By Ron Hanson
New technology, old sexism: “Ninety percent of Korean women don’t realise they live in a strange world,” says video artist Hye Rim Lee.
Overcoming great personal tragedy and a catalogue of bad luck, Korean-born inter-media artist Hye Rim Lee has found freedom in New Zealand and her artwork. Located in the virtual world, her art challenges the traditional role of Korean women and the conformity of popular culture, while at the same time exploring her new identity as a migrant living in Auckland.
Described by Govett-Brewster Gallery curator Simon Rees as “one of the foremost video artists to emerge in this country in recent years”, Lee has been quick to gain recognition. Solo and group exhibitions in Auckland, Wellington, New Plymouth, Thailand and the US have brought her work to large and diverse audiences (she appeared in such contemporary surveys as Prospect 2004 and the Govett-Brewster’s Break Shift). Through the creation of an animated character, “Toki” (Korean for bunny), she deals with issues of sexuality, femininity and desire. The evolution of this character is every bit as unusual as the developments that have taken place in her own life.
From an early age Lee felt different from other Koreans. With a theatre director for a father and a mother who was a soprano, she grew up in a liberal arts environment. “I used to live in the theatre,” she says. “My dad had a theatre company, so I would go and watch their rehearsals and hang out with the actors and artists. I was always exposed to art.”
Trained by her mother from the age of three, Lee also had aspirations of becoming an opera singer. In 1985, she graduated from Seoul’s Ewha Women’s University with a music degree in voice. But complications from an operation to remove her tonsils permanently affected Lee’s singing. Her singing career was over before it could really begin.
“It was a simple operation, but, after it, I couldn’t sing like before. I tried to get it back and went to see lots of specialists, but it was devastating. For years I couldn’t go to concerts or even listen to music.”
When Lee was 21, her father died suddenly. Four years later her mother died, too. Afraid of being alone, she entered into an unhappy marriage and without parents to support her, she was unable to get a divorce. There was more tragedy to come. Shortly after her marriage, Lee became pregnant but was then diagnosed with cancer. Her baby died in the womb.
Following chemotherapy, Lee recovered from the cancer, but it took three years to get her health back. After so much sadness and pain, she needed a new beginning. In 1993, Lee and her husband (they have since divorced) moved to New Zealand to study English at a language school.
She was immediately drawn to her new surroundings. “The first day I arrived I just loved it. People were so nice and laid-back. I love the nature, too. It’s a beautiful green country.”
Lee decided to stay in New Zealand and her attention was drawn back into the arts. In 1996, she began studying painting at Unitec in Auckland, but it was during a trip to Korea in 1997 that she started to realise her direction. “I went to lots of exhibitions in Korea,” she says. “Everything was multimedia.”
The predominance of multimedia art in Korea is due largely to the environment in which it is being created. “Korea is a very technological society. People are very good with the Internet and everybody’s into flip-phone mobiles. It’s about being connected. Computers have become our new life.”
Back in New Zealand, Lee experienced more bad luck when she was knocked over by a dog while walking on the beach, breaking two bones and requiring three operations. Her injuries took 18 months to heal. It was during this time that she decided to study inter-media art at Elam. She graduated in 2002. At Elam, she began to put into practice her new perspective as a migrant reflecting on her native culture, while creating a new space where cultural and social boundaries are blurred.
Lee grew up in a very patriarchal Korean society. “We learnt from primary school about Confucianism, that women have to be submissive and always have to respect men. We’ve got an expression that says we have to serve father, husband and son, so women are always under men. If you want to get a job and you’re married, you need to get permission from your husband.
“Even though I was born into a family in which everybody was an artist and my dad was a really liberal person, he still tried to keep me as a well-trained housewife. Life is hard for women in Korea. Maybe that is what he was worried about.”
The virtual world, too, is often dominated by men. This is especially true in game culture, where characters are commonly constructed from a male perspective. But Lee says she is able to negotiate her own space there. “I think in the virtual world I can create my own desires. It’s free there. That’s the main attraction. There are limits to that freedom, but I want to challenge those limits. I want to challenge virtual culture.”
