DNA sequences fall in ancient scenes to answer eternal question
“Who am I?” — That question vexes media artist Lee Lee-nam, who seeks to answer it with the use of two seemingly incompatible fields: biology and art.
Lee’s latest solo exhibition opens on Wednesday at the Savina Museum, Eunpyeong District, northern Seoul, and runs until Aug. 31. “The Breath of Life” features 21 pieces, mostly videos, with some works accompanied by mirrors or other relevant props, such as books. Most of the works follow Lee’s iconic method of borrowing from classical Korean works and turning them into digital videos. They also delve into Lee’s latest endeavor of exploring the root of being.
Born in 1969, Lee initially began as a sculptor after graduating from Chosun University in Gwangju. It was in 1997 when he was teaching art anatomy at the department of animation at Sunchon National University that he was introduced to the world of moving art and digitization. With his method of utilizing classical works, digitizing them and adding new animated elements, Lee was soon recognized as a pioneer in the field of animated art in Korea.
Although Lee didn’t limit himself to Korean or Asian paintings, his most famed works are based on classics from Eastern art, such as the “2009 New Winter in Miniature” (2009), which took an image from “Sehando (Winter Scene)” by painter Kim Jeong-hui created during the Joseon era (1392-1910), and “Early Spring Drawing-Four Seasons 2” (2011), recreated from “Early Spring” (1072) by Guo Xi of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The works were reborn by Lee, with the weather changed or modern components such as airplanes or cable cars added. Many of the works in the “The Breath of Life” exhibition continue along these lines, where scenes from Eastern art are given new life in the digital realm.
The first most obvious element that has been added is the image of descending water, which begins the whole exhibition. “The Breath of Life” starts with a 6.8-meter-high video artwork titled “Waterfall Turned into a Poem,” which at first glance looks like a waterfall with three protruding rocks that interfere with the water’s path. But it is not water that is flowing but characters that have been used in Asia starting 10,000 years ago, and the rocks are actually books, to demonstrate how history flows but parts of it build up at certain points — like the characters that build up above the books.
Other works use the image of descending letters, but a closer inspection reveals that the letters are a repetition of just A, C, G and T. They are symbols of the nucleic sequence of human DNA. A DNA molecule consists of four bases: Adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). Adenine pairs with thymine and cytosine with guanine. The sequence of these bases inside a DNA molecule is what’s called a gene, and it carries our genetic code.
“Western modernism bases itself on reason and rationality, but the whole world has been turned upside down and taken apart because of one virus,” said Lee to the local press on Monday. “I visited China twice during the last couple of years, which meant a total of 10 weeks of quarantine. Having spent all that time on my own, I got to look back on my life and ask myself what I could believe in to carry on with the rest of my life. That led to the question of who I am and what my roots are.”
Lee’s question began with having his genes mapped by the G+FLAS Life Sciences biotech lab at the Seoul National University. The result came back in a complex combination of the four letters, A, C, G and T, which he took apart and rearranged in a random order to make them rain down on the screen. Combined with the images from the past, Lee shows how we as individuals exist in the world as a collection of data and contribute to giving new life to history, which progresses with the flow of time.
Lee cited the urge to find the core of his being to a part of a historical literary work titled “The Twenty-Four Categories of Poetry” by Sikong Tu (837-908) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). A line from the work reads, “Escape the boundaries of the exposed form and grasp the essence of being with the hand. If [one is] not too greedy, then enough shall be taken.” Together with the latest biological technology, Lee endeavors to find his foothold in the context of history.
In a video artwork titled “Early Spring-Lee Lee Nam DNA,” for instance, the artist used the results of his genome mapping so that each letter of the ACGT sequence slowly falls on the screen like snow. Some build up while some dissolve, and the accumulation of the snow leaves the image of a landscape of “Early Spring” by Guo Xi. The work is played on an LCD screen, which “can’t properly process the amount of information in the video file” and makes the letters look like they’re leaving a trail as they fall from the sky. He didn’t intend for this to happen, but liked it all the better.
“We live our lives stuck in a body that we call ‘me,’ but we can never truly face ourselves. To see oneself means to perceive the images and information around ‘me,’ but not the whole reality,” said Lee. He added, “So the way that the letters leave a trace is like how we leave a trace as we continue our lives and that builds up to change the landscape around us.”
The interplay of the individual and the world was also the reason why he often uses mirrors for this exhibition. They cover the entire wall for the installation piece “DNA Landscape,” while “A Series of Silhwaillyul” is made up of four mirrors painted with acrylic to recreate iconic Eastern art paintings including “Early Spring.” “The Rise of Roots” uses five mirrors but is printed with the DNA results of himself and his family members.
“The visitors see themselves within the work, and that’s what completes the whole experience,” Lee said.
Savina Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closes every Monday. Admission is 7,000 won ($6.27) for adults and 5,000 won for children and teenagers. Get off at Yeonsinnae Station, line No. 3 exit 3, take buses No. 701, 720 or 7211 and get off at the Pokpo-dong bus stop. For more information, call (02) 736-4371 or visit savinamuseum.com.
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]