Garam Lee at Kips Gallery
Garam Lee’s fine show at Kips Gallery demonstrates his ability to make transcendental, spiritual objects with highly original materials such as hot-gun glue. The show comprises two wall installations: the first is a wall of translucent bells, some of which have small words or phrases that are attached to the surface of the bells: and the second, an installation of smallish buddhas painted various colors in one group and colored stripes in the other. At first glance, one might assume that the pop-culture material of the sculptures would undermine the spiritual message the artist asserts is derived in a general way from both Christian and Buddhist cultures. But the effect is far greater than that, in large part because the translucency of the objects becomes a visual metaphor for the transparency of religious insight and belief.
While the orientation of the artist is more or less decidedly Asian in his inclinations, he does not exclude the pieties of Western culture; the two systems of Western and Asian spirituality both depend on breath as a tool for realizing inner peace. Lee’s esthetic thus depends upon two things: a broadly spiritual approach to art and life that includes differing transcendent systems, and a focus on objects whose implications really do belong to the Buddhist tradition. In consequence, then, Lee really takes the broadest position possible in regard to the spirituality suggested in his kit of expressive objects.
Even the process complies with the spiritual dictates of Lee’s esthetic. He writes, “By applying hot glue in my pieces and exhaling across the surface for drying, I breathe life into my artworks.” The breaths create layers of material that Lee then forcefully forms into recognizable things: “Through the action of exhaling my breath into the hot glue, my artworks form another layer of surface, and they become the final product of my breath of life.” At this point we remember that meditation, the contemplative practice in Asian, specifically Buddhist, tradition consists of controlled breathing, leading to equanimity of mind and emotional and spiritual stability. The Buddhas, impressive in their single-mindedness, display a calm demeanor despite the use of plastic materials and vivid hues in their production; the artist’s act of painting the Buddhas different colors—pink, yellow, black, red, and blue—serves to accentuate the intense focus of the figures. The striped Buddha’s are also presented in differing colors: blue, red, pink, black, and white bands occur across the chest. Words intensify the effect of the sculptures: the red Buddha has random words and phrases attached by tape to his surface, with phrases such as “the power of the Buddha.” “wisdom,” and “no consciousness” available for the viewer to read.
The Buddhas, composed of small, overlapping bits of hot glue, have a singular texture to them; the bells, roughly five inches in height, also have a similar surface. The bells consist of overlapping layers of hot glue; arranged on top of each other across the wall, they give a nod to the place of the bell in Buddhist sculpture. A very few of the bells have words or phrases affixed to them, but those that do seem to suggest both the art process of their making and spiritual life; these phrases include, among others, the following: “to push the glue,” “many little bells,” and “overcome the fear.”
Such wordage enables us to see how Lee makes little distinction between his creative process and allusions to contemplative life—indeed, the quotations contextualize the bells In ways that keep them spiritually accessible to viewers. That overall process may be seen as strongly suggestive of Buddhist practice itself, interestingly constructed from accessible, as opposed to higher, materials. But perhaps this is part of Lee’s point—maybe he is moving in the direction of the demotic as a recognition of the way life is lived now. Whatever the case may be, currently it is now a time when many, if not most, images seem individualistic rather than communal in their implications. In contrast, it looks like Lee is attempting to create work that speaks both to religious community and contemporary life.
Breathing is central not only to Asian religious practice but to the very making of Lee’s work. In a video included in the show, Lee demonstrates how he builds up the surface of the bells. Using puffs of air to form the glue laid on the surface, the artist produces a controllable shape that he repeats again and again, slowly but surely structuring his art. It can be said that his process replicates the steady breathing of someone engaged in meditation. In fact, the construction of the bells, an important image and object in Buddhist life, can itself be seen as belonging to a spiritual tradition, in large part because the bells are quite literally formed by air—or breath. In this way, according to the artist, life itself is created by the act of breathing.
Thus the bells and Buddhas really demonstrate how the act of their creation perfectly mimics the act of breathing in contemplation. In contemporary life, a spirituality free of the specifics of dogma seems to have become more and more popular, especially among the creative intelligentsia—this situation has been visible in the West for at least two or tree generations. But it also seems true that Asian artists are returning to traditions that precede them by many, many years.
One can only speculate on the need that drives artists to return to their spiritual legacies, but it is clear that, in Lee’s case, this desire has resulted in remarkable art. Lee is a sculptor of the first order, someone who has been able to come up with both a finished work and a process that are demonstrative of a religious frame of mind. We are living in a time when such an orientation seems to be more and more attractive to people—and not only artists and writers. Lee represents this new generation quite effectively in his work; we can only hope that he will continue to do so as time goes on. The pursuit of spirituality is a time-honored tradition, and its current forms show how our need for the ethereal can be subsumed within art that shows us the way. Lee’s bells and Buddhas represent a particularly striking visual insight into the ways we can remain mindful and alert, true to the best instincts we hold inside of ourselves.