Lee Ufan. Inhabiting time

ExhibitionsLee Ufan. Inhabiting time

From 27th february to 30th september 2019

Locations : Galerie 1
Category : Exhibitions
Public : All ages

Centre Pompidou Metz will present a retrospective of Lee Ufan, tracing his career from the early works of the late 1960s to his most recent creations. The exhibition offers a defining vision of Ufan's unique oeuvre, showing how his artistic vocabulary has evolved over more than five decades.

Countering Frank Stella's celebrated formula and Minimalist slogan 'What you see is what you see', Lee Ufan favours an alternative: 'What you see is what you don't see'. As a painter, sculptor, poet, philosopher and creator of environments, Ufan's works function as revelatory devices, drawing our attention to empty space, the tension generated between untouched areas of canvas, the distance dividing two elements of a sculpture, the viewer's position, effects of light and shade: everything we fail to notice at first glance, but which is there nonetheless, playing its role in the making and impact of a work of art.

Born in Korea in 1936, when the country was under Japanese occupation, Lee Ufan recevied a traditional, Confucian education which was to profoundly affect his subsequent development as an artist. From the outset of his career in the 1960s, Ufan strove to achieve a balance between his Korean roots, his links to Japan where he studied and worked, and his growing attachment to the West (he exhibited at the Paris Biennale of 1971).

At the intersection of three cultures, Lee Ufan's work is universal and immediate in intent. Immediate in the sense that language Is not a requirement: Ufan often describes how he made his first works while planning to study literature and philosophy in Japan, but failed to master the language. He opted for visual communication instead, by-passing both language and figurative representation, and using sensitive interventions to provoke 'encounters': the encounter between natural and industrial materials, for example, in his celebrated sculpture series Relatum. As part of Japan's Mono-ha ('School of Things') movement, he strove for a new defintion of art, distanced from Western norms and codes.

Lee Ufan's works are conceived as living experiences, bridging the worlds of philosophy and the visual arts. His sculptures play on our notion of space, while his paintings interact with time. Ufan strives endlessly to master infinity and to 'inhabiting time.'

Ufan's works have a powerful, aphoristic quality - each is a disconcertingly simple, visual and phsyical translation of philosophical principles, far removed from any attempt at figuration. Reflecting his highly personal vision of contemporary art, the exhibition offers a meditative pathway through and around the artist's themes of choice - the relationship between things and their surrounding space, forms and voids, but also the dialogue between action and non-action.

The exhibition itinerary offers an insight into successive or parallel phases in Lee Ufan's career, through pivotal works and often little-known 'historical' pieces, some of which have been specially recreated (these include the first French showing of the paintings Landscape I, II and III, originally featured in the exhibition Contemporary Korean Painting at Tokyo's National Museum of Modern Art in 1968; and a new Installation of cotton and steel created for the Forum of the Centre Pompidou Metz.) The exhibition ends with a meditation room, echoing the meditation cell installed by Lee Ufan as the conclusion of the visitor itinerary at his personal museum in Naoshima, Japan - a space designed to allow visitors to prolong their visit through reflection and recollection.

Complementing and expanding the visitor experience, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has created a soundtrack that resonates with the essential materials, poetry and philosophy of Lee Ufan's work.

Lee Ufan lives and works chiefly in Paris and Kamakura, Japan. His work has been seen around the world, at institutions including the Hermitage National Museum in St Petersburg, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Jeu de Paume in Paris, the Palace of Versailles, the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, and the National Museum of Contemporary Art In Seoul; and at events including the Biennales of Venice (2007, 2011), Gwangju, Korea (2000, 2006), Shanghai (2000), Sydney (1976), São Paulo (1973) and Paris (1971). In 2014 and 2017, his work featured at the Centre Pompidou Metz as part of the themed exhibitions Simple Shapes and Japanorama. New perspectives on contemporary art. Ryuichi Sakamoto appeared in concert at the Centre Pompidou Metz as part of the museum's 10 Evenings accompanying the Japan Season in 2017.

Lee Ufan will shortly open a new foundation in Arles, housed in the Hôtel Vernon, a seventeenth-century building located near the city's Roman arena, remodelled by the artist's friend, architect Tadao Ando.

