Lee Kun-yong, a trailblazer of performance art in Korea, lets his body do the talking.
The 77-year-old artist took off his shoes and socks and hunkered down at Pace Seoul, where his solo exhibition 《Form of Now》 is on view, during a press preview on June 3.
He started to move onward, marking lines with a piece of chalk in his right hand, moving it from side to side. As the artist advanced, part of the lines were erased by the artist's feet.
"It's simple. Drawing a line is the most basic form of drawing, something even a beginner can do. I draw lines and my body erases what I draw at the same time," Lee recalled his first performance of 〈Snail's Gallop〉 at Sao Paulo Art Biennial in 1979.
"I started drawing chalk lines in a corner of the press conference venue. At first, nobody was interested in a small artist in a squatting position, but as I moved toward the center of the hall, people started to pay attention to me. So I went underneath a table in the center and continued to the other end of the wall. It's a simple but thought-provoking performance."
Lee pointed out that the Snail performance does not originate from an intention to draw, but the traces formed when the chalk encounters the floor.
Born in 1942 in Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province, now North Korea, Lee is one of the first generations of avant-garde artists in Korea.
Under the authoritarian Park Chung-hee administration, Lee came up with a method to draw without an art education, which was to use his body to create shapes on canvas. He also created many performances featuring mundane daily activities such as walking, eating and counting numbers.
Through reenactment of everyday life, Lee quietly resisted against irrationalities as he tried to forge a new relationship between the body and space it occupies.
The artist also paints in an unconventional way. Instead of facing the canvas, Lee stands against the canvas and moves his arm around his body to trace his outline. Sometimes, he stands behind the canvas and draws on the front, painting only as far as his arm can reach.
As the artist receives belated attention, his pieces are performing well in both the domestic and international art markets. Recently, his heart-shaped painting 〈The Method of Drawing 76-3-2010〉 was sold for 140 million won, exceeding the estimate, at Seoul Auction's 29th Hong Kong sale on May 26.
The artist however did not intend to draw a heart. Instead, he stretched his right and left arms and moved them up and down in front of the canvas, leaving two curves with a cusp at the top.
"I didn't expect my movements to result in a heart shape, but my body created such beauty. These are drawn by my body, not my mind. It is a phenomenon that happens where my body meets the plane," Lee said. "These heart-shaped paintings recently became more popular. I even had a collector asking me to draw the lines down there thicker, similar to the one that fetched a high price. They thought it was my 'style,' but no, art is not a style."
Photographs documenting the artist's unique process are also on view along with the paintings.
"Lee Kun-yong's body drawing has a methodology. That is why I display photos of my process along with completed paintings and drawings so viewers can understand that the lines come from an inevitable rendezvous between my body and the plane," the artist said.
Art historian Joan Kee emphasized the significance of the photographs documenting Lee's movements. "Although witnessing an actual performance is profoundly different from experiencing it through one or even a brace of still photographs, it is worth keeping in mind that Lee Kun-yong and his closest associates placed as much, if not more emphasis on the photographs documenting their activities," Kee said.
Lee Young-joo, director of Pace Seoul, said the gallery discovered the artist after extensive research on Korean modern art and artists.
"Avant-garde artists from the 1960s are gaining attention across the globe and Lee is one of the most notable avant-garde artists in Korea. We held Lee's exhibit at Pace Beijing last year and it was sensational. We plan to hold more avant-garde art exhibitions, including Lee's works," she said.
Lee's exhibition at Pace Seoul runs through Aug. 24.