Toki first appeared as a character in Lee’s Hello TOKI :), 2002, an exhibition of three installations. In Lee’s short video Bunny Cubed, Toki, played by an actor, moves through a series of animated cubes in search of love. Each is a lucid dreamscape recalling the tranquillity of digital artists Pippoliti Rist and Mariko Mori’s work. Like Barbie or Japanese manga character Sailor Moon, Toki represents idealised beauty and is an object of desire. But, unlike those iconic characters, she is also active in pursuing her own desires.
Toki’s search is a lonely but sexually charged journey through a neo-pop fantasy world. A sense of isolation reflects the experience of the “alien Asian”, but there is also space and a freedom to explore it. Although Lee’s video shares the fun of Mori’s religion-infused surfaces, there is also a feeling of unease. Toki’s journey is an adventure through an ambiguous space where the boundaries between dream-state fantasy and nightmare reality are dissolved.
In The Birth of TOKI, 2003, Lee examines the quest by Korean women for ideal beauty through plastic surgery. “It’s about their fantasy or desire to look like a Westerner,” Lee says. “It’s really common in Korea for women to get surgery as a birthday present. When I was there I saw lots of girls who’ve had plastic surgery. It’s a very strange phenomenon.”
In this work, Toki’s features are connected by joined-together dots deliberately exposing the tools and process of design. Here she is a mix of Western and Asian ideals of beauty, perfectly realised through technology. But the images are unsettling. Toki’s mostly Asian features sit unnaturally against the exaggerated size of her large “Western” eyes. By focusing so directly on Toki’s construction, Lee reflects on the strenuous processes that women go through in an effort to attain ideal beauty.
The installation contains nine digital prints representing the nine times that Toki has been conceived or born. They suggest the possibility of mass-producing Toki as a commodity and they also show different sides to her personality. She can be cute, angelic or even evil – rejecting what Lee calls the “virgin-whore” mentality of many traditional Korean men, a bipolar view of women as both “good” and “pure” or as purely sexual objects. “Through my digital creations I can make multiple personalities,” Lee says. “I can confess that I’m not 100 percent good.”
Korean popular culture, much like that in Japan and other Asian countries, is obsessed with cute representations of female characters, she says. “It’s about power relations and power play, combining weakness, submission and humility. Cuteness is feminine but childish and submissive.” Although Lee’s work subverts the cute characteristics of Toki by revealing the darker side of her character, she cannot escape this cuteness completely. “It’s really hard to get out of that culture. It’s scary. Even for me, I’ve been living in New Zealand for 10 years and I’m still cute. I can’t really dump it.”
It has only been two years since Lee finished art school, but she is fast building her career. The substance of her ideas, her willingness to explore new spaces and her ability to make her art fun mean that she is able to communicate to a broad audience. A new show, Powder Room, opens in Auckland this week. Her work appears in Paradiso D’Amore, which tours China from June to September. Early in 2006, she has a three-month residency in Korea.
Last year Lee received a $22,800 grant from the Screen Innovation Production Fund (a partnership between Creative New Zealand and the New Zealand Film Commission) to support her TOKI/Cyborg Project: game, pop and cyberworld, a series of DVDs that will take the Toki narrative into the world of animated games. The DVDs will be used to create an installation that will take the animated game away from the console, creating a new relationship with her audience. As part of it, she will be creating a male character, Prince G, who is formed in Toki’s image from one of her teardrops.
All the misfortune that Lee has suffered has only driven her to go further in her work. “It’s my philosophy about the past,” she says. “It’s all education that’s helped make everything in my life get better.”
Through her work, Lee has gained independence and freedom. “I’m the one who decides my life. Ninety percent of Korean women don’t realise they live in a strange world. They accept what they are in their society and don’t really want to break it. I can’t change people, but I can show them what I think. If I can think anything I like, that’s freedom.”
Article originally published in the New Zealand Listener
May 21-27 2005 Vol 198 No 3393
© APN Holdings NZ Ltd.