Reshaping Capitalism: An Interview with Sculptor Won H. Lee

Posted on December 6, 2012


In October, our friends Steve and Kevin decided to multitask by combining a hang-out session with us girls and baseball playoffs.  At the bar, they positioned us so that we faced them, our heads silhouetted against large-screen AL East dudes battling it out.  Some of you may have already side-eyed this arrangement as the patented North American date move during championship season (Wut?  Regular season too?  Tsk tsk).  As the reflection of tiny white-striped Yankees round bases in the eyes of our hopelessly hypnotized sportsheads, we can either make tight-lipped notes-to-self, or do what Una and I did and make awesome conversation with each other about life, love and the human condition, ignoring the insufficient metaphor that sports inevitably ends up being anyway.

Me and Una unconcerned about the AL East

Me & Una rather unconcerned about the AL East, in the least

In addition to the tannic shock from the fine wine selection at the Wingz Bar, I was flabbergasted to learn that Una’s dad is THE Won H. Lee, world renowned sculptor, and, hold the phone: Chartered Accountant!  “What Griffin Clawed Unicorn hybrid have you been hiding from me??” I implored.  Seriously, a successful fine artist with an accountancy practice?!  What’s up with that!  We had hit on conversation gold—the point in an evening where I wished I was the type of person to carry around a notepad or voice recorder instead of fuschia lipstick and a Shopper’s Optimum Card.

Nonetheless, Una, ever so organized, obliged my ants-in-pants by setting up an appointment to meet dad/Mr. Lee within the upcoming weeks.  Between working at his studios and bronze foundries in Mexico and China, Mr. Lee actually replied to my random email scratch at his door:

Picture 45

In our interview, Mr. Lee discusses the price of swagger in the artistic world; comin’ at capitalism from the inside and how being a clueless, tax-evading starving artistic soul is nothing to be proud of.  It’s about time all of us learn that money is just the Black & Decker power tool that can cut off your fingers or nail solid that stage upon which you need to do your interpretive dance of life.  Cautionary tales, tax tips and the challenge to discern through art: Whether man makes the money or money makes the man (to paraphrase LL Cool J).  Mr. Lee lectures to Fine Art students about this topic.  Here is your 18-minute dose!

Below is the transcript of a second, shorter interview with Mr. Lee about “Immanence”:

Me: The word “Immanence” features largely in your work and in your artistic philosophy.  Can you tell us what that is?

Picture 41Mr. Lee: Immanence, to me, is probably one of the most important words related to my work.  We live in a society that is completely preconceived.  There are ideas, especially in Western philosophy, that are dictated to us.  We are governed by so many factors such as language, such as history and culture…money.  Society has so many constructed things for us.  At least this “immanence”, what I’m talking about, is a pure encounter.  For example, if I want to look at this chair, this chair has a name for it: Chair.  And it has a function: to sit down on it.  And it’s made of wood and made of this and made of that.  That’s already given, constructed and preconceived.  When I work, at least, I don’t want that.  I want to meet something fresh, in the moment.  And when I meet a person, I want to meet this person as an encounter rather than…OK…this person, [for example] you: Vietnamese background, Asian background, with a name such as yours.  Rather than that, I want to see the person as the person is without any preconceived ideas.  And my work is the same thing.  When I work, if I have a preconceived idea about what kind of work I will be doing, then it will be a failure for me.  When I work, my starting point, is just a flicker of an image coming through and I catch that flicker, but I don’t want to catch it in complete form.  I want its “unformed-ness” to prevail.  And it leads me.  The work leads me rather than I lead the work to a certain point.  That is only possible if I have that immanent encounter with the piece.

So when people see your work, would they say that it’s unformed?

Picture 42A lot of my work, they call it “abstract”.  Its “unformed-ness”; a lot of my work’s strength, the life, comes from its “undeformed-ness”.  It is a form, but the complete form doesn’t inform me.  But the “unformed-ness” of it gives me the possibility of different work.

And that’s what you hope your viewers will see?

Yes, the power comes from the possibility that some form is coming out of it.  And therefore they feel more liveliness in my work.

But isn’t it difficult to completely escape preconceived notions?  I mean, we live with Education, in a society, in a community, having built upon previous ideas…

Picture 43Absolutely.  We have to struggle.  I have to struggle, every moment of my work, of my life, to see something as it is, rather than putting a value system or any kind of preconceived idea on anything…a person…it’s a struggle.  Every moment, I have to get rid of that.  Trying to see things with a fresh, chaotic mind is what I’m striving for.

It’s almost like what Picasso said, “An artist is a child who has survived”.  It’s being able to see everything, I guess, as a child does…everything is new…

Yes!  Unlearning is much more difficult than learning.  We learn too much.  Right form the start, we have our name, which is a given.  We are already defined.  “You’re Won Lee”, OK.  “You’re this and your’re that.  You come from this kind of family”…it’s all the teachings we observe.  And unlearning all the things that we’ve learned is much more difficult than learning.

OK, so there’s Unlearning…and then what?  Becoming?…Something else?

Picture 44Exactly, “Becoming”.  “Something else” is not important.  Just becoming is the most important thing.  It’s a process.

Wow.  Thank you, Mr. Lee.

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