New York based Korean artist Sujin Lee has just come off two successful group shows in London and Beacon, NY. Lee uses multi media approaches such as video and performances to delve into very intimate and universal themes of language, foreignness, belonging, and alienation. I caught up with Lee to ask her some questions about her art, life, and the current environment for a foreign born female artist in New York.
Bullet Shih: I know that you originally came to the New York around 2000 to study art. Was this the first time that you had been to New York and what was the impetus for moving so far from home?
Sujin Lee: I was attending Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, MD before moving to NYC. When I was a senior in college (in 2000), I participated in the New York Studio Residency Program (used to be in Tribeca, Manhattan but now it’s in Dumbo, Brooklyn), which was a semester long independent studio program. You get a studio in Tribeca and just work on your art. During that time, I went to see a lot of gallery/museum shows as well as music. I loved going to music shows so much that it made me decide move to New York City.
Bullet Shih: Many of your early projects dealt with language as well as native vs foreign accents. As the U.S. is a land of immigrants, do you view having a foreign accent as impacting one’s role within society? And as you have been living in New York for close to 11 years, how has your increased knowledge of English and assimilation to American culture changed your views?
SL: Speaking with an accent is interesting because I am not sure what Korean accent (probably what I have) is and what it sounds like really. It is not visible or tangible and I don’t recognize it when I speak; however, it is often recognized by other people. Some people say I speak with a thick Korean accent and others say I don’t. I don’t mind either way. However, it is very interesting to observe how accents are used in attempting to portray a “realistic” picture of “others.” I was watching a movie on TV and probably Jackie Chan starred in it and it was English- dubbed. It struck me that all the characters spoke with a Chinese accent. It was a way to make them look more “real” with an assumption that these people would speak with a Chinese accent. Even in news interviews, if the interviewee is a foreign person, her/his speech is often dubbed with an accent. In Korea, whenever I see Korean-dubbed American shows, everyone speaks Korean without any accent.
BS: You recently participated in the exhibition about Theresa Cha at the Korean Cultural Centre in London with appropriately enough, your ongoing Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Project. Can you tell me a little bit about how you became interested in Cha’s work? Was she an American discovery or had you heard about her in Korea?
SL: When I was in graduate school, I took a class called Artists Using Text, taught by Frances Richard who is a poet and an art critic. I was surprised to see the name, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, on the syllabus. The name was undoubtedly Korean and I had no idea who she was. The course reader had an excerpt from Dictee (it was before it was reprinted at that time) and later I checked out a copy of Dictee from the school library. It was not easy to read Dictee. It definitely took a while for me to appreciate the book. When the retrospective exhibition of Theresa Cha, Dream of the Audience, came to the Bronx Museum of the Arts, I had a chance to see her videos and film work. Her voice sounded very familiar and much later I realize that I had seen her work Exilee a few years back in Korea. I remembered hearing her voice in Exilee while walking into the dark gallery space. Maybe because I met Cha through her voice first, her work has always felt like spoken words to me.
BS: How has she influenced your personal work?
SL: Many of the subjects that Cha explored almost parallel my interests in language: spoken, written, recorded and live language/text. However, I wouldn’t say that all my artistic practice has been influenced by Cha. I am actually more interested in looking at the work that she studied and drawing my own inspirations from those sources. For example, I am very into the instructions/directions for voices in Marguerite Duras’s work these days.
BS: In many Asian cultures, calligraphy and artwork are often synonymous in that characters convey meaning along with having aesthetic properties. When dealing with printed words in a piece such as Cha’s Dictee, do you make any distinctions between word art, poetry, and literature?
SL: I am very interested in any art form that deals with language/text, so the way I respond to word art, poetry and literature is not all that different. Dictee is interesting because it is hard to categorize. Some considers Dictee an epic poem. Some thinks that the text belongs to the category of autobiography or biography. Many including me calls it an artist book.
BS: Please tell me a little bit about the M | I | C / A || THEN / NOW exhibition and how you became involved?
