Cost of living, Scales of time carved in wood

- Sang Heon Lee’s sculpture-


1. Cost of living, Cost of art

Sang Heon Lee is a sculptor who has consistently sold out to the symbolic task of shaping human consciousness from his adolescence. He is a notable artist for his intention on unchanging in a position to take the hard work using a burin when many sculptors have been conducted the installation or conceptual art in the genre beyond.

Modern photographer Martin Parr expressed cynically in the image of modern consumer society such as Coca-Cola and hamburgers, street advertising, and cars, etc., while revealing a cross section of the modern’s life exchanges to 'false desires and exchange value’ in his work ‘Cost of living’. Ironically, while looking into the life and works for some artists, I see the ‘Cost of living’ from different angles. In everyday life, the cost of living includes many variety things and comprehensive feelings such as  hope, despair,  alienation, anger, joy or sometimes exultation which we can’t take count in a materialistic life of the late capitalist mass society. I can surface many artists in the same context as to deal with the cost of living and manage the art, Sang Heon Lee is certainly one of them.

He had a brain surgery in his adolescence and is still suffering from the complications. It is undeniable to see his early stage works using the FRP, wood and iron, etc., to make the heads and look into the complex structure of the brain through the head lids were related to his illness. His sculptures, which include the head with windows, chairs or trees, the body with many drawers are also symbolic of suspicion and shaping work on things that are latent in the unconscious from childhood. Particularly interested in Freud and C.G Jung's psychology, he has been consistently workedby motif of  human consciousness and memories, unconscious of the abyss. And on top of that, he enjoys exhibitionism and positive attitude about life at a distance. Sometimes, the artist also raises a cynical humor as the cost of living alternative to disregard and distortion of proportion, reversal on the material and the representation of characters such as a clown figure. We can also think that the cost of living is the cost of the art. This artist deserve to hear that he go through the traditional rituals and skills without going beyond the genre of sculpture, and get the freedom of various expression.

2. Tree and healing nature

The artist has been working with wood  instead of fuel industry material such as FRP since adolescence. For him, tree is a medium for his art and also it’s a medium for healing of life. He selectively uses varieties of eco-friendly woods depending on the conception of the work such asginkgo,  zelkova tree, birch, pine, juniper, ebony and Korean pine tree which was used in the old architecture. Each wood has unique texture and color, the flavor and strength so the artist mustwork through sympathetic with trees. For example, using ebony to make buttons, shoes, hair and juniperto make book cover which is over the head, ginko to make the volume of the book or face, pine to make a body, zelkova to make necktie or hourglass, birch to makeglasses, etc. to produce one character. The hugh Bakdal workshop in the village of creativity is piled with old timbers and mature woods,  aged several years  in the sun and the wind reminiscent of a sawmill. The artist says when he looks at the woodsthat  bear time and time, he also can see that they already have a variety of shapes in them. As a sculptor, his job is not different  from drawing them out and make them visually embodied. The thought of destiny which one tree grows and mown to be wood and that wood could be a rafter for someone’s house or glasses and hands in the work of an artist amazes me.

His works expose  partswell trimmed up and also parts  justleave it up to nature's way in color and texture. While utilizing a variety of tools including a chainsaw, there are piles of the burin in his workshop which he produced himself according to a special need. Watching him using different sizes of the burin, you would think that he is one of the few woods carving craftsman when there are easy to find the spirit of an artist but the spirit of the craftsman is missing. Once I was impressed when I went to an exhibition and saw an arm stretched out a few meters under the gallery floor. The sculpture was made out of one piece of wood roughly trimmed by ax and chisel only, but it left with strong impression in texture and material rather than finely trimmed up work. As such, he is notable artist who has very sensitive sense of actualizing the inner shape which the wood posses.

The way this artist reads and understandswood’s cell in factors and transform them into a human’s body and fragments of memories are the process of the artist himself gets his mind and body cured by Mother Nature.

