slightly awkward about the cultural histories she carries. At the same time, she regularly transforms the complexity of her backgrounds into extended meditations on culture. The content may not be specifically Korean or specifically American; instead, it becomes simply human, beyond a particular characterization. There are events in life we all share, such as death, even if our response to death is culturally determined. At her frequent best, Lee does not choose so much as transmit imageries that indicate her preoccupation with the human condition.
There is so much travel now among artists moving from continent to continent, it is impossible to gauge the intricacies of their experience. Their understanding of the cultures they visit and live in varies according to their involvement and depth. Artist’s movements, and their consequent exposure to different ways of seeing, has resulted, in a counterintuitive fashion, in a worldwide similarity of visual approach. It is often difficult to pinpoint the backgrounds of their work. Is this situation a strength or a weakness? The critical response to visual art needs time to investigate and judge, especially when imagery has lost its geographical specificity; it is not like the 19th century, when we could still tell the difference between French and Spanish painting. Abstract painting, beginning in France, is now a universal language. Lee attempts to bridge the gap between very different cultures, and to provide us with a new language.
"Bursting!" (2013) was a site-specific artist performance at the Clock Tower, Queens Plaza North, in a dingy urban park and the unoccupied first floor of an office building. The performance site occurred close to the elevated subway in Long Island City (a video of the action can be found on YouTube; its title is “Bursting! Hayoon Jay Lee An Artist in New York”). Lee wears a completely white hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, with her hair pinned back. She half sways, half dances in the park, surrounded by a large audience outside. Her movements, classical in their dignity, contrast with the rundown setting. This emphasizes our feeling that we are watching a statement of determined pride in the face of adversity. The events that transpire in Bursting! appear as assertions of a Korean self in a Western environment. But the performance is not a political statement; rather, it is a personal one, albeit with public implications: How does an artist from another place negotiate the differences she experiences in a country like the United States? Her performance, at least partly classical, occurs in a nation lacking classical structure. But perhaps this performance exists most effectively in America. Lee’s classicism takes place in the context of performance art, a Western avant-garde practice only a few generations old. Thus Lee gives voice to the complex set of imperatives each culture imposes on her: the libertarian freedoms of America, which often lack depth; and the traditional behaviors of Korea, which can be constraining.
In the performance, after a few minutes outside, Lee makes her way into the building. She is surrounded by spectators who stand close to the walls of the space, leaving a large open area in the middle. From this clearing, Lee rushes this way and that, improvising with individual spectators, in response to the ways they interacted with her. During this activity, large Korean drums were being played, and one heard the atonal notes of a violin. Again, it is not hard to see this as a series of symbolic exchanges: a Korean woman interacts with a mostly Western audience, producing art out of difference. Lee has transported herself from another culture, another time, to become a progressive artist in a culture that has little interest in history. Yet Lee’s improvisations can and do occur here; perhaps, in Korea, her process would not be fully understood. In New York, the artist’s assertion is emblematic not only of survival but also of confidence. There is nothing peripheral about her statement. She is bold and strong, and is in control of the circumstances surrounding her, both artistic and social. In an atmosphere in which chance interactions occur, Lee becomes a teacher schooling her audience in symbolic gesture. This is a highly assertive position. The event demonstrates Lee’s mastery of an implicit hierarchy in which foreign artists are often left on the margins. Thus the slight imperiousness and provocation of her manner.
At the end of the performance, Lee retreated to the back of the room, where large bags of rice were hung from the ceiling. She stands beneath one while another person cuts open the bag. We watch her as she endures a steady rain of rice cascading over her head and body. As she moves from one bag to the next, and submits to the falling rice with her eyes closed, she produces an image that suggests the mythic immutability of her culture. Since rice is a staple food in Asia, we can read its use here as a sign of persistent Asian culture, even in New York. Thus the rice pouring over the artist demonstrates social force, namely, the persistence of Asian presence and art anywhere in the world. In this remarkable piece, Lee reverses her context, demonstrating her tenacity and determination not to reject the values of her Asian beginnings. For the unknowing spectator, the performance was an introduction to being Korean. Bursting! is chiefly a demonstration of identity via a set of carefully chosen symbolic actions indicating Lee’s will to thrive in a foreign place. The decay of the park serves as a symbolic environment in which any cultural expression might thrive, especially in New York, whose gritty streets serve as thoroughfares for many, many different kinds of people.
