Konnichiwa Lee Ufan – Yes, I Am Uncertain As Well

Read about a recent visit to the Lee Ufan Museum in Japan. Find out how the iconic artist creates works with tremendous emotional impact, despite a philosophy of keeping the ‘making’ of art to a minimum.

The Lee Ufan Museum – a Permanent Exhibition in Constant Change

One of the most striking art trips I took was to Japan. My visit to the Lee Ufan Museum in the Kuraura district of Naoshima was especially unforgettable. Opened in 2010, the museum displays the paintings and sculptures of Lee Ufan, a Korean minimalist renowned for his contribution to the development of the Japanese contemporary art scene.

Lee Ufan Museum

Conversations with Stone, Steel and Canvas

Ufan’s art is not an expression of his thoughts, it arises from his dialogue with objects and is affected by various elements like air and time. When he paints, he creates a conversation between lines and dots, the canvas, and his body, to the rhythm of his breathing. Much like a conversation, he does not know what the work will look like until it’s done. Each exquisitely executed brushstroke seems to resonate with his inherent calmness.

As a leading figure in the Mono-ha School (school of things) of Contemporary Art, which was active in Japan in the 1960s, Ufan uses natural materials and steel plates in minimalist assemblies. He harnesses the intensity of blank space, merges it with the physical, and reduces the act of creating to its bare foundations. When he needs to decide where to install a sculpture, he studies the space by walking in it and around it for hours, and looking at it from many perspectives.

Connecting to Society Through Uncertainty

Ufan believes that “an artist is a child of the times”. Society changes over time; art and the way it is perceived, change with it. During the 1960s and 1970s people were driven by common principles and ideals, he explains. When society shares similar values it is easier for artists to capture attention and evoke emotion. As the world progressed society has become more fluid and diverse, much due to the ease of connectivity. We are exposed to more information, opinions and cultures than ever before. Values are becoming increasingly varied and art is taking on new directions.

As Ufan sees it, art today often deals with ongoing issues and current events that are still unfolding. Many contemporary artists work without knowing how their work will develop until it is completed. They can no longer merely create works about something that is widely known and understood – it won’t leave a lasting impression. People are intrigued by what they cannot understand. The unconscious, madness, contradictions and chaos draw viewers in because they evoke new feelings and thoughts. Ufan takes this argument one step further stating that “works that are logically organized, that can be clearly explained, and that are destined for a predictable goal are not art.”

Dana Sheves - Lee Ufan portrait

Even the Seemingly Immutable Is Constantly Changing

When the Lee Ufan Museum first opened Ufan expressed a wish that his work would exists as “a place that is alive”. An artwork, he explains, is never truly completed. It is forever changing, affected by environmental conditions and by the viewer’s state of mind. When an artist finishes their work on a piece, the initial impression is that it will remain in that form, inert and inactive. The reality is that it changes, even when the artist is done. The artwork takes on a life of its own. The steel rusts, the surrounding plants grow and influence the light, the viewer returns in a different mood. Artists, in other words, have very little control over their work.

In this uncertainty, which occurs when art, artist, viewer and exhibition space meet, lies the power of art. This, perhaps, is the true magic of the Lee Ufan Museum, it displays a permanent collection that is constantly changing, a place that is alive.

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