Lee Ufan Versailles

Born in 1936, Lee Ufan is a South Korean minimalist painter and sculptor. Having studied philosophy in Japan, Ufan emerged as one of the founders of the avant-garde Mono-ha or ‘Object School’ movement in the late 1960s, which was Japan’s first internationally recognised contemporary art movement. Using only two materials to create his sculptural works – steel and stone – Ufan continually exhibits in numerous important museums worldwide and garners extraordinary critical acclaim for his artworks.

The gardens of the Château de Versailles may seem to be an unlikely setting for Lee Ufan’s sculpture, which is certainly culturally closer to the gardens of the Far East, such as the gardens of Japan that integrate the natural elements of the surrounding landscape. The presentation of the gardens lends the illusion of the environment as an extension of the Château’s architectural materials, reflective of the pinnacle of French Classicism. The gardens were designed and laid out by André Le Nôtre c.1660, whose perspective aspires towards what Ufan’s describes as ‘human-centric wisdom’, in which nature is transfigured to fit human concepts and ideals. In an interview with Alfred Pacquement, editor of the accompanying catalogue, Lee Ufan Versailles, the sculptor reveals his first impression of the Château as a site dense with ‘a human scent or the tales of history’, and his desire to bring to the fore what underpins their historic and man-made existence, seeking to accentuate, through sculpture, ‘the tension within the duality of the visible and hidden.’ This tension between appearance/essence, representation/reality and the illusion/truth dialectic is thus embodied by Ufan’s artwork, because its emphasis is not on aesthetics and representation, but rather, on the importance of aliveness and resonance in art.

When visiting the exhibition, one first encounters Relatum – The Arch of Versailles, a thirty-metre strip of stainless steel that is supported on either side of the path by large stones, constituting a semi-circular arch that curves across the sky. This creates a perspectival view that performs the work of opening up the landscape, a gesture that is essential to the way in which Ufan seeks to dispel notions of the artwork as only an independent and autonomous entity, in favour of a mode of thinking about art in relation to the external world. Notably, Ufan has chosen to refer to all of his sculptures since the 1970s as Relatum (followed by an individualised subtitle, e.g. Dialogue, Discussion, Shadow, Counterpoint), a term that ‘means that nothing is an entity but everything is the effect of the world of relations.’ The subtle relations that span the poles of artifice and nature, ground Ufan’s self-proclaimed ‘art of resonance.’ His art of resonance suggests that the ontology of meaning in a work of art is not self-contained, but rather extends beyond its limits as image, both containing and communicating meaning. In turn, his sculptures operate as purveyors of the illusion/truth dialectic itself.

This dialectic is most dynamically realised in Ufan’s Relatum – The Shadow of the Stars, a circular arena walled by steel plates, within which seven stones sit atop a pool of bright white limestone and gravel, that is accented by painted gray shadows. The overwhelming sensation of the blaring white of the limestone and marble imposes its luminosity upon the viewer and disarms him. As the viewer approaches the stones, he becomes increasingly aware of tactility, hearing the crunching of gravel beneath his feet, in contrast with the lightness of his steps, as he feels the gravity of the stones he encounters. The realisation that the dark shadows, projected onto the white limestone and marble, have been painted by hand might provoke the viewer to contemplate the artist’s mediation between nature and artifice. While the visibly painted shadows are clearly representative (of shadow), the overall economy of the image does not mimetically belong to the world of objects, but rather, it draws attention to the quality of the ‘figurable’ in itself, through the event of virtus. This term theorist Georges Didi-Huberman identifies to suggest a loosened grip on the habitually adopted conditions of visible knowledge that in turn, shift the mind away from a univocal sense of reading, towards entire constellations of meaning. As the viewer is drawn closer towards and deeper into the artwork, and into a contemplative state, he shifts away from the optic towards the haptic regime, even, perhaps, engaging with the artwork through touch itself.

In such an instance as that in Relatum – The Shadow of the Stars where we encounter, in a visual moment, ‘figurability’, we might better understand Lee’s ‘world as it is’, which seeks to free ‘what is there’ from representativeness by releasing the art object as well as the situation. This would allow for a genuine encounter with ‘figurability’ in its anonymous state, so that the intrinsic meaning or ‘what was not visible’ becomes easy to see. This intrinsic meaning is open to interpretation, for as Ufan’s essay, Light and Darkness (1982) notes:

‘Monet saw infinity in the endless changes of outdoor light. Junichiro Tanizaki saw infinitely in subtle shadows.(…) Both men were interested in changes and shifts in light and darkness rather than the existence of consciousness or objects.’

What matters is not the individualised meanings, but rather, the possibility of unifying light and shadow in such a way that things resonate with one another, and assume a space that transcends physical objects. Not only does the viewer transcend the world of objects, but also, the sculpture transcends its object-hood. Furthermore, as one begins to see this object beyond the category of ‘sculpture’ and instead, sees it for its exhilarating qualities, in the virtual/tactile sense, one comes to see and touch the work. What Lee Ufan’s work does, particularly in relation to the Château, is interventionist: the work denounces Kantian aesthetics and its focus on a universal beauty recognisable instantaneously and artificially through beautiful appearances (whose theory of forms derives from a theory of optics). Such sculptures instead place value on the more profound sensation of aliveness, which derives from a theory of the haptic and must be experienced through an encounter with depths in space.

Main image: Lee Ufan, Relatum – The Shadow of the Stars, 2014, circle 40 m. diameter; 37 steel plates 300 × 120 × 1.5 cms; 7 stones 130 × 130 × 125 cms, 105 × 120 × 110 cms, 152 × 140 × 150 cms, 179 × 220 × 230 cms, 175 × 270 × 160 cms, 182 × 185 × 181 cms, 200 × 180 × 160 cms; limestone gravel, marble (photo: Lauren Xandra)

Lee Ufan Versailles, Château de Versailles, 17 June – 2 November 2014.

Lee Ufan Museum, Naoshima, Japan

Aurora Corio