Far from his birthplace of bustling Seoul, Jae Hoon Lee was the Sarjeant Gallery’s Tylee Cottage artist-in-residence in sleepy Whanganui earlier this year.
While he was "in residence" he spoke to Dan Poynton.
Jae Hoon Lee is a nomad floating between realms, in art and in life. He draws his material from the many locations he has thrown himself into, and he also wanders between the realms of hyper-reality and the vivid unreality he discovers just under the surface. Speaking from Tylee Cottage, he tells me Whanganui is the ideal place for him to integrate the myriad of source material he has collected as a nomadic artist. "It’s very homey, I feel cosy. I think it’s the greatest residence programme in New Zealand. You can be really focused – undisturbed."
Jae Hoon’s material is dominated by his photographic and video documentation of the landscapes and cultures he has encountered in his global wanderings, trekking in the Himalayas, merging into everyday life in Thai hill-tribe villages, contemplating immense silences in Antarctica. "Being nomadic through my art process is how I talk about my identity. Always a sense of wandering – I can’t do this work staying in one place."
After he has absorbed these realities in the flesh, an artistic alchemy takes place and unreal fantastical worlds emerge. "I somehow digitally stitch these images together, these different timelines captured from different locations. I’m a mediator – it’s my role as an artist."
In this "digitally collaged photography" the almost imperceptible unnaturalness of Jae Hoon’s juxtapositions distorts reality. He dives into the reality of the image – it might be the veins of a leaf or the contours of a mountain – coming out the other side into a surreal dreamscape. "My images are a kind of membrane between the real and the digital realm. The real and unreal are intermingled. It’s a kind of confusion – a fantasy inner world." Jae Hoon says this digital blending is influenced by the constant bombardment of images we experience with the internet. "I’ve been using this idea of tension between the digital and real world for a long time and I’m still discovering different ways."
The vibrantly sculptural texture of Jae Hoon’s images originates from his first artistic love, he says: "I have a more three-dimensional sense, developed when I trained in sculpture, especially as I’m not a hundred percent pure photographer."
Like many great artists before him, Jae Hoon failed his first attempt to get into art school. But he was restless to discover new places "bigger than Korea" after being beguiled by stories from friends returning from the US, so he didn’t bother trying again. And in 1993 the twenty-year-old left for the US.
At high school in traditional Korea he’d had to draw and sculpt figures from classical antiquity. "I enjoyed it even though we had to do the same thing over and over. I really liked the sensation of touching the clay." So it was "a natural decision" to study sculpture, in which he got a bachelor’s degree from the San Francisco Art Institute.
Jae Hoon’s father had had a childhood dream of living "down there close to Antarctica" in New Zealand, and in 1995 his parents were granted permanent residency. He followed them to Auckland from the US, eventually getting a doctorate in intermedia from Elam. Under the influence of his tutor, legendary intermedia musician Phil Dadson, Jae Hoon focused on digital image, video, and sound sculpture. "I tried to taste different things," he says.
Since then Jae Hoon has created in many media and there’s often an element of performance in his work. In his video Self Camera he overcomes his sense of alienation from the environment by merging, naked, into a tree. In Coffin he entombs himself, via mysterious callisthenic movements in a coffin.
An energetic communicator, Jae Hoon has exhibited in Europe, North America and all over Asia, and has had residencies in New York, Indonesia, and Antarctica. "I’m still hungry," he says.
Lately he has been yearning to return to tangible materials as a balance to the many hours he spends in front of computers, and in Whanganui he bought a bag of clay. "I’m enjoying just touching clay. It’s not about making something for exhibitions. I’m just trying to be playful." He’s filled the Tylee Cottage’s garage with driftwood and other collected materials. "So I can do some dirty work to refresh the air in my brain. Then I can come back to my digital work and there’s more flow."
Jae Hoon’s collages also use scanned images of skin. "I bring my scanner and laptop to exhibitions and pub gigs and ask random people if I can scan their skin. It’s a spontaneous way of making contact with anonymous people. I show people their images on the screen, and because it looks funny it’s easier for them to participate."
In Whanganui Jae Hoon has fallen in love with the river and surrounding lakes, and this is the main inspiration for his Tylee Cottage work. "It’s a beautiful atmosphere here. The river is so close." In his explorations of the river he has visited Jerusalem and come under the spell of the area’s wairua. "I’m not directly using Māori culture but the Māori spirit is somehow influencing me in this work. When I’m moving around capturing images I always meet Māori symbols. I can’t escape this heritage."
The Whanganui River once again carries a nomad into new territory.
First published ArtZone #83