3. Scales of time, unconsciousness and memory

His current works also visualize his philosophy with his sensible thoughts and his expert hands.  All the things of the phenomenal world, including the human have scales of time layering on them. What I mean is that not only fish in the water have scales. Because the layers of scales oftime  the tree bears, and scales of time the human bears such as instincts, consciousness, unconsciousness, or the superego are also thelayers of the world of space and time. The artist visualized memories of youth which partially revealed and partially concealed within the layers of scale and his thought of the human or himself using surrealistic and symbolic molding method.

If you look at his works carefully, his modelsare the figures of reality, such as magnificent young man which is himself before the illness, his wife or his daughter, etc. Nevertheless the figures seem unreal by showing the attributes potential the world of space and time by wearing  a clown hat or looking with sandglass on hand, several vessels are evocative of the cost of living from many drawers in the body such as marbles, dolls, diary, toy airplane or toy cars, etc. In fact, forwork of surrealist tendencies, surreal is not unrealistic but it’s rather real. In this artist’sinnermind, the scales of time since his childhood is not past or future tense, it’s just a vivid reality as in ‘now and here’. Therefore, the unopened book on top of his figurine’shead could be a symbol of the memory that make the root of presence awareness. And also the sandglass on hand could be a symbol of  layers of time which can be visually seen  but can’t be touched  physically or sensuously. The figurines or hands that are hanging on the ceiling or wall could represent that humans can’t always live at their will as if the destiny controls them.

Looking back his works, I can see his consistent  point of view to take off some burdens and  bring hope by the travesty of  hardship in his works such as a clown figurine taking a break on a wooden horse or doing treasure hunt, acrobat figurines having ordinary objects on their heads or wearing a cone hat, and the figurines ruminating memories from a drawer, etc.

The room ofunconsciousness, Dreaming tree, The forest of speculation, Dreaming of the wind, Waiting for wind, Tree · Chair · Wind – Await, The day of dreaming, Chasing memory, The clown is smiling at me, The memoryin the drawer were the topics of his solo exhibitions which he held every year. The artist has been involved in well-known events as well. He  is  the winner of the Excellence Award at the Taiwan Sanyi Museum International Wooden Sculpture Competition along with participation in the InternationalSculpture Symposium hosted  by  several nations in Europe, attendingthe Seoul International Art Fair and Master of MaterExhibition held  in Italy and attendingMiyazakiInternationalSculpture Exhibition in Japan. He’s also a former  residentartist at the Haslla Museum in Gangneung. These backgrounds are possible because they’rebased on not onlyhis skill and craftsmanship with woods, butalso his commitment to art along with the spirit of an artist for making scales of time to scales of current life.

The showroom #3 in the Daegu Bongsan Cultural Center is not a big space, but it’s difficult for artists to display their works structurally. He’s planning to exhibit  a nearly 2 meters high bookcase filled with books and displays at the entrance so whenthe visitors enter, they’ll feel like they’re entering through the revolving door. And then, there would be 2  figurineswhich have a body with many drawers right after enterance, and would display over sized  figurine and nearly 3 meters figurine floating in the air along with other works totaling five or six sculptures inside.

The bookcase revolving door which holds memories is the entrance to thisexhibition’stitle‘The inner room’. Two figures, which will be displayed inside, one middle-aged figurine with a cone hat holding a key to the secret, and othertwo children holding sandglass symbolize the layer of time and also the artist’s personal philosophy. Nevertheless all theartists reflectthemselvesinto their work, we see generality like our portraitthrough their work. Can’t help but think that it’s a true secret of an art.

When the most private story becomes our commom story, that’s where the key to the inner room that can be opened by art lies. Aswe pass from childhood and adolescence, manhood and senescence, we face unexpected incidents and we also bring back good memories from old days to cope with current hardship. That’s the reason the scales of time, which ansandglass holdsis meaningless, butat the same time accepted as regenerated scales ofthe present state. The psychologist C.G Jung said “  Ifhe claims to be a true artist, he can’t be just himself, he should be able to be her  orbe you, that’s because we all share the collective uncinscious”.

This sculptor has been working on keeping  the traditional elements of the sculpture genre such as three dimensional character, morphologicalrestoration of material and mass but also awakeningdifferentdimensional  signification. That’s the reason it is worth of taking notice of his next step.


Mi Jin Chang (Art Critic, Professor of Ph.D program of department of Science of arts of Daegu Catholic University)