Chunghie Lee. Stillness and Motion
The rippling of a sleeve with the gesture of a hand defies the weight of stasis that descends on garments when they lie on a table or against a wall. The contrast between motion and stillness in this opposition is central to Chunghie Lee’s art, not only as a consequence of materials and forms, but also as a means to a metaphor for the expanded perspective that this modern master of the bojagi technique has acquired from the lessons of life. She observes that the mind is a stultifying force when it is too self-assured, too rigid in its convictions to consider alternative perspectives. Over time, however, the mind’s defenses can begin to loosen under the influence of experience. “As I reach a more advanced age,” she explains, “I find that I am a lot less rigid seeing things. When I was young I thought that one perspective was best. At that time, making mistakes was something that I would not allow. Now I find that there is a great joy in discovery through mistakes. I am ready to embrace any situation, any perspective.”
For Lee, one of the most consequential challenges to conventions of thought came in the 1980s when she returned to her alma mater, Hongik University in Seoul, to pursue graduate studies fourteen years after receiving her BFA. A major in weaving and dyeing, she produced some garments for family members merely as exercises in technique, but the works caught the eye of her adviser, who encouraged her to expand her horizons. “I said that I was not majoring in wearables or clothing,” she recalls, “but he pointed out that there was a lot of process in what I was doing creatively, and he thought that I could go in that direction. That was a little shocking to me, because back then my perspective was not as flexible as it might be now. In Korea there was rather rigid thinking at that time. Wearable art was not considered important. It wasn’t something that I could write about as an MFA student who was not majoring in clothing.”
Foremost among Korean artists who would eventually dispel those biases, Lee aligned her explorations in the newly encountered territory of wearable art with research into a very old form of expression through textiles: the traditional craft of bojagi making. Similar to quilts without batting, bojagi were originally produced as wrapping cloths for Buddhist sutras and statues, but their long history is more often associated with the necessity of thrift. Dating back at least to the twelfth century, bojagi spread beyond temple and palace to become patchwork inhabitants of domestic spaces, in particular modest households. These everyday, or minbo, bojagi were pieced together from rectangles of salvaged cloth to serve primarily as food coverings: protection against flies in warm weather and insulators to retain the heat of cooked foods in winter.
For Lee, the visual appeal of bojagi—with their vivid geometric compositions that seemed to anticipate later nonobjective art by such modernist painters as Kandinsky and Delaunay—constituted only one of their attractions. Just as important were the associations of bojagi with generations of humble Korean women whose identities had long since dissipated into the obscurity of history and who had, moreover, passed largely anonymously even through their own times. The makers of historical bojagi lived under deeply engrained social strictures that discouraged self-assertion by women. “They were nameless,” Lee relates. “Back then people would have called me not Chunghie Lee but mother of my son’s name.” Consequently, the simple needlework of bojagi acquired for some women implications of psychological necessity: an affirmation of identity in the absence of more conventional means. Each colorful patch represented the freedom of choice, and the nonconformist asymmetry of compositions expressed personality. Each bojagi was in effect a signature stitched in cloth.
Although the bojagi created by nameless Korean woman in the past were composed from diverse bits of salvaged fabric—handwoven from hemp, often by the same woman who would later reclaim it—Lee generally relies on new silk, which she dyes and cuts into swatches. Much of this cloth is industrially manufactured, though some is handwoven. “That’s very expensive now,” she notes, “because the cost of labor is getting higher and higher. The cloth that I use is all new. It’s not recycled. I can’t get used ones. One of the problems is that in Korea there is a custom that when people die their children and other remaining family members gather the deceased person’s clothing and burn it. That’s why there is so little chance to preserve beautiful fabrics.”
Those rare antique bojagi that have survived into the present have been tremendously influential on Lee’s sense of propriety in color-arrangement, especially her appreciation of an overall harmony built upon the complexity of local dissonance: a unity of composition that stems from contrasts, even clashing, of colors in various parts of the work. The early makers of bojagi may have been constrained by the need to recycle a mix of cloth swatches in various colors, but they turned this potential handicap into an obvious strength, exploring dynamic asymmetrical color compositions that continually amaze Lee. “I teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the foremost art schools in the USA,” she relates, “and those nameless women never had any formal education. But when I see their bojagi compositions I ask myself, ‘What am I, even with my art degree?’ I think that they were doing a better job with color.” While Lee’s deference to the color sense of her predecessors is characteristically modest, her own use of color, particularly her vibrant juxtapositions of complementaries, can be stunning.
The vibrational effects of complementary colors, an electric trembling to which the cones of the retina respond with intensity, serve as significant bridges between Lee’s compositions and an aspect of her work that the makers of antique bojagi did not address: movement through space. Not limiting herself to the format of the wrapping cloth, Lee has created much of her bojagi work in a contemporized form of the durumagi, the traditional long-sleeved Korean overcoat. While her durumagi—delicate, diaphanous garments of open-weave silk that filter light like gauze curtains—tend to be worn by their owners only on such special occasions as museum openings, they are conceived as kinetic sculptures. In the free space of human action, Lee’s durumagi are agents in the realization of an often serendipitous aesthetic: one that cannot be fully anticipated and controlled by the artist. This freedom, communicated through the motion of cloth, is both an acknowledgment of the social freedom in which the nameless makers of antique bojagi could not indulge and a reminder to Lee to maintain an open mind and accept the beauty of spontaneity and even accident in art and life alike.
