Okyohn Lee

Article Bio Projects
homeland, identity, memory
Visual Arts (installation art, photography)
Asia, Eastern, Europe, Western
Korea, South (Republic of Korea), Germany
created on:
June 30, 2003
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Okyohn Lee


Hue, form and time

Born in Busan in the south of Korea in 1949, Okyohn Lee studied in Seoul, where she joined the avant-garde in the 1970s. She moved to Berlin in 1984 and has been working on long-term projects involving installations and photography since the start of the 1990s, with themes including ´Global Intershop“, ´Mixtures´, ´Kaleidoscope´, ´The Heavens´ and ´The Oaks´.
Born in the harbour town Busan in the south of Korea in 1949, Okyohn Lee moved to Seoul to study history at Sogang University and got a BA in 1972, then studied art history at Hongik University, where she focussed on western painting. At the same time she joined the Seoul avant-garde and began to produce works of her own in 1974. Though she lacked academic training, her first works were shown in the national museum in Seoul and promptly nominated for participation for the Paris biennale: ´I wasn´t at all clear about whether I should work as an artist. I visited the graduate course of studies at the school of art and studied art history and theory. But then I got many offers to take part in group exhibitions and so on, so I decided to create art (interview from 20.12.02).

Okyohn Lee says that these years in Seoul were a time of intense renewal, in which she got to know new folk and ideas. Art, films and literature from Europe and the USA stimulated her to experiment with large scale canvases covered with sand and other objects - an approach which she now calls ´object-painting - and the results were shown at the 13th biennale in São Paulo in 1976. In 1977 she got her MA by writing about ´Post-painting abstraction of the 60s in the USA´ then taught till 1983 at the Hanseung College for Art and Design in Seoul. She believes that the abstract art of a Barnett Newman or Ellsworth Kelly is related to the Asian Taoist attitude towards nature, in making the essential visible.

In 1984 Okyohn Lee moved to Berlin then in 1989 drew further attention to herself as an artist while furthering her education in visual art at the Hochschule der Künste (since renamed Universität der Künste). She there helped call into being the project ´Homeland Remembered´, in which she and other foreign students reflected as artist-nomads on their experiences of homeland, memories, identity and collective belonging in terms of specific themes like ´living and daily life´. She sums up: ´The word "origin" always implies that someone has left a definite framework and is trying to define him or herself as independent with regards to ethnic, geographical, political, ideological and linguistic categories. As long as this concept of origin splits the world up and creates artificial differences, one can hardly talk of being an independent person in the same casual way that one can talk about the weather´ (from the artist´s certificate-work about this project).

This project already reveals the patience and long-term planning notable in later projects. In view of her belief that the hues red and gold signify value and authority all round the world, she created an installation ´Global Intershop´, first shown in 1995 in the House of World Cultures in Berlin and then shown in the Goethe Institute in Seoul. She observed these hues on many locations, gathered samples, let the project ripen then gave it a provisional form open to welcome additions.

Through concentrated collecting and the creation of archives, she discovers ´the tendency of things´, as she told the Berlin Morgenpost in 1998: ´Only then do I see all aspects of the world, and only on having grasped the essence of something, can I record its traces.´

Okyohn Lee works ´over long periods´ on themes of artistic interest to her and comes to various formal results. Works begun already in the 1980s include ´The Heavens´, which evolved out of photographs of the sky, which is present everywhere but experienced differently by different viewers. ´It´s as various as viewers and their surroundings all over the world. At some moment I began taking photos of these various versions of the sky at various places... I gathered them as immaterial objects, as colour-fields, then put them next to each other as strips of colour. The sky shows a unified system of symbols, reflecting differences of climate, colour and light. In a certain sense the sky thus becomes an orientation point in the limitless variety of the present. Sooner or later the hermetic partitioning of cultures breaks down, the various kinds of sky migrate and begin a surreal journey through space and time´ (from a text by Okyohn Lee about ´The Heavens´, part of which was included in the catalogue about ´HeimatKunst/Homeland Art´.)

Okyohn Lee knows the different versions of ´her´ sky precisely and is able on seeing its hue to specify the place from which it was photographed. A strip of lilac reveals the nearness of the sea, since the hues are due to ´moisture and dryness and thin sunshine´, whereas the occasional saturated blue of the sky over Berlin recalls ´Prussian blue´. The subtlety of differences in the sky´s system of signs calls for the development of a special sensitivity, able to distinguish for instance the specific lilac due to the sea´s moisture over the coast of Crete.

But though Okyohn Lee tries, in ´unbelievably conscientious ways as far as possible´ to reflect nature in her photos, ´it´s no longer genuine, since we transfer it to a different medium.´ This kind of translation is sensitive towards the least shades of meaning (´Some things are just not noticeable until the required sensitivity has evolved.´), but on the whole, nature is translated into art (interview from 20.12.02). This kind of work tends to be comprehensive, since the installations point to difference and sameness, to regional and world-wide qualities and, owing to the long periods of observation, reveal subtle regularities confirmed by further material in the archive, be it only by viewers who are attentive and patient.

