Art and People
Invisible labor beyond the vested interest: A conversation with Uesung Lee
Aug 03, 2023
There are many elements that drive artists to work. For Uesung Lee, it is the exploration of the concept of artistic labor as a central theme throughout his nearly a decade-long journey. In earlier works, Lee garnered recognition for his meticulous explorations that went beyond mere numerical outcomes, aiming to directly convey the significance of artistic labor. Within exhibition spaces, he openly showcased his rigorous endeavors, employing tangible techniques such as measuring and weighing the results. However, more recently, Lee has embraced a metaphorical perspective while still maintaining his distinctive characteristic acuity.
In his recent solo exhibition, Long Trip, which took place at Chapter II in Seoul from April 20 - June 10, 2023, Lee continues to explore the idea of artistic labor, now venturing further by intertwining with the perception of time and his anxieties about his role as an artist. Each artwork in the exhibition is an entity of its own, creating waves that touch upon the labor of artists, the hidden value of their creations, and the undeniable impact of time. Combining various materials such as beeswax, bronze coated with silver, and mirrors, Lee's artistic method invites viewers to discover the profound interplay between art and labor.
The exhibition space showcases a huge centerpiece composed of prominently arranged tuna fish. Interwoven among these installations are various everyday objects, including avocado pendulums installed like magnets and a squirrel-shaped door knock, beckoning viewers to contemplate the deeper meaning behind the overall arrangement.
During an interview with eazel on the final day of his show, Lee expressed his desire for visitors to actively engage with his work, as they mirror his life as an artist. According to Lee, works within an exhibition space offer readily identifiable narratives to explore.
eazel: As it has been a while since your solo exhibition in 2019 at project space SARUBIA, this exhibition must have special meaning to you.
Uesung Lee (UL): It has been three years since I had my solo exhibition in 2019. Coincidentally, the COVID-19 pandemic started afterward, and everyone, including myself, was taken aback by this sudden and significant change. On top of the pandemic, I was a little overwhelmed after the exhibition at project space SARUBIA, so I took a break for about a year. In the past, I mainly focused on the concept of “unretrievable artistic labor,” based on my situation where the final output did not fully compensate for my invested input in creating the artwork. I believed that this unretrievable labor would exist in different forms, and I mostly expressed this through numeric values or units. This unretrievable labor could be the heat my body generates while moving around the studio making work, or materials that get wasted along the way. However, at the same time, that was the watershed moment where I started trying to understand it from the boundaries of sensory perception, which exists beyond numbers. That is why I started to relate the idea to natural phenomena, such as differences in temperature or humidity. While doing so, I put a lot of thought into how the energy created by the differences in input and output is dormant, and under what internal or external conditions it surfaces in our daily lives.
If I don’t count the time I studied abroad, I have been working as a professional artist for almost 10 years now. This also means that, as an artist, I contemplate more about my current status as an artist or the nature of exhibition organizers. During this time, I was offered a chance to participate in the residency program at Chapter II, where this exhibition is held. I decided to put my thoughts and personal musings into the “skin of time”* and present them through this solo exhibition, Long Trip.
*Skin of time: The artist uses the term “skin of time” to describe the gradual condensation that appears on the surface of things when its state changes over the passage of time or due to external factors. In the large installation Long Trip (2023), which shares the same title of this exhibition, Lee expresses the “skin of time” through the changes in the surface of tuna as it gets frozen step by step, that is, the difference in time shown in the thickness of the inflated surface.
eazel: Your exhibitions always have a charm of both looking at each individual artwork and seeing the balance that these works create as a whole. In the current exhibition, many works that are seemingly connected but independent capture our eyes. We want to hear more about the artwork Long Trip (2023), which takes the center stage of the exhibition as well as shares the same title with the exhibition. What was the motif and inspiration behind this work?
UL: As you can notice from the installed visual outcome, this work is about the tuna fishing and distribution industries. The fish are gutted and immediately put into -60°C blast freezers, as maintaining freshness is a top priority. What’s interesting is that tuna is the only fresh food whose value increases with freezing. Since there is no way to verify the quality of the meat or deterioration of grades during storage, tuna is as valuable as unused lottery tickets. The energy used for rapid freezing keeps the tuna frozen in time, and its expanded surface within the process hides the actual value of the fish, as if the thickened skins have become like time that is stopped. I think that it resembles the intrinsically invisible value that art has. This interests me a lot because I have been exploring the connections between the uncertain future of an artist, time, materials, and energy in my work.