Just as important as the metaphor for freedom from convention and predictability, however, is the less dramatic role that Lee’s durumagi play, flat against a wall, when not in use. Complementary to the ephemerality of motion that they exhibit when worn, this stillness spawns reflection on the structure of eternity: those principles and values that do not fade with time. Motion and stillness together mark the spectrum of engagement with the world, from the rational strategies of reflection, planning, and carefully controlled action to the more intuitive methods of immediate and decisive response to events as they occur. Both poles are embraced by the perspective that Lee has acquired on her journey through life, so both motion and stillness are essential to her art. “The same situation,” she observes, “can always be perceived in more than one way. I can see both sides now. It’s a result of learning more about the world.”
The contrasting states of motion and stillness that complement one another in Lee’s durumagi are equally important to the aesthetics of her most recent forms: boxlike structures sewn from stiff patches of black, red and white fabric. Small enough to be worn as oversized brooches yet large enough to be considered diminutive sculptures, these box forms are intentionally designed to serve in both capacities. “When they’re placed somewhere, I hope near a window, they become miniature sculptures,” Lee explains, “but on the body they become pendants. They could also be neckpieces or brooches. When I have put them on the durumagi, the durumagi must be very simple. They can be hung on the wall together, or someone can wear them together. It’s a new interest and direction for me, and it’s not necessarily connected to a historical tradition. The cloth is made in a traditional way, but I am reinterpreting it.”
When Lee created the first of these new boxlike sculpture/ornaments, she had no particular precedents in mind, but later she recognized that they recalled a series of sculptures she had produced in 2004. Consisting of fabric cubes suspended from flexible-wire poles set into the ground, those forms were free to sway with the movement of the surrounding air, their impression of geometric predictability thus softened by the caprices of nature. Lee’s new sculpture/brooches carry forward this active relationship between predictability and spontaneity, but the meanings that she attaches to these traits are more carefully considered in the context of human action and attitudes. Her works, subtly and through the simplest of formal means, reflect her belief that emotional and intellectual growth occurs through a dialectic between deeply seated conventions of thought and behavior on the one hand and the momentary suspension of those conventions on the other.
Lee references the human in her new sculpture/brooches through line—more specifically, red threads representing longevity that run within the bojagi construction and dangle freely from the boxlike forms. These threads of life are lines that, like the abstract lines in geometry, can be measured with precision through a logical, mathematical system that is not subject to error. At the same time, Lee’s threads flutter with the movement of a wearer, invoking spontaneity as a theme. In this respect, her works call to mind the mobiles of Alexander Calder—kinetic sculptures that the Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously described as reflecting the human condition as a constant negotiation between facticity and freedom. The lengths of Lee’s threads remain constant in terms of mathematical measurement, but their flexibility gives them an almost infinite freedom to change their curves: to wave, curl and bend as they interact with the surrounding environment, submit to the force of gravity, and act under the influence of energy transferred to them by a wearer’s motions.
For Lee, the implications of time and continuity conveyed by the threads carry personal significance as well. In the first place, they are reminders that her work forms part of a historical tradition in which the bojagi sewn by women of the Korean past are in spirit carried forward into a still-unfolding future of textile art. Lee’s deep sense of participation in this historical process accounts for her enthusiastic promotion of bojagi through workshops, exhibitions and other events. More important, it has manifested itself in a desire to share her knowledge and shape the future through teaching: a commitment that has become as central to Lee’s identity as her creative work as an artist. “I would like to think that I can offer not only information but also experience,” she explains. “I can give some real help if the student is ready to use it. So I am prepared to take the next step. I would like to start a small school for underprivileged young people that would teach students how to go out and make a living. It would start with teaching fabric techniques, but who knows how it would grow? It would give students the confidence to say ‘I can do this.’ ”
The urge to make this simple assertion—to overcome restrictive conventions on thought and action, confront stasis with motion and counter oppression with freedom —lies at the heart of Lee’s work as an artist. Through her success in reviving and enlivening the bojagi technique she has, in a sense, imparted identity to generations of her nameless predecessors. Her pedagogical goals make clear that her motive has never been solely to gain her own voice but rather to instruct by example. Lee’s works in the bojagi technique, in other words, are not mere means to a successful artistic career. In their dynamic of stillness and motion lies a message of universal significance.
Organized by Chunghie Lee, the biennial Korea Bojagi Forum meets August 30 – September 4, 2016 in Seoul, Korea. For more information, visit www.koreabojagiforum.com.
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When Glen R. Brown, a professor of art history at Kansas State University, met with Chunghie Lee at the Rhode Island School of Design he was impressed by the optimistic spirit of her work and her commitment to sharing her experience with the bojagi technique through conferences, exhibitions and publications as well as teaching. “What I enjoyed most when I spoke with Chunghie,” he says, “was the passion that she showed for bojagi, not just as a technique to employ in her own work but also as a means of drawing people together.” Next issue of Ornament, Brown writes on the work of James Thurman and Umut Demirgüç Thurman.