At first a viewer sees for instance, on gazing at one of the installations of mixtures, a series of identical bottles on plexiglass bases between double windows. The bottles are full of various fruit-juices, the reddish ones having come from the north and the yellowish ones from the south. Okyohn Lee mixes these juices and has now found over a period of seven years that they have hardly changed in hue, though exposed in her atelier to a lot of sunshine. Indeed light, too, is an important part of the effect and falls though the bottles full of sun-ripened organic materials and warms the room, though cultivated rather to warm the body from within. The translucency of this work of translation is due to the subtle mixing of fairly simple ingredients, whose hues glow in the light and enshroud visitors.

The series of works ´The Oaks´ arose to show that no leaf is exactly like another as if made in the same mould. The noticing of difference creates a feeling for otherness. By means of photographic double-exposure, each leaf is associated with the parent-tree and with the environment of the town – of a park, a wood, walkers and empty lanes – and bears witness to a certain time and place. The works owe their fascination to their variety and calm observation of differences in a world-wide phenomenon. Okyohn Lee puts it in a nutshell: ´My collection of oak-leaves is growing over the years and will finally be a huge imaginary wood as wide as the world.´

Even the works about the theme ´kaleidoscope´ have arisen through superimposition, since Okyhon Lee began by wanting to create a visual mixture out of various kinds of things but then focused on the dahlia-gardens in Britz, a suburb of Berlin. She has visited and photographed the dahlias there since 1998, creating the series ´flowers´. She likes photography for being a medium with useful qualities, and the photos which she develops through multiple exposure are scanned onto a computer and further processed. Layer for layer is dealt with in exactly the same way, which is a very wearisome process, as the artist says, owing to the one-sided movement. The dahlias´ hues ´mix, as if I were painting,´ and as with the usual technique the abstract image, the photographic painting, emerges in layers. Asked about the graphic structures which arise in this way, the artist answers: ´They simply evolve. I don´t actually have much interest in structure. I´m interested mainly in the mixture of hues´ (interview from 20.12.02). In an image made by multiple exposure there are clear layers which keep their transparency and create motion and depth. The photography begins with concrete things, then through exposure and processing, the concretion dissolves. Okyhon Lee says: ´My aim is not only beauty... it is the so-called stillness, which has always been a basic theme of painting. The essence is colour, and the thing most intensely coloured is a flower. This is what my effects are due to.´ These works may be seen as a controlled, structured intoxication of colour, and each image can give rise to the most varied associations.

Time itself is part of Okyhon Lee´s art. With many of her themes she has been preoccupied since the start of the 90s, and they also evolve in the course of time. They start with a mental stirring rather than a concept. The inspiration ´is always sudden, but what lies behind the unconscious becomes apparent only gradually. One calls it an idea, but that makes it sound like something deliberate and planned, which it really isn´t. Well, folk say that artists can gaze into the future, not deliberately but intuitively. They sense something vaguely then find a certain form, something artificial. It´s rather like doing a translation... But what is sensed in this way can´t be realised fully unless one is really immersed in oneself.´
Author: Beate-Ursula Endriss


Okyohn Lee was born in 1949 in Busan in the south of Korea. After gaining a B.A. in history at Sogang University in Seoul in 1972 she turned as a graduate to the Art College of Hongik University to study western painting, completing her course there with a M.F.A. in 1977. She joined the Korean avant-garde and began creating art herself in the form of large canvases strewn with objects. In 1974 her first works were shown in the National Museum in Seoul and nominated for the biennale in Paris, and in 1976 her large sand-paintings were included in the 13th biennale in São Paulo. Vascillating between applied art and art theory, she wrote her M.A. thesis about ´Post-painting abstraction of the 60s in the USA´, translated articles for art magazines and taught from 1979 to 1983 at the Hanseung Technical College for Art and Design in Seoul. In 1984 she moved to Berlin, where she furthered her artistic education from 1989 to 1991 in the faculty for visual art at the institute then known as the College of Arts and now known as the University of Arts.

At this college in 1991 she launched the project ´Homeland Remembered´ together with other artists from abroad; in 1992 she was given a grant by the Berlin Senate; in 1995 she installed her ´Global Intershop´ in the House of World Cultures in Berlin and in the Goethe-Institute in Seoul; in 1996 she took part in Instalscape in the Art Hall of Taegu in Korea; and in 1998 held an exhibition in the Kumho Museum of Art in Seoul. Thanks to a grant she spent 1999 in the Artist House Schloss Wiepersdorf; exhibited in 2000 in the Museum for Natural History and Prehistory in Dessau and took part in the exhibition HeimatKunst in the House of World Cultures in Berlin. In 2001 she was given a grant by the state Sachsen-Anhalt to reside at the Art House Salzwedel; and in 2002 ´The Oaks´ were shown in the Johann-Friedrich-Danneil Museum in Salzwedel.

Since 1984 Okyohn Lee has been living and working mostly in Berlin.


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

Homeland Art (HeimatKunst)

Cultural Diversity in Germany

(01 April 00 - 02 July 00)