In Conversation with Lee Ufan
We speak with the pioneering Mono-ha and Dansaekhwa artist about his work, guiding principles and beliefs, and an upcoming project with Tadao Ando
Lee Ufan is a founding member of Japan’s avant-garde art movement Mono-ha and one of the most prominent Dansaekhwa artists. Lee was born in a rural countryside region of South Korea in 1936, and at the age of 20, he moved to Japan to study philosophy and met fellow artists like Sekine Nobuo and Kishio Suga. Now living and working between Paris and Kamakura, Lee is currently working with Japanese architect Tadao Ando to renovate a heritage building in the South of France that will become the Lee Ufan Foundation, Arles (set to open in 2022).
Jae Lee: What was it like when you first arrived in France?
Lee Ufan: My first visit was in 1971 for the Paris Biennale. America was incomparably powerful but for an Asian artist in the West, it didn’t matter — I wasn’t welcome anywhere. Still, I kept presenting my work all over Europe despite the discrimination and by the end of 90s, my works were more recognised. The tendency to associate my work with Zen Buddhism still exists, but I’m thankful that today’s critics see my attempt to overcome human-centric ideals.
Some try to fuse Buddhism or Confucianism with modernism when describing your work.
It’s incorrect to associate Mono-ha as Oriental modernism. I detest modernism because I see it as an equivalent to colonialism. It’s an act of amplifying one’s ego, but I don’t believe in imposing myself as the creator.
I was born and raised in Asia, but I’m not promoting anything specific to a region. I have no interest in religious thoughts either. Perhaps it’s my focus on overcoming the modern era’s human centrism or the Western egoist ideals that give an impression of religious teachings. What I’d like to say is that we cannot continue to reach upwards without scooping down. The logic of plus should coexist with the logic of minus. That’s why I suggest the relationship between the unoccupied versus occupied spaces in my works.
Your intention is not to create visual art then. Is the meditative aspect intentional?
It’s more of an arduous attempt at finding the relationship between my mentality and the universe, to go beyond myself. To meditate, one goes into solitude, but I’m questioning my relationship with history, philosophy, nature and the cosmic principals.
Another name often associated with Mono-ha is the 50s Gutai group, perhaps even more so after you collaborated with Tadao Ando on your Naoshima Museum
The Gutai group is completely unrelated to Mono-ha. They had a strong post-war mentality that resulted in performative or decadent works. Mono-ha started later in the late 60s and was influenced by natural phenomena that resulted in presenting emptiness as an integral part of art.
What can we expect to see at the Lee Ufan Foundation, Arles?
The renovation project began when Ando suggested that we simplify the interior since the foundation will mainly serve as a gallery and should accentuate the art in a neutral space. The structure is a heritage building dated between the 16th and 18th centuries so the construction is controlled. The only space we’re collaborating on designing is the entrance and it’ll be more characteristic.
As told to / Jae Lee
Images / © ADAGP Lee Ufan, from the archive of kamel mennour gallery. Courtesy of the artist and kamel mennour, Paris