In Dialogue with Sammy Lee
Denver-based, Korean American artist Sammy Lee’s solo exhibition at the Emmanuel Art Gallery explores motherhood, domesticity, immigration, and prejudice through installation, artist books, performance art, and sculptures. The artist is using a multitude of textures and mediums that re-contextualizes familiar objects, ritual, and scenes into art. Remind Me Tomorrow opens May 25, during Asian American and Pacific Heritage (AAPI) month to celebrate Asian culture and speak out against the alarming bigotry manifested against Asian people. The exhibition runs through July 15th, 2021.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
Born and raised in Seoul, Korea, I came to California at the age of sixteen. After spending several years in Massachusetts, I moved to Colorado and have been living and working in Denver for fourteen years. I had an undergrad study in studio art and media art at UCLA, then I studied architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I live with my husband, two sons (age 13, 5), and a cat (age 18 or cat age 88) while making art, curating exhibits, and hosting artists in residence for a Contemporary Asian Art Residency Project, which I founded in 2017. I also have been working in Seoul each summer.
You say that the creative process resembles your own experience of “(un)conforming to a new homeland, which involves self-renewal and translation of the past at the same time. Can you elaborate on how your notion of “immigration” or “translation” are reflected in your work?
A sixteen-year old who left her home and became a nomad provides an additional lens through which I view my own artistic preoccupations. I use found objects, memories, and paper-skin in my studio to investigate the sense of home. In the studio, I arrange these chaotic piles of bits and pieces to realize a whole; each project provides a different context where I can explore “wholeness” that has been separated in multiple places and time zones. I see it as an opportunity to reconnect, mend, and reconcile. When you learn a new language, not to do a business transaction or to travel or to study but to express yourself, translation never does its job well. For me, no language – neither English nor Korean will do other than art.
Very Proper Table Settings project is inspired by my own experience of searching seven years in the US for a bowl in which to serve my mom’s noodle recipe (North Korean cold noodle or 냉면). The project begins with a series of experiments centering around setting tables. I invite visitors to arrange imaginary meals for a loved one using Korean dinnerware. When participants conceive a specific dish from their own culture and are unable to find a suitable serving vessel, they experience feelings common amongst newly settled immigrants, such as inadequacy to fit into the mainstream culture or inability to properly represent their own customs. This project demands participation, and engages participants’ problem-solving skills, empathy, and creativity as they navigate larger socio political and cultural issues through the lens of their own experiences. The exercise de-centers expectations of immigrants complying with Western European practices that have been seen as “American,” and allows a richer reimagining of sharing, at and beyond the table.
Let’s take a look at your life-size installation works like Street Art Cart, inspired by Asian food stalls and Changing Station, a conveyor belt with baby-onesies – what is the idea behind these installations and what would you like to share about the process of creating them?
Installations are a physical “portal” to another reality. “Being present” is constantly a big challenge for me. I fail at this during yoga practice, and my daily ritual is about reflecting on yesterday and planning for tomorrow. I recently learned from a lecture that Asian American identity doesn’t belong to the present time, the US media has portrayed us as of the past or of the future, never the present. (Kind of irrelevant, but I am still investigating on my portal, and its mixed up time reference). I am trying to grasp, to enjoy, and to fully experience the present – Carpe Diem. Going back to these installations, Changing Station takes me to the past, a specific time of being a new mom raising an infant. Street Art Cart combines childhood memories with my future fantasy, running a thriving art business. I am relevant and present within both projects- as memory and as fantasy.
Street Art Cart was fabricated from my recent artist residency in Seoul then transported to Denver, all parts fitting inside a suitcase. I have always been wanting to create the simplest mobile and economic structure inspired by street food carts from Asia, where generous old ladies spread their bountiful harvests from their backyard. This space is an artist’s studio, gallery, art fair booth, all in one. In the gallery I will set the cart up as an immersive artist’s studio and a store during the exhibit.
Changing Station, painted in Coca-cola red, is about a culture that looks at the space where intimacy meets mechanical systems of capitalism. The installation, the infants’ diaper changing station, consists of infant clothes positioned as if amid a diaper change, frozen in white tissue, and lined up along a conveyor belt. To this day, many years past this phase, I have a visceral memory of a little chunky body turning and tossing in those onesies, and as a result, I respond with a full charge of affection towards these artifacts. By contrasting the ritual of daily care between mother and child against the mechanized system of efficiency and capitalism, I attempt to draw the viewer’s attention to how efficiency and productivity impact the most intimate aspects of our lives.
You say that “enveloping objects such as suitcases, table settings, and discarded shop signs with my wet paper-skin creates new three-dimensional artwork with textures and markings resulting from the weight of water that was once present.” Tell me more about your process and how do you see the role of paper in your work?
I keep my hands busy in water – soaking, squeezing, kneading, and pounding layers of papers to create the skins. It is a “paper felting” technique I developed by adapting papercraft and laundry processes from preindustrial Korea. This is a laborious yet calming process; time and effort transform delicate sheets into a leather-like layer that is resilient and tough yet luminous, and naturally embodies my view of life as an immigrant. During casting and sculpting, wet paper-skin takes on the object’s shape and its detail while exquisitely holding on to the textures and markings from my previous handwork as if thumbprints. In a finished artwork, I forge a new context using an old craft, reinventing it from my heritage. It’s a perfect medium to question socio-cultural issues surrounding a sense of belonging, home, foreign body, cross-cultural psychology, and immigration. I recently made a video (1 min 30 second long) showing paper-skin making process. https://vimeo.com/519789610
Mamabot, hindsight 2020, Archival photos, photo frames, paper-skin, feathers, small plastic toys, acrylic varnish, 2020, 54 x 53 x 3, inches
What is the genesis of your mini book, A Ghost Story, sort of and how does it fit into the body of work featured in this show?
I have been making books since 2005. I have been introduced to bookbinding during my architecture school time in Western Massachusetts, where it has a long history of bookbinding and printmaking. I had three years of learning this wonderful craft from a fantastic mentor and a master bookbinder Daniel Kelm. He always said that the book about an introverted character should perhaps resist a little – not opening flat exposing to the sewing. Book design and its forms are determined by the narratives, similar to how architecture is designed. I am trying to make a connection back to my installations here. Both installations and artists’ books are portals- one on a life-scale and the other on a hand-held scale. A Ghost Story, sort of (the title of the book), contains my making of paper-skin and projects created with the paper-skin. Although it covers almost ten years of work, I wanted to present it discreetly, in a hushing and humble gesture. The ghost isn’t a spooky creature in this book, but it is a body that can interconnect different times and places. I felt right handling this narrative on a tiny scale that can go into your shirt’s front pocket (to be closest to your heart!). The miniature book also fits this exhibit as a “product” displayed on the Street Art Cart. The second floor of the gallery space will be dedicated to showing several other artist’s book projects.
A Ghost Story, sort of, 2019, Paper works of Sammy Lee from 2012, miniature book, A Ghost Story, essay by Aharon Levy, 111 pages, 2019, 2 x 3 x1/4,inches
Photo courtesy by the artist unless otherwise indicated
Sammy Lee: Remind Me Tomorrow at Emmanuel Art Gallery University of Colorado, Auraria Campus. Runs from May 25 to july 15, 2021
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org