'In the 1960s, I wanted to settle in the United States,' says Ufan, 'but in the 1970s I found myself in Paris, by chance, where my work and ideas were Influenced by classical art, especially the collections at the Louvre. That was what persuaded me to settle in France.' Why Arles? 'I discovered the city thanks to the publisher Actes Sud, and the launch of a monograph of my work. This Roman city, rich in history, was a catalyst for new ideas and thinking,' he says. 'The Hôtel Vernon is very well located near the ancient arena, at the heart of the ruins of Roman civilisation. The building has been occupied by the same family for several generations: it gave me a strong sense of time. I was inspired by the [potential for] dialogue between my work and the city's fragmented ruins. I wasn't interested in a new building, at all.' Ufan notes what was, for him, a significant detail: 'the seventeenth-century guild carpenters had inscribed dates on the roof beams, thanks to which we know that the main, supporting beam was installed seven years before the death of Louis XIV.' And in 2014, Lee Ufan was the guest artist at Louis XIV's very own the park and palace, in Versailles.

(Interview by Philippe Dagen for Le Monde, February 16, 2018).


Curator: Jean-Marie Gallais, head of exhibitions, Centre Pompidou-Metz


The exhibition Lee Ufan. Inhabiting time has been conceived by Centre Pompidou-Metz and co-produced with kamel mennour gallery. With the exceptional support of the Paradise Cultural Foundation based in South Korea

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'I'm hostile to unfettered industrialisation, and mass consumerism, which leads to frenzied productivity. I'm opposed to people who want to shape the world according to their own vision of things. And so, contradictory as it may seem, I create with the ultimate aim of non-creation.' (Lee Ufan)

Lee Ufan was born in Korea in 1936, to a family steeped in strict Confucian ideals and morality, part of a community that refused to recognise the Japanese occupation and took a critical view of modernity and progress. He enrolled at art school after initially studying literature and poetry: he was marked as a rebel and eventually denied a place to study literature at university, before enrolling to study fine art in 1956. Personal expression through art, and creative professions, were frowned on in his family circle and community. The Confucian master Dong-cho, whose principles Ufan knew, held that art was a mere distraction. These radical, polarised attitudes were a source of inner conflict. As Ufan explains: 'When I try to live as a Korean, my creative life is impoverished, and if I try to live as an artist, I distance myself from the Korean people.' (Lee Ufan, Tension précaire, exh. cat., Chapelle Saint-Laurent-Le Capitole, Arles, July 1 to September 22, 2013, Paris: Actes Sud, 2013, p.132). Faced with this dilemma, Ufan sought to strike a balance by approaching artistic practice from the 'opposing', Confucian standpoint, with the aim of creating a universal, nonself- referential language, an art form 'beyond art,' and a kind of 'expressive humility', in which the artist disappears behind his work.

Lee Ufan's departure for Japan, at the end of his first year at university, marked an important stage in the forging of the artist's identity. He went to live with his uncle, studied Japanese from 1957 onwards, and took classes in contemporary philosophy. With no plans to pursue an artistic career, he sold figurative paintings to earn money, and campaigned actively for Korean reunification, a cause to which he remained devoted throughout his young adult life, though his dream - and his political militancy - faded over time. Ufan took refuge in art, and a phenomenological interpretation of human existence inspired by his readings of Western philosophers, especially Maurice Merleau- Ponty's theory of perception, and the writings of Heidegger and Foucault.

Traditionally, perception is defined as a function of the intellect - the process by which an individual becomes aware of the objects and characteristics of his or her surroundings, based on information delivered by the senses. In The Structure of Behavior (1942) and The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), Maurice Merleau-Ponty set out to demonstrate that our concept of perception is tainted by a number of prejudices which mask the true nature of things. Focussing on the learning process of the individual consciousness, Merleau-Ponty challenges both 'empiricism', which fails because we cannot search for something about which we know nothing, and 'intellectualism' because, equally, we can only search for something we do not know. In this, Lee Ufan saw a direct echo of his personal quest to renew the language of art.

