Perpetual Tourist

Jae Hoon Lee's impressive new media works present a series of multiple instants where dreams and reality intersect.

Boundlessness, transformation and simultaneity are three key elements in the work of Korean-born New Zealand artist, Jae Hoon Lee, whose digital photographs, sculptures and videos have received critical acclaim since he arrived here in 1998 to complete an MFA at Elam School of Fine Arts.

His sparse, workmanlike studio near Elam, where he is now studying for his Doctorate of Fine Arts, looks out over an unrelentingly urban landscape. There’s not a leaf to be seen; yet the digital collages he shows me on his laptop are poetic re-imaginings of nature. Photographs of trees, clouds, rocks, water and tree roots are multiplied and morphed via computer to create an alternative reality of fantastical forms. Lee’s images trick you at first glance by presenting a single almost believable instant—sheep grazing peacefully on the green flank of One Tree Hill, the labyrinthine roots of trees and the broken white lines of tumultuous Piha surf. But looking closer you realise they are an elaborate visual hoax; what you’re looking at is a highly subjective and eccentric reality constructed from multiple images of a single subject taken over a long period of time.

Though these works fit comfortably within the realm of still photography—they are still images that are framed or presented as light boxes designed to be hung on the wall—the ideas underpinning them come as much from new media art as from traditional photography. Lee says all his work—whether it is photographs, video or sculpture—is time-based because it presents multiple instants that are collapsed via digital manipulation to create new readings of time and space.

Lee lives a nomadic life. He came to Auckland after completing a BFA at the San Francisco Art Institute and returns every year to Seoul, where he grew up, to exhibit his work and visit family. While at Elam he became increasingly focused on time-based media—digital photography and video—after having focused mainly on sculpture in the United States.

As a Korean immigrant to New Zealand, Lee is an avid collector of images from everyday life, documenting the people he meets and his daily surroundings with a camera as if he himself is a perpetual tourist—compelled to understand what to others may seem unremarkable.

The fact he now belongs to two different cultures, whose philosophies and ways of seeing have the potential to collide and ricochet off one another, underpins his practice on a formal and conceptual level, further adding to the element of surprise and discovery that makes his work so compelling, not to mention sensuous, to look at and listen too. For Lee, both sound and images are important and the two are often combined in his installations.

Though his work is firmly grounded in nature and the body as a subjective, visceral being, it also explores contemporary ideas of simultaneity, repetition and connectivity between far flung places and individuals, which the burgeoning of digital media and new technologies have allowed.

“When I immigrated to New Zealand I began documenting my daily life by using a flatbed scanner to record the changes in my skin. From this point the body became a fundamental element in all my artworks and I’ve always attempted to project a sense of the body in different times and spaces,” he says.

“In order to assemble an image bank that refers to my experience as a cultural wanderer, I have mainly been collecting source materials in New Zealand, Korea and other countries I have recently visited. My daily collecting habit has so far expanded to include elements such as leaves, urban scenes, daily objects and banal accidents.”

Lee then manipulates some of these images via computer, layering multiple single images that have been taken over a long time to create a single, almost seamless, new image. What at first glance looks like a still photograph, documenting a single instant, in fact contains the traces of multiple instants and views. In this way Lee’s images combine reality and dreams, bringing together the photo-realist documentary tradition and the fictional possibilities of new technologies. His images collapse time and space, mirroring the way digital technology manipulates our understandings of the world around us.

For his work, One Hundred Faces, Lee scanned the facial skin of a hundred people he met in Auckland over a year and then created composite forms made from randomly selected facial scans. This work included atmospheric sounds, which he recorded while travelling along the Khao San Road in Bangkok—a popular destination with international backpackers. These collaged images retain multiple traces of different skin pigmentations, powerfully evoking a sense of the ‘exotic other’, as does the accompanying soundtrack.

Lee explores ideas and possibilities associated with new media, projecting identical moving image works in different geographical locations. These simultaneous projections hint at his own complex identity as a Korean New Zealander who is constantly negotiating two different cultures. They parallel the way Lee himself can be thought of as inhabiting two different places—Korea and Auckland—at the same time.

His video projection, Virtual Station, shows passengers embarking and disembarking from a subway train in Seoul. The video captures the subway’s dizzying sense of sound and movement as well as an uneasy feeling of anonymity and repetition as the passengers pass in front of the camera for an instant before the doors close and the train speeds away. Projected as a life-size moving image at Artspace soon after Lee arrived in Auckland, the work looked at the increasingly blurred line between the virtual and the real, giving viewers the sense they were literally standing on the Seoul subway platform.

It also makes sense to think of Lee’s work as visual explorations of form—both the organic forms in nature and the angular shapes of urban landscapes. In the rather ominous work, Residue, 2007, the scale of the image is expanded to a whopping 1.5m by 2.8m, emphasizing the towering rather ominous structure created from photographs of urban waste and old metal in Onehunga near where Lee lives. In contrast, his composite images of nature have a lightness and beauty that suggests a sense of boundlessness and transformation, ideas associated with Eastern philosophy as well as with modern physics.

“As a conceptual strategy I follow the Eastern philosophy of Taoism when I deal with materials—specifically the notion of flowing water,” says Lee. “As many Taoists have mentioned, water is formless and it changes shape depending on the vessel that contains it. Subsequently I think we construct the body fluidly like water due to how we see it and how our perception is affected by the environment.”

“Another source for my practice is the empiricist tradition of modern physics, where each piece of matter is organically interconnected with others and therefore not defined purely by its own laws and properties, but also by the conditions of neighbouring particles. In my work I attempt to consider my body and its surrounding environment with a careful lens; to utilise the dualism of the macrocosmic and microcosmic perspectives of understanding physical matter.”

When I spoke to him, Lee had recently returned from a trip to Seoul where he exhibited in the group show, Bubble Wrap at Gallery Yeh, with fellow graduates from the San Francisco Art Institute. For this show he made the wall-based sculpture, Festival, comprising toxic-smelling highly coloured plastic models of food used as ‘bait’ to lure customers into consuming products in the highly commercialised food industry. Festival mixes foods from diverse countries, alluding to the homogenising effects of globalisation on local cultures.

After visiting Seoul, Lee spent time in Egypt where he photographed ancient pyramids, desert landscapes and donkeys, revelling in the sense of accumulated human history evident in this country. In his hands there is no doubt these photographs, which any traveller might conceivably have taken, will be utterly transformed to create new images and sculptures where reality and dreams intersect.

Virginia Were

Jae Hoon Lee will have a solo exhibition at Starkwhite, Auckland, 13 November to 8 December 2007.

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