Article | Jan 2016
Wonho Lee: Ground Control
By Shlomit Dror
Upon RU's recommendation, the New York based curators Shlomit Dror (RU Alum) and William Stover as well as RU Alum Emireth Herrera Valdés (Mexico) were invited by the Seoul Art Space Geumcheon (SASG) in South Korea to write a critical review about the Korean artists Wonho Lee, Hwang Sooyeon, and Lee Sujin who are currently in residency at SASG. This is the third consecutive year for this partnership between RU and SASG.
The relation one has to his or her surroundings, whether indoor, outdoor, in public spaces or private setting is an ongoing investigation for the artist Wonho Lee. He uses various approaches to tackle this subject matter, questioning the instability of space and time, while observing these as responsible causes for loss and renewal. In his works, he often creates new geographies in order to expand on notions of confinement and space. Lee’s projects are diverse and range in materials and concepts. The ones I focus on are but a peek into his extensive career, exemplifying how transformation of both public and private sites impacts society, not only in Lee’s birthplace of South Korea, but also globally.
Lee’s site-specific work titled Signboard, 2014, was created in the port city of Masan in South Korea, working mainly in Seoseong-dong—a district known up until recently for its bustling street life, traffic and small shops. In this commercial zone, as in many elsewhere around the world, outdoor features such as banners and sign advertisements dominate and shape the landscape and atmosphere. The recent economic shifts in this region brought many shops to a close, resulting in deserted streets and fading signposts, changing the Seoseong-dong environment significantly. Reminiscing about the preceding street life, Lee decided to restore a variety of signboards, using the exact same materials and colors so they resemble their previous appearance. Repairing the disintegrated signs, the newly made ones not only became objects, but also contrasted the bitter reality on the street. To that effect, Lee explains: “even with the same design furbished with fresh color and new neon lights, the signboards exist only for themselves. The streets have lost their crowd, so the desire to shop is gone.” Emphasizing the crisis in this particular street, the refurbished signs, adorned with designs and letters, serve as memorials. Not only do the signpost become symbols of the past, but they are also symptoms of the local economy’s destruction and the instability small businesses undergo as a result of global commerce. Turning these signs into objects, Lee’s approach is an interesting one when considering the role of public art. Unlike installations that occasionally impose foreign aesthetics in outdoor sites and neighborhoods, Lee’s intention does not lean towards beautification or revitalizing a place, but rather responding to the notions of absence and abandonment the area endured.
Lee’s interrogation of outdoor spaces continues in his two works, Bu. Dong. San (Real Estate), 2014 and Bu. Bu. Dong. San (Floating Real Estate - Home of Homeless), 2015, which are typically shown together. Exhibited twice, at The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon (MMCA) and the National Art Center Tokyo (NACT), each piece correspondingly represents the cause and outcome of urban restructuring. For Real Estate, Lee created a property sales office equipped with detailed photographs of new developments, which hung on the wall next to maps indicating the buildings’ desired locations, as well as standard office supplies such as blinds, desk, paper work, chairs and computers. In this mock retail space awaited an actual real estate broker, convincing viewers to invest in a newly remodeled home. This staging evoked a reality numerous middle class families in South Korea (and elsewhere) experience, when luxury condominiums appear in their neighborhoods, in favor of wealthier residents. Unable to keep their homes, due to housing redevelopment sprawl and economic shifts often encouraged by city officials, the increase in property values forces people to leave or relocate, ruling out the likelihood of home ownership for many. Lee’s exploration and critique of geographic distribution stated through this work, compelled viewers to question property’s relations to power, politics and space, and prepared them for the corresponding project installed close by.
Floating Real Estate - Home of Homeless, which is a continuation of Real Estate and a slightly more involved work, contained a large installation in the shape of a house, assembled from cardboard boxes previously belonging to homeless people in Seoul, who used them as temporary shelters. Visitors were able to enter this “house,” whose dark interior mirrored the daily reality of many homeless in Seoul. The artist obtained the cardboard boxes by exchanging with their owners an agreed upon amount assessed by the seller, which was based on the item’s location and size, and calculated by lodging expenses paid for a night (due to its insubstantial conditions.) By transforming these boxes’ form, context and place, Lee scrutinized the relationship between homelessness and real estate. Exploring different areas in Seoul, such as the capital’s railway station, and the busy Yeongdeungpo district— places known for their increasing homeless population—the negotiations between Lee and the homeless greatly resemble tactics city developers use when persuading homeowners to sell their property for cheap, only to gain more profit and increase the land’s value in future redevelopment plans, eventually causing displacement and dispossession to the former resident. By pursuing these actions on the people who are the very victims of this system, Lee increases awareness on the overarching control and influences real estate has on the creation and domination of space. The trade between Lee and the people was considered legal and official, and befitting the protocol, the host institutions issued a certified document attesting to the validity of this deal. It included the organizations’ signatures and a custom made stamp inscribed on the bottom of each contract, along with the owner’s name, the address (cardboard box location), size and price. These authorized documents were framed and presented on the wall adjacent to the cardboard house installation.
These two works by Lee recall similar criticism the artist Hans Haacke expressed in his well known piece Shapolsky Et Al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, As Of May 1, 1971, and pertinent to the arguments Rosalyn Deutsche discusses in her book “Eviction: Art and Spatial Politics.” In her introduction Deutsche writes: “I claim that homeless people and public spaces are integrally linked, dual products of the spatioeconomic conflicts that constitute contemporary urban restructuring.” Lee’s work voices a similar reality, underlining the implications of urban redevelopment and its relation to homelessness, as well as the power structure and politics existing within urban spaces. Lee’s two oeuvres greatly emphasize how commodity is directly linked to land and space and the development of housing on it.
Lee’s reordering of systems and conditions are also applied in interior spaces. In Time Exposure, 2009, which has several iterations and fabrications, Lee used the actual walls of the gallery space, scraping off parts and carefully peeling their layers that included marks, holes and paint remnants from previous shows. From these stripped fragments, he created an entirely new structure, which he attached back onto the original (scraped) wall, presenting the removed parts as new wallpaper. The simulacrum of the wall then becomes an object, and as a result, Lee is able to alter the space’s order and geography, claiming that “by dismantling the room as an object, I aimed to expose and introduce the wall’s own past.” When the coatings of the wall are detached and presented as an artwork, it takes on a different meaning. It is no longer just a wall, but rather an object chronicling traces of time, or as the artist poetically describes it, “collage of time.” The notion of time and Lee’s expression of the past being both existent and extinct, occurs in this work as well as in Signboard, made however with opposite techniques. While in the latter, Lee repaints the signs to expose and accentuate the past, in Time Exposure he uses the reverse process and unpeels the paint in order to reveal the void between the present and bygone moments.
Through his complex and deep works, Lee challenges the authority of space and questions the attachment humans have to structure. The issues he raises are common concerns many of us share in our respected countries, making his individual experience a collective one. The role of time, the past in particular, is an important subject in Lee’s work, where he materializes abstract concepts, such as time, change and value and turns them into physical elements and objects. In both his indoor and outdoor projects, past and present are in conflict, where current actions seem to erase an older order. The shift and progress of time brings with it many changes, and destabilizes important foundations and principles we often overlook. Thankfully, we have Wonho Lee who reminds us to stop for a moment and think about the places we’ve lost, the walls we repaint and the things we take for granted.
 Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Chicago, Ill: Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, 1996, xv.