Minny Lee has developed her own artistic practice by taking photographs through her personal experience in life, especially memories from her childhood. Like literature, her works seek to create and sometimes find certain spaces that resonate her synesthetic sense and she creates visual expression like writing poet with camera. Such senses construct her personal aesthetic of expression in photography and awakens her possibility to create new mode of expression, like performances and video works. Her artistic practices have expended further beyond photography through her practice in MFA, focusing on her own aesthetic through objects, trees, sounds, and interacting with viewers by performance. Through two years of artistic practice, she presents her works that she has developed about her perspective of her own memories, exploration, and creation.
Minny Lee. Central Park, New York, 2015. Archival pigment print, 16×20 inches.
Conversations between Minny Lee and Hyungjo Moon about Minny Lee’s solo thesis show and her work
February 26, 2016
Hyungjo: Childhood memories seem to be a central part of your work. Why?
Minny: I always thought that my childhood in South Korea was ordinary and there was not much to talk about. After spending a lot of time in the US, I realized that my childhood was unusual due to the tumultuous history of Korea at that time and the economic severity of my family in the midst of country’s industrialization. The most recent video I made was based on searching for my earliest memory when I was living in Daegu (a southern city in South Korea) with my grandmother and her mother-in-law. Growing up apart from my parents and siblings from age two to six and then reuniting with them and living in the countryside surrounded by nature influenced me as a person and an artist. Living on a farm on a foothill of mountain from age seven was a completely different experience. It was a quiet and self-sustaining life. I attempt to translate that experience through my paper cut-out work. Its contents reflect my time in the countryside, living closely with flowers, trees, bugs, stars, the sky, and stream.
Minny Lee. Jackson Heights, Queens, 2014. Archival pigment print, 16×20 inches.
From age eleven, I lived in Seoul—the capital of South Korea—and from that time, I started to be aware of government driven industrialization, military dictatorships, and democratic movements. Korea’s long Confucianism tradition taught me to respect elders and parents but at the same time, it was repressing the society at large. Living in a politically unstable country with Confucianism pressure, I had to escape somewhere. During high school, the answer was poetry and novels. Both my father and eight-grade teacher emphasized reading world classics. In my youth in Korea, reading was considered as a fundamental ability of the educated individual. I strongly responded to literature in particular and started to write poems during my high school years. My work would not be the same if I did not have literature growing up.
H: For your solo thesis show, you will encourage visitors to handle your cut-out boxes to form images. On opening night, you will do a performance using cut-outs and storytelling. Why is evoking viewer participation so important to you?
M: I am interested in creating an experience through an exhibition, by being thoughtful about utilizing the whole exhibition space and inviting viewer participation. It frustrates me when objects in museums and galleries get overly protected by barricades and guards. I understand preservation issues and market values but when an artwork is treated more importantly than visitor observation and enjoyment (whom the work is made for and addressed to), I feel there is a loss of morality.
Minny Lee. Moving Images, 2015-2016. Paper cut-outs with light projection, 7½ x 7½ x 20 inches (box).
I like to let people touch my work and awaken different senses such as seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling. Sensing can evoke the viewer’s memory. I made cutouts on a vellum paper and attached them to a black box on one end while leaving the other end open. One can see the content of cutouts when shining the box with a flashlight. They are fragments of my childhood memories but I hope that viewers can form mental pictures of their own childhood memories. This possibility of connections and expansions makes me excited and motivates me to work in a participatory practice.
H: You often title your photograph with the name of the place you took the photo. What significance does the place have in your photography?
M: I took my first photography class in the fall of 1999. One day the teacher took us to a Bill Brandt (1904-1983) exhibition at ICP Museum. It was the first time I saw so many great photographs gathered in one place. While Brandt was experimenting with abstractions and surrealism with photography, he was mainly a photojournalist working for print media. Brandt’s generation and the generation after him titled photographs with subject, place, and year. Richard Avedon was not considered as a documentary photographer but he also titled the same way. One of his titles would read: Marian Anderson, contralto, New York, June 30, 1955. I studied Documentary Photography and Photojournalism Studies at ICP School from 2007 to 2008 and learned a great deal about the importance of captions, which provide context to the viewer. Being in a specific place at a specific time means something. Clicking the shutter release one second earlier or one second later can make a huge difference. If you look at Robert Frank’s contact sheets from The Americans or Richard Avedon’s contact sheets of sittings with models, you will understand how crucial the timing is, in addition to the specific place and specific situation they are in. I often include the place and year in my title because it provides both the least and most information I can provide to the viewer without imposing any further meaning to the picture.
H: It seems that trees are your main subject matters and walking is an important method of making work.
M: I started to photograph trees since 2008 after realizing my interest in trees, which has a lot to do with living in nature during my childhood. In terms of walking, it comes from my early training in photography—from street photography to documentary photography. New York has a great tradition in street photography and you get to see a lot if you live in New York. With street photography, a photographer has to be in right place and right time and be ready when interesting thing happens. My approach is more about discovery of wonder—being a visual poet with a camera. In documentary photography, a photographer pursues the same subject matter for a long time by returning to the same people and place. I tend to walk a lot when making work but I also like to return to the same place many times to have deeper explorations. Walking is a strange exercise. I can be completely mindful of myself or completely open to observations of the world. Unexpected encounters make walking worthwhile. A work becomes more interesting when an artist’s introspection collide with the outer world.
Minny Lee. Video still from Daegu (2016).
H: Making artist books has been important part of your practice. Do you see your book as an object in itself?
M: An artist book is an intimate medium to invite viewers to experience my work. I like small books that people can hold in their hands. A book consists of a sequence of pages and therefore it is a time-based medium. I can intend to lead the viewer in a certain way by sequencing and designing the book but each viewer will experience and react to the book differently due to their diverse backgrounds and histories. I make a book as an object because I pay great attention to materials and details. However, I don’t want to revere book as a precious object and display it inside of glass vitrine. Books should be experienced through close physical contact and that’s why I still like to read traditionally printed books. When I was making books last March, I thought that I could just make books for the rest of my life and be happy forever after.
Minny Lee. Souvenir (2015), Million Years (2015), and Resonance (2015) (from left). Artist book, various sizes and materials.
Minny Lee was born and raised in South Korea and received her higher education in the US. Prior to entering the ICP-Bard MFA Program, Lee obtained a Master of Arts in Art History from the City College of New York, worked as a writer for photography magazines and curated several group shows. During her MFA studies, Lee has been exploring multiple mediums, including photography, video, drawing, installation, and performance.
Minny Lee: Elsewhere
Exhibition: Thursday, March 3 – Sunday, March 6, 2016
Opening Reception: Thursday, March 3, 6-10pm
Moving Images: Thursday, March 3, 7pm
Storytelling Relay: Friday, March 4, 7pm
Hours: Thursday – Saturday 12-7pm, Sunday 12-5pm
Location: 24-20 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101 (subway E/M/G/7 to Court Sq-23rd St)