• Issue
  • Mar 04, 2021

Seoul: National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

High above the central courtyard of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul, hundreds of thin strips of cerulean fabric twisted and fluttered in the breeze between the museum’s two main buildings, where they were strung along a 70-meter-long rope traversing the open airspace. Wind (1970/2020), an understated and generative outdoor installation by Korean experimental artist Lee Seung Taek, asserts a conceptual logic at odds with conventional approaches to sculpture by deploying a minimal formal vocabulary unfolding dualities of materiality and ephemerality. This seminal work in Lee’s extensive oeuvre served as the initial point of encounter for visitors to “Lee Seung Taek’s Non-Art: The Inversive Act,” an encyclopedic presentation of approximately 250 sculptures, installations, paintings, and photos that sought to cement the artist’s historical legacy and trace links between manifold bodies of work he has produced over the past 60 years.

The genesis of Lee’s experimental impetus was very much a product of the postwar milieu he encountered upon graduating from Seoul’s Hongik University in 1959. Lacking the means to procure traditional sculptural media and seeking to challenge preconceptions of Korea’s burgeoning art establishment, Lee began working with readily available materials to develop the concept of “non-art” that would thereafter inform his practice. In 1964, he stacked earthenware kimchi pots into a totemic form to create Growth (Tower), which he installed directly on the gallery floor in order to strip away any aesthetic accoutrements that might imbue the household objects with overt sculptural connotations. For Untitled (1968), he stretched colorful vinyl sheeting around geometric steel armatures, yielding eye-popping forms that emphasized surface over substance and subverted the prevailing formalist sculptural grammar of the age. In addition to these pioneering sculptural installations, “The Inversive Act” included a vast array of pieces from his long-term “binding” series. Beginning in 1958, Lee subtly destabilized the materiality of all sorts of objects—stones, ceramics, books, and canvases—by tightly binding them with rope or twine. Unfortunately, these foundational works were relegated to an awkward transitional space between two larger galleries, precluding visitors from enjoying sustained encounters with some of the exhibition’s most demonstrative examples of Lee’s transgressive artistic attitude.