Seung-taek Lee has an innovative and diverse practice that often questions established political, social and artistic values. Lee’s art has been linked to a host of ailments in the context of cultural consciousness and rupture between the real and the traditional in Korean culture, which has been transformed by the influx of information about Western art during the adoption of Western civilization of the Orient in 20th century.
Much of Lee’s paintings, sculptures, and environmental intervention share a kinship with both American land art and Korean shamanic traditions and embraces chance and ephemerality in its attempts to form a collaborative partnership with natural phenomena such as fire, water, wind, and smoke. And this Non-materializations or also known as ‘Non-Sculpture’, ‘Anti-Concept’ is the essential concept of Lee’s artwork and the current phenomenon that has appeared in contemporary art.
Lee used these non-materialistic and non-sculptural concepts as a manifestation of his rejection of existing ideas and orders, meaning that his work had no relation with any sculptural concept whose initial goal was plasticity. It is evident in his work, , created in 1964 by burning all the trashy paintings he made and throwing them into the Han River. Through this work, Lee refused the plasticity problem which became acknowledged as an act of experimental art and later granted him with a title of ‘forerunner of Korean modern art’.
Lee is not interested in what can make a work of art but in what cannot make one. He enjoys abnormality more than normality, what exists beyond common sense, and the freedom of anti-art; therefore dealt with objects that are grotesque, unpleasant, ugly, and sexually provocative, regardless of their shapes or forms because they stimulate and invigorate the artist. This embracing of the alternative or the other through radically individual choices that Lee pursued with his practice is all the more remarkable given the complicated social and political context experienced in Korea during the 60s and 70s where the effects of the prolonged Japanese occupation that led to a civil war resulting in Korea becoming a divided nation were still present.
Lee with his negative strategies and unique, isolated path has reflected the Korean realities of post-war era and clearly determined that the value of art comes not from the level of the concrete object as artwork nor from the system of the artwork, with its visible structure. Moreover, for Lee, the creative act is not to produce modern iconic values but ‘work’ that suggests and assembles by bringing various codes to a medium in a unique way. For him, the creation of the artwork is a reconstructive concept using various levels of cultural codes that are distinct from the creative concepts of modern art. The concept of ‘non-materialization’ is a key here, distinguishing his work from modern concepts. And this aesthetic grammar places Lee in the vanguard of contemporary art.