By Jaenine Parkinson

Hye Rim Lee is an Auckland based Korean artist whose work across mediums considers the way fictional identities create and are created by, cultural desires. Through her digital personification, Toki, Lee presents a discussion of the desire and desirability of cuteness evident in Asian visual culture and fashion. Toki is a computer generated hybrid bunny-girl; she is cute and sexy like her anime (animated film) and manga (cartoon) counterparts, with doe-eyed western facial features, and a curvaceous and slender idealised body. Thorough this digital personification Lee explores what it means to be a Korean born woman living in New Zealand. The bunny reference though, has a multiplicity of significations, from the cute, playful childhood pet, to the sexual innuendos of playboy bunny. Toki’s name is Korean for bunny, which holds a personal reference for Lee as she was born in the year of the rabbit. Lee suggests that Toki is a supernatural life form who embodies the experience of migration as an ’alien Asian’. Toki’s youth and adolescence, is symbolic too of the experience of migration, of the ensuing uncertainty and discovery of self. Lee evokes this process of individuation in her Birth of Toki series, a process similar to the way an adolescent explores and develops their own identity.

Like Japanese artist Mariko Mori’s Birth of a Star (1995) Lee uses a digital personification to explore the position of Asian women in society, commenting on the conflation of stereotypes from Japanese pop culture, western consumerism and Korean tradition, that impact on these women’s lives. Both their works are a type of what Thyrza Nichols Goodeve calls “cyborg surrealism.“ Goodeve suggests, with reference to Mori’s work, that this carries “the sense of an uncanny psychic projection fashioned not merely from her own individual subjectivity but one created from her fusion with technology, science fiction myths and the euphoria of late capitalist culture.“ (1) Lee and Mori’s work embraces technology in its production and content, fusing it with popular culture formations in a hyper-surreal way. Their work is a conscious display of an enchantment with alternative realities and ultra cute fiction, whilst also critiquing stereotypical representations of Asian women. Toki takes pleasure in popular stereotypes of beauty, most importantly the desire to be cute, whilst questioning and teasing such willingness to accept the sexy, youthful and cute stereotypes that are fed through popular culture. Through this Lee exercises her own agency in creating and reclaiming this ideal for her own enjoyment. Her criticism takes the outwardly ironic and cheerful tone of critique that is the mark of pop art.

Mori and Lee are both attracted to the clean and stylish aesthetics of digital imaging. Toki’s development has been charted through a series of pristine digital prints and animated films. Throughout the Birth of Toki series Lee examines Toki’s position as a product of a hyper-real culture that promotes simulation and superficiality over substance and depth. (2) As writers Botler and Gromala argue “digital artists suggest not that we look through the experience to a world beyond, but rather that we look right at the surface.“ (3) Digital animation, when used as form of artistic production, inherits the goal of illusionism as its major premise. Animation with a computer has only, therefore, tools that aim to simulate the conventions of cinematic perception that most computer imaging programs build upon. Lee’s work delights in exposing and demonstrating the hyperrealist and illusionistic computer graphics tools she uses in the production of her Birth of Toki series. The goal of photo-realistic computer graphics to make the medium disappear (4) is subverted by Lee’s showcasing of the process and tools of construction in BOOM BOOM (2004). The automated tools and mathematical principles that become the surrogate for artistic equipment are exposed, highlighting the artificiality and constructed nature of all graphical images.

Honing in on areas of ’interest’ face, breasts, bottom and high heels, Toki is minutely crafted and perfected, under the point of the mouse, which acts like a virtual cosmetic surgeon’s knife. Lee argues that she “questions the myth of technological perfection and by association, our modern obsession with transformation.“ (5) Toki goes under the knife in the same manner as the performance artist Orlan,(6) to expose the strenuous processes undertaken by women in order to achieve ideal beauty. Like a performance piece BOOM BOOM, is procedural showing Toki’s construction from series of effects and processes that progressively move towards a more complete simulation of perfected reality. The digital prints Mesh, Patch and Smooth (2003) explore beyond her skin, deeper into the layers of her composition, presenting her as a digital object and thus infinitely malleable and impressionable, as well as objectified for public inspection and the male gaze. Lee’s work demonstrates that even in a disembodied virtual realm the body still operates as an ultimate social signifier, despite the cliche that cyberspace offers freedom from bodily determinants like gender. In their virtual worlds machines achieve what nature cannot, albeit in a way that is too perfect too real, totally hyper-real, providing an ultimate dreamscape.

Toki’s digital creation story, references the readymade goddess in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1485). Toki is the child of assembly line mechanical reproduction and the Venus of post-industrialisation, embodying contemporary notions of extreme ideal beauty. She is graphically designed and mass-produced with her own inflatable marketing figurine MiniTOKI (2002- Present). From her initial inception Toki has been destined to star in her own video game. As such Toki is an avatar, the recipient of desires projected onto a graphical personification. As fictional vessels for the imagination of their proprietors, avatars like Toki become vehicles for fantasy exploration. Lee argues that although Toki is controlled by her creator, or master, Toki can actually think, she can create her own desires. Lee believes that with her own game Toki will take on a life of her own.

In Tokiland (2003) digital video work that was presented as a part of Interdigitate 2003, an ongoing multimedia performance event held in Auckland, Lee goes further in inverting the dominance of stereotypes constructed under the male gaze. In Tokiland Toki is mechanically cloned into an army, the lack of emotional facial expressiveness of the replicants, once read as passivity, when multiplied into the hundreds, like the ’Smiths’ out of the Matrix, becomes stern and threatening. As we shoot past a multitude of assembly-line TOKI spawn we cut through them with our gaze but cannot harm them, as each figure has the capacity to recompose. Their interchangeablity is a comment on the way in which the power of ideal represses diversity in favour of homogeneity. “In her multiplication TOKI becomes menacing, revealing an inherent binarism between innocence and threat sublimated within the evolving poetics of beauty.“ (7) Encompassing both the desire to be desired and the will to be in control, Lee presents an awareness of the power of gender stereotypes whilst acknowledging that sexuality is a crucial dimension to life and identity. Lee does not separate sex from sexism, but a dialogue on both realities is present in the images she composes.

Lee’s Toki series is fun, deriving entertainment from playfulness, fantasy, and popular culture. Lee claims technology and its processes for her own ends, using her Toki character as an avatar for exploring idealised fantasies and playfully cute dreams. At the same time there is an undercurrent of critique that is aligned to the social commentary of pop art. Lee indicates contemporary obsessions with superficiality and the role of bodily beauty as a cultural commodity. Highlighting the hyper-real fixation of computer graphics programs, she exposes the medium and its objectifying gaze. Lee uses Toki to critically inspect the cultural construction of beauty ideals through mediums such as Asian animation, western consumerism and Korean traditional values. Lee constructs a struggle against sexism, by reclaiming her right to representation, whilst acknowledging that sexuality is a crucial dimension to life and identity, not something that needs to be repressed in order to critique objectification.

1. Goodeve, Thyrza Nichols Mariko Mori’s Cyborg Surrealism Parkett 54 1998/9 p 102
2. Darley, Andrew Visual Digital Culture 2000 Routledge, London and New York p 81
3. Botler, Jay David and Diane Gromala Windows and Mirrors 2003 MIT Press, Massachusetts p59
4. Botler and Gromala 2003 p39
5. Lee, Hye Rim ’Artists Statement’ in Hannah Scott Arcadia: the Other Life of Video Games 2003 Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth p 30
6. See for information on Orlan’s work
7. Gardiner, Sue ’Auckland’ Art News v 23 n 4 p 35

First published in New Zealand Art Monthly July 2004