Another thing that I have learned about tuna is that tuna fishing is considered a high-value-added industry. The most important aspect of the industry is storage. For example, when fishers catch fish other than tuna, they cut and put them in-between tuna so that it can be safely preserved, just like material that protects artworks. This cold fact scares me; however, I think it also reflects the reality we live in and that artists are facing. Not all students graduating from art school go on to continue their career as professional artists. However, after 10 years, even fewer keep on creating art. Time and effort do not always guarantee a certain outcome. The same goes for artists since talent and luck decide their grade, which leads to different futures such as where they can hold exhibitions and who they are going to work with. However, depending on how well the fish is preserved, while some end up in a sushi restaurant, some get an even lower grade and end up as canned tuna. Instead of describing this with despair, I have focused more on possibility and left room for interpretation by leaving the can open without fully filling the cross section of the tuna in Long Trip.
eazel: We also want to hear more about the “time” you mentioned. In an article related to the exhibition, you said, “The time spent in the studio feels relatively slower than the outside world and this inspired me to express the differences in physical or psychological times that depend on locations and environments.” What you said in the interview sounds like your work has been based on actual experiences. How do your artworks and overall exhibition convey “time,” especially how it is expressed as a “gap”?
UL: Time is one of the important pillars of this overall exhibition, and time itself is a subject as well as a material. Some artworks express it intuitively, some metaphorically and subtly.
At some point in my life, I started to feel reality as a weight of time. Time could mean my current age of 40, or the 10 years that I have spent on my art. Time is equal for everyone, but that doesn’t mean the time I feel flows at the same speed as the time that exists in reality. The time that I thought would disappear after passing actually accumulates in certain places in my life, manifesting as a significant weight at some point. This resonates with me more as my studio is getting packed with more artworks and becomes heavier as time goes on. The studio is not only a place where I spent most of my time but also a place where a lot of energy, labor and materials accumulated over time. In theory, as endless stockpiling of materials and energy amplifies gravity, time flows relatively slower than in real life. In this regard, as my works have been amassing and the gravity of my studio where my time and energy are condensed gets bigger, “I,” in the studio, sense time flowing relatively slower than in the outside world. As such, in this exhibition, I want to show that time flows relatively so that each of us can feel the differences of time according to our own perspectives.
If I may talk more about the installation, Long Trip, as I mentioned earlier, this work talks about the distribution process of tuna, and the expression of its freezing and distribution contains the flow of time. As a long period of time and energy has been put into myself to become “who I am” right now, time and energy must have been spent on this tuna in its own way to be served at our table. Unfortunately, the final outcome or value does not always match with the input of invested resources. I made a presumption that these unproduced, in other words, unrecovered values still exist in the form of invisible energy, and I wanted to express this, with the relative differences in time, through my work.
eazel: Even though “door knocker” works - Sound Work (2023), Tropical Time-Keeper (2023) that features an avocado, Weight of Skin (2023), and The Rings of Avocado (2022) - are visually connected to the installation Long Trip loosely, they serve an important role in the curation as a whole. How are these works related to the overall flow of the exhibition?
UL: The artworks you mentioned have different modes of expression, but each deals with time and invisible energy and their impact on artists’ labor to varying degrees.
If we look into Tropical Time-Keeper, which features an avocado. The avocado industry is also a high-value-added industry, like tuna. In a way, how well they are stored and preserved determine the value of a product. Also, it is hard to control the stage of ripeness of the fruit. Despite it being a relatively expensive food compared to others, it is widely loved by people in this modern busy world as just a small quantity of the fruit provides enough nutrients. Color changes in avocados show the stage of ripeness, and it is not often obvious how ripe it is, sometimes causing anxiety to consume it in good time before it goes to waste.
On the other hand, we have to wait in boredom if the fruit is yet to be ripe. These two different experiences of time were portrayed through my heartbeat and shown in the form of a metronome. To show this, I humorously use a metronome which shows rules and orders with its constant tempo. Also, as avocados are rich in nutrients, they are an efficient food to artists, or at least to me. So, there is another advantage. Buying an avocado for me is like buying time, resulting in saving time, and the use of metronomes is the extension of my interest in time as a concept.
Sound Work contains invisible energy: sound. It makes sound by moving door knockers installed at both sides of the door, and sound is added on the top of a keyword, “labor,” which I have been talking about in the first question. The door knockers resemble a squirrel trying to tap a walnut. I decided to combine the squirrel's gesture of hitting the walnut against the wall to eat with the function of door knockers. The squirrel just does its job to eat the walnut, but the sound and energy that it generates travels through the wall and is sent to the people standing on the other side of the wall. This creates a magical moment of bringing people in front of the door and eventually making them open it. The work I do as an artist leads to a butterfly effect by collaborating with other factors and creating other works, and this is similar to the sound wave created by a door knock.
eazel: Sound Work was made with bronze coated with silver, and beeswax was used to create tuna works in the Long Trip series. Could you tell us more about how and why you choose certain materials and how the selection process impacts your work?
UL: In Long Trip, the use of the elastic nets to express the curve of time is an essential element to the work, but what is equally important is what makes tuna’s “long trip” possible. Beeswax, as a medium, represents expanded ice on the surface of frozen tuna. In this work, where the journey of energy has been expressed, the wax on the surface of tuna is the proof of the energy that was put into the freezing process. It also expresses relative gaps in time as it shows varying weight differences (energy and gravity), depending on the thickness after expansion. Thicker the wax, longer the tuna has been in the freezer for transportation. When unfrozen, the water from the melting fish (beeswax) goes into the drain and is re-cast into the can, sealing the cross section of tuna. By doing so, the wax as a material acts as an intended instrument to express time.
