Writing is easy: Just sit down and open a veinWriting has always been part of a sacred ritual for Lee Ken-shu. A filmmaker, a sound artist and a chief editor of the monthly art magazine Wolgan Misul, Mr. Lee likes to multitask. His main interest, however, is writing, a talent he displays with his new book "Aboriginality and Autogenesis," an investigative work about 10 artists who represent Korean art.
"I still think of writing as something you do after you wash your hands," Mr. Lee says. "Before, I had to sit at my wooden desk under a fluorescent lamp and write on a traditional scratch pad with a Mont Blanc fountain pen in front of me. That was the kind of mood I had to get into in order to write."
These days Lee focuses chiefly on the art magazine, which means he has to sacrifice most of his own working hours for other writers. In the past, he used to wait until midnight to write after all the other writers had gone home. He stopped doing that a few years ago when, so tired, he suffered a nosebleed and bled into the bathroom sink for 45 minutes. "It just struck me then that I really felt that I could die from living like that, from writing all night long" Since the incident, he says he slowly learned to write in the office during the day.
A major in Russian literature, Mr. Lee was among a few young writers who began the Christian cultural activist movement in the 1980s in Korea. That history partly explains his enthusiasm for spiritual issues such as transcendence and the essence of human nature, enthusiasms which are apparent in his films. His latest short film,"Pure Eyes," which will be screened during the upcoming Tongyoung Contemporary Music Festival, is the story of a blind man who questions the world after regaining his sight from a pair of eyes donated by a criminal who was sentenced to death. Characters in his other films are always immersed in conflict, the struggle between good and evil.
The book "Aboriginality and Autogenesis" is a mix of interviews and essays about 10 artists written for nonartists. To add a "sense of dimension" to the book, Mr. Lee also curated an exhibition of those artists at the Gumho Museum. The artists range from the mother of stage art Lee Byeong-bok to the father of painting informale Park Seo-bo. The selection criteria Mr. Lee used mainly focuses on their contribution to finding an artistic language particular to the Korean historical context.
One artist in the book, Song Young-bang, was an illustrator of his primary school textbook, and Mr. Lee was fascinated by him for years. Jeon Seong-woo, a Buddhist painter, was his high school principal. At 37, Mr. Lee says he has a 1930s sensibility. He takes great pleasure in being in artists' studios, just being with masters who were born a generation earlier than he was. "I had a habit of translating old Chinese manuscripts into Korean when I was young. I am still attracted to old things."
In a cafe, where Mr. Lee made fiery speeches about the hidden persona of Andy Warhol, his enthusiastic plan to visit the studio of his favorite sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, and the genius in Lenin, Lee suddenly makes an awkward confession.
"Actually, I spent most of my youth studying for the civil service exam. Can you believe that?" He smiles shyly.
"I decided to quit and study art after hearing Mozart in my room one day. The experience was so traumatic." That was 10 years ago, when he also started looking into other religions besides Christianity. Now, Lee says, he has stopped going to church. "I started looking at other religions."
He writes an inscription in a copy of his book, an excerpt by Dostoyevsky: "Beauty will save the world." The idea brings another smile to his face.
The exhibition "Searching for Artists: Maestros of Korean Art" will be on display at the Gumho Museum (02-720-5114) until Sunday.
by Park Soo-mee