Phenomenology was central to the birth of the Mono-ha movement in Japan, in 1968, with Lee Ufan as one of its leading theorists and exponents. The 'School of Things' probed the relationships engendered between natural and industrial elements in ephemeral, ascetic installations created with minimal intervention on the part of the artist. Mono-ha forged links between art and philosophy, in a spirit of anti-consumerism. The movement's essential economy of gesture - a critique of hyper-productivity and the 'imagery overload' in contemporary art and society - is a constant feature throughout Lee Ufan's career, including his most recent creations. This stance is the springboard for one of the artist's most important concepts, explored in the show at the Centre Pompidou Metz: non-action, from non-panting to non-sculpture, as a way of welcoming 'the world as it is' into his work.' (Lee Ufan, exh. cat., Musée d’art moderne, Saint-Etienne Métropole, op. cit., p.12). In Eastern philosophy, non-action (the absence of action as an act in itself) and emptiness are far more positively construed than in anthropocentric Western thought.

Lee Ufan combines this philosophy with the vision underpinning Merleau-Ponty's 'philosophy of ambivalence', in which the artist sees echoes of his youth in Korea and Japan.

In the mid-1960s, Lee Ufan produced parallel series of works consisting of materials placed in relation to each other, their surrounding space, and the viewer; and canvases painted with dots and lines. Ever mindful of the context in which his work is displayed, Lee Ufan takes as his starting-point the realisation that a work is never simply an exposition of the artist's ideas; its richness and interest lie in its accompanying, intimate resonance with time and space. (Quoted in Lee Ufan, Ecrits, (French translation from the Japanese, by Anne Gossot), p.3) Each work is less an object to be viewed, than an invitation to experience an emotional engagement with the immediate environment, and to savour the resulting moment.' (Lee Ufan, Tension précaire, exh. cat., Chapelle Saint-Laurent - Le Capitole, Arles, July 1 to September 22, 2013, Paris: Actes Sud, 2013, p.198).

In the late 1960s, Lee Ufan developed his artistic career on three fronts, in Korea, Japan and the West, notably Germany and France, where he exhibited in 1971. As Ufan explains, the Western art world often views his work solely, and reductively, in terms of his Asian origins - a realisation that sparked his interest 'in the potential of the individual and the universal.' Linguistic barriers have also shaped his artistic development - first between Korean and Japanese, and subsequently between these two languages and French, English and German. His canvases are more closely related to writing than to painting, he says, as a way of 'conceiving a world beyond the limitations of languge […] an a-linguistic world.'

Lee Ufan's ideas and actions evolve from one exhibition to another, from one series to the next, shifting with ease from painting to sculpture and installation. The exhibition at the Centre Pompidou Metz offers a portrait of the artist through his work, striving continually to explore the potential of art as a means of apprehending our relationship with the world around us. Lee Ufan's work is an invitation to slow down, step outside the world - with its endless influx of imagery and communication - and focus our attention on perception itself. A meditative pathway that may take as its starting-point a single, insignificant detail, or infinity itself. As Ufan explains: 'It's not that the universe is infinite; it's that infinity is the universe.'

The exhibition has been devised by the artist and curator as a pathway leading from one experience to the next, like the process of discovery of a new language, beyond the codes and traditional references of contemporary art. At each 'station' along the way, a selection of works embodies a concept, a way of considering art. Some rooms also present these core concepts as explored in a specific material.

Exhibition curator Jean-Marie Gallais explains: 'This is not a retrospective in the conventional sense, more a journey through Lee Ufan's oeuvre and its quest to redefine art. We haven't attempted to survey 'the complete Lee Ufan', nor to offer a chronological approach, but rather to show how Ufan has developed certain principles and concepts over the course of his career. The exhibition covers most of the typologies and materials embraced by Lee Ufan, together with transitional phases and pivotal works that demonstrate how one idea led to another. His work makes palpable the connections between thought, form and physical experience. Works were selected for display in a process of continuous dialogue with the artist, who was particularly attentive to the balance of paintings, sculptures and installations, older and more recent works.' Doubt and questioning are fundamental to Lee Ufan's approach, enabling him to challenge the principles of painting and sculpture, and to move beyond the concept of the individual artistic ego. The works presented at the Centre Pompidou Metz explore this aspect of his work, too, as the expression of Ufan's determination to achieve 'non-painting' and 'non-sculpture' (in his own words), and to establish the purest possible relationship between the inner and outer aspect of a work of art, between energy and stasis, as alternative ways to 'inhabiting time.'