In regards to Sound Work, it was crucial to maintain the authentic function and purpose of a door knocker, since the audience physically interacts with the piece to produce sound and vibrations. To achieve this, I used robust materials that are resistant to outdoor conditions and impacts in order to ensure durability and longevity. However, I chose to coat the surface of the bronze-cast door knocker with silver. This was not only because of the characteristic gray color of Korean squirrels, but also because of silver’s innate properties, namely its propensity to tarnish upon external contact, made it possible to capture traces of energy infused into the space on the surface of the artwork.
I reflect my wishes to better understand various phenomena in our surroundings or my experiences. What is important during that process is presenting my wishes in a particular manner. I try to find a balance between restraining myself from giving too much away and providing enough visual cues to balance the experience of the audience. I believe materials used in the work and the subject make this possible. What I mean by this is, if the medium speaks for itself in the context of the subject (i.e. beeswax as frozenness), finding a coherent connection is relatively obvious.
eazel: Since the 2019 solo exhibition at project space SARUBIA, every exhibition has featured a mirror-based work. In this exhibition, you presented a mirror work where rapid change in room temperature was shown with window frost. It reflects your own intention but it may remind some viewers of a particular situation and temperature. One of the works in the current exhibition also features a mirror where an image of an avocado appears on the surface. Could you tell us more about this work?
UL: I am very intrigued when the form of an object remains the same but its usage changes and creates a different meaning. When it comes to a mirror, I think it is one of the best materials to express “lost energy,” while retaining its original function. While I could have expressed the loss of energy numerically, I wanted to use elements from daily life and approach it from the realm of the senses. For instance, when I shave in front of a mirror, my breath meets the cold air and turns into fog. My breath is only visualized by the mirror as the fog, which otherwise does not have anything to show for its existence. I captured the invisible transfer of energy.
eazel: Your previous works showed that artistic “labor” and its value have consistently appeared. What kind of labor are you trying to express within your current works as well as in your previous works?
UL: I am interested in the labor of artists that lies beneath the process of creating artworks. One thing I have learned as a professional artist is that most labor theories do not apply to artistic labor. I also teach students at school as a part-time lecturer, which has led me to take more interest in other related concepts, such as the dual labor market.
In the early stages of my work, I wondered a lot about what constitutes labor. If my work was an accepted “labor” within society, it would meet the legal requirements such as minimum wage. However, for artists, this is not always clean cut. I have conducted various experiments because I thought artistic labor creates unique and subjective value, therefore should be approached differently.
In The Weight of Labor (2015), I cut out various tools that I regularly use in my daily life. Then, I carefully documented the weight difference and time spent both before and after the carving process. This meticulous recording allowed me to calculate the value of the final product by measuring the elapsed time and physical effort I invested in its creation.
Through the Productive Drawing (2016) series, I reassembled the existing expectations of “productive labor activity” in society, which revolves around tools, numbers, time, units, and monetary values, and translated these notions into a creative work. Productive Drawing was drawn on the wall using a pickaxe with a graphite blade. It would be a better description to say that I was chipping away the pickaxe while leaving a drawing on the wall. Once the initial graphite head of the pickaxe was used up, I gathered the fallout on the floor and molded them into new pickaxe heads. The mural became vivid and bold through this process repeated in cycles. Through this work, I was trying to show the cyclical process of labor within the realm of art. I put in a lot of thought into how to convey the essence of what I had been contemplating, including labor. I imagine a society that fosters all kinds of labor and embraces different perspectives beyond the vested interest.
eazel: Unlike your previous works where you tried to show artistic labor in a direct way, your recent works do not explicitly show this labor. How has the concept of “labor” developed and changed within your practice?
UL: The concept and context of artistic labor can still be found in my work. You are right, they encompass the whole artwork, rather than being shown in an explicit way. The gap between input and output, the values of artistic labor from this “gap,” are systematically expanded into various senses (temperature, humidity, smell, wind, and sound) that are manifested at the boundary between my studio and the outside. By doing so, subjective senses and environments are brought into the exhibition space, where I have connected them with my thoughts for the purpose of art, function, value, and status, and have expressed them physically. Labor is also related to the fact that I have been constantly showing “gaps” in my artworks - gaps between input and output of actions. However, what’s changed is that I am now taking an approach to build an environment where values beyond the numbers can be seen, rather than translating every single outcome into measurable units to verify labor.
eazel: We're curious about your future plans.
UL: I’m planning to make artworks with sound. It may not necessarily be an artwork that will actually make sound, but I am planning to sculpturally present sound as an energy that bounces back with a time lag. The plan is to show the time lag and volume difference between the initial sound (direct sound) and the second sound (reflected sound) that plays around with the idea of spatiality. This process aims to observe how the value of “unrecovered artistic labor” resides inside the studio and is hidden on the surface of art. I plan to sculpt a space where the echo and vibration of sound interact.
The solo exhibition of Uesung Lee at Chapter II in Seoul was on view from Apr 20 - Jun 10, 2023. For more information, please click here.