Placing symbolic value on dramatic actions can skew the narrative, as well as undermine the experience of difference she wishes to express. Her theater of identity may meet with indifference. "Bursting!" avoids marginalization by being a very contemporary piece of art. Lee’s social concerns become the foundation of artistic awareness, not the other way around. It is true her improvisations could not have taken place without the American avant-garde; we remember that performance art began here in the early 1970s. So her esthetic methods are deeply rooted in progressive American art that had been practiced for some time before her performance took place. Even though Lee’s presentation remains poised between two cultures, one very old and one very new, she is not taking sides. The effectiveness of "Bursting!" results from the combination of the two—close to a merger, but also a side-by-side juxtaposition of influences. While used eclectically, the details of the performance, and Lee’s art in general, are allowed to coexist in a statement that would otherwise be contradictory. Still, in any good artwork, coherence is paramount. Thus, by the fusion, and also the continued separation, of parts, Lee attempts to bring together varied, culturally distant experiences that may resist being joined together. Conflict becomes the ground of successful art.
Lee’s recent installation (last year), Beyond + Life + Death, took place in the King Manor Museum, the former home of Rufus King, who was a veteran of the Revolution, a signatory of the Constitution, and an American senator. King Manor gave Lee the space, specifically the mansion’s 18th-century dining table, to prepare a remarkable installation composed of small bones, rice capsules, and food utensils from the Manor, such as vintage plates and teacups. Rice capsules were scattered across the table, vying for the viewer’s attention with the arrangement of the animal bones in patterns that were beautiful but jarring—being bones. The bones surrounded place settings, including historical silverware, that lined the long table, with chairs set in front of each dinner plate.
This complex and compelling installation, an arrangement of individual objects, historical and evocative of death, in a historical home where a major, early antislavery politician lived, formed a perfect environment for Lee’s esthetics of multiple difference. Lee sees "Beyond + Life + Death" as a metaphor for survival in the plague-like situation of the Covid virus infection. In another piece, called 108 Kinds of Hope and Empathy, we regard a shelf consisting of rows of capped glass jars filled with rice. The glass jars contain many different kinds of rice, but also water, earth, bones, human hair, and coins. The number 108 points to a Buddhist principle: there exist 108 defilements people experience during the course of life. The number 108 is also used for the repetition of prayers in the yogic tradition. But Lee’s title moves away from any notion of sin; instead, the glass jars become containers of hope, empathy, and especially the interconnectivity all things. Three typed poems, found on the wall, also develop these ideas.
The social complexity of Lee’s installation—on a 200-year-old American table in a home belonging to a prominent early politician—compels us to consider how deeply America has changed. Lee, an immigrant Korean artist, was commissioned to present an installation in contemporary Jamaica, a densely populated, racially diverse Queens neighborhood. But the home dates back and serves to record the memory of someone highly active in creating the American state after the Revolution. Additionally, the installation and shelf of jars are influenced by Asian thought, in particular Buddhism. Its philosophy shaped Lee’s upbringing and continues to influence her thinking. Finally, the installation serves as a response to a worldwide health crisis, not just American or Korean. Lee, an artist activist of considerable sincerity, encourages exchanges of spiritual endurance among everyone, no matter their background. Despite the thoroughly local site from which she delivers her message, the content of her imagination is universal. All art can be seen as universal, being directed toward the thought and feeling we all share. Yet Lee’s combination of unusual materials, her Buddhist message of hope, and her installation in a home with archival significance speaks to us from a Korean and American perspective. Given the mixed influences, we can experience the internationalism that strongly permeates the art world. This is especially true in New York, which continues to attract artists from all over.