SL: M | I | C / A || THEN / NOW is curated by Barry Nemett, Chair of the Painting Department at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). The exhibition features works by artists who graduated at least 10 years ago from the undergraduate program of MICA, one of the nation’s oldest art schools. Barry invited me to be in the exhibition and I was very excited to be part of it. I have three pieces in the exhibition: “Who Saw What’s on the Top Shelf?” is an artist book that I made in college, a rework of the book in a video form with the same title and one of my most recent video pieces titled “This Voice.” The video “Who Saw What’s on the Top Shelf?” addresses the time/duration in a more direct but controlled way while reflecting on the act of reading. In “This Voice,” there is a voice-over describing another voice. Mistakes made during the recording of the voice-over have been removed but are clearly distinguished by abrupt silences. Therefore, the flow of the narration becomes disrupted and broken. The black and white images in the video are abstract, fragmented, and layered; their textures have sonogram-like qualities. They comment on the impossibility of describing a voice because it has an ephemeral nature and may be remembered on a deeply personal level. The exhibition allow me to look back and think about how my interest in language has developed.
BS: Last winter I saw your lovely piece at the A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn which is a female artists’ collective. You used Korean and English in the piece. Can you speak a little bit about the piece and how you use Korean language in your other work?
SL: Thank you for checking out the piece in the show. The piece is called This is a story for small children. a true-life love story and it is a single channel, black and white video. The video has three main elements: English text, Korean voice-over and images. The written text is from the example sentences in English dictionaries and grammar books. I always find those examples fascinating as they display random, surprising and poetic qualities. Their fragmentary aspects also refer to the possibilities of varied narrative context. Subtitles typically function as a translation of the spoken (original) text in films. However, the English text in this piece is the original and the spoken text (voice-over) is a translation. There are two kinds of translation: a translation from one language to another and from written text to spoken text. The B&W images were created as responses to both the English and Korean text. The three elements had equal weights in terms of creating rhythms in editing process.
I mostly use English in my work and there have been only a few pieces where I used Korean – simply because English is the language that I speak most of the time these days. Learning to speak English allowed me to think about language – language in general. Sure, I struggled to learn to speak English, but those struggles reminds me of human struggles to express themselves in any language and that’s where my artistic interest in language begins. I relate to Theresa Cha in that way. Cha’s Dictee has a part titled DISEUSE where a person struggles to speak or to make a sound. Many seem to think that the passage is about someone struggling to learn a foreign language. I think it’s about human beings’ struggles between the body and language and them dealing with the gap between the body and language. It does not matter whether it’s a foreign language or your mother tongue. I recently listened to Frances Richard (who introduced me to Cha’s work)’s interview and she spoke about how imperfect language is and I loved that so much. She said — I am paraphrasing — language is just not good at what it’s supposed to do and because of that, it gives her so much to work with.
BS: Do you dream in English or Korean?
SL: When I am with people who speak English in my dream, I speak English. When I am with people who speak Korean in my dream, I speak Korean. There are more internal dialogues in my dream and I think I speak both.
BS: How often do you return to Korea and after having lived for so long in New York, do now also feel a certain foreignness in the country of your birth?
SL: I have my whole family there, so I try to go and visit them as often as I can – though it’s usually once a year. I definitely feel foreign in my home country. I think one feels foreign when other people treat you as foreign. When I am in Korea, people often introduce me as someone who lives in the US. When I am in the US, people always ask me where I am originally from. It was interesting to visit London this past September to participate in the exhibition at Korean Cultural Centre UK. Because I spoke American English, many people just assumed that I was from the US or Canada. When I was traveling in Germany, I didn’t meet anyone who asked me where I was from or complimented on my English (or my Korean). I loved that.
BS: Do you have any other projects that you feel would be an extension to your previous work or even a metamorphosis as you have become so integrated and assimilated to American language and culture?
SL: My experience of learning to speak English in the US allowed me to become interested in language in general. I would love to learn another language to see how that may change and expand my perspective.
BS: Any upcoming projects?
SL: I am currently preparing for my upcoming exhibition in NYC and working on more interviews for my Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Project.
Sujin Lee has exhibited internationally. She has been awarded residencies from Millay Colony for the Arts, BlueMountainCenter, I-Park and NewarkMuseum and participated in the AIM program at the Bronx Museum of Art and the Emerge program at Aljira. She was a 2012-2013 A.I.R. Gallery Fellow.