The seven-minute film titled "Near and Far", made in 2015, begins with an image of a kite drifting in a cloudless sky, its long red tail fluttering in the breeze. The kite slowly moves off to the right, out of sight. This image is followed by a shot of Lee from the back, wearing white clothing and with her hair held up by long chopsticks. After we consider this puzzling but evocative image, we see rice pouring upward, across a dark background. Lee’s audience remembers how important rice is to her practice—both as an art material and as an emblem of the East. Images of fire follow, engulfing a copy of the New York Times in flames. Then we see a black screen taken up by bright blue, luminescent circles that hover and float, followed by a beautiful image of water, presented as black and neon-blue ripples. Other memorable images include a naked Asian body, whose gender is indeterminate. The person’s upper body is crouched so that the torso rests on the knees and legs as rice rains onto the figure’s back. Then, a moment later, we see an image of the eastern edge of New York City, taken from across the East River. Another mysterious action occurs: Lee, with her back facing us, releases multi-colored balloons into the air, one at a time. This is followed by an image of rippling water, very much like one of Vija Celmins’ drawings. The final image is a picture of water crashing into dark gray rocks. The effects of the film are quite marvelous, being given to random poetic associations.
Perhaps the best way to describe these three bodies of work is by calling them poetic acts of memory and association. The performance in Long Island City consisted of intuitive improvisation and sharply contrasted cultural attributes: the hanbok is first seen outside, beneath the supports for an elevated subway. It is a study in contrasts. The installation at King Manor Museum alludes to the quarantine without directly invoking it; it is an artwork made by an immigrant artist in a site deep in association with United States history. Finally, Near and Far is a lyric distillation of images, both gentle and apocalyptic. There is no conventional connection between the group of images in this film, except for the fact that they all suggest the ephemeral nature of experience. Lee does not claim that she is a poet, but her circumstances—her closeness to and distance from her Korean background—are extremely lyrical in their suggestive melancholy. The only way she can correlate the circumstances I am describing is to piece together a patchwork of inferences; one hopes that the allusions would do justice to the complexity of her life. Poetry is not a favored art medium at present, except within the confines of populist recitation, but fine art is because the image can be easily taken in. Such facility can result in work that is shallow. But Lee’s art is directed to a spirituality, visually presented, that addresses a deep sense of longing and the Buddhist conception of existence as transitory. Thus, she clarifies for many the evocative mystery of time’s passage.
I have described three projects that do not relate to Lee’s main body of work. It should be said that Lee is a fine sculptor and painter as well. In her recent sculpture, she has worked with low reliefs constructed from grains of rice. They comprise patterns that curve across the flat plane, usually painted, supporting them. Each individual grain is recognizable and distinct, as if it were a sculpture by itself. The rough texture of these reliefs exist in contrast to the deliberately beautiful effects seen in other work by Lee, as if she were seeking to defy conventional art. While this kind of anti-esthetic has been available in Western contemporary art for some time, it is a bit unusual to see it in a Korean-born artist. In Korea, decoration is often a major component of artwork, not a consciously rough image. But Lee has always followed her own path. In the paintings, she has created one series in which a white spoon with a long handle holds a good amount of food. Food is a central metaphor for Lee; it is a metaphor that is also a fact. Her paintings are equally compelling. In Hollow Mercy II (2016), we see a mixed-media work of a U-shape turned sideways, against a cloud-embellished blue sky. The large shape is composed of lined, tubular patches of brown that end in points. Fish hang from ropes in the space between the horizontal poles of the V. It is an eccentric painting, and the title appears to refer to disingenuous emotion. Both the paintings and sculptures reflect Lee’s interest in what Western viewers would call “metaphysics.” Yet that is too abstract a word for this gifted, intuitive artist. Her devotional leanings may be conventional or not, but despite the ambiguity, they reveal her interest in a world in which events and spiritual meaning concur.