Spotlight Series: Featuring Minny Lee

Spotlight Project

The Spotlight Project, created and curated by Michael Hopkins, brings attention to artists who might be known locally or regionally but deserve to be seen by a much larger audience. Each post will feature an artist that you may not know, but should.

Michael Hopkins: On your website, you write about your video Strand saying that, “Norway inspired me to make this work.” Could you go into detail about this inspiration?

Strand from Minny Lee on Vimeo.

Minny Lee: I visited Norway for the first time in 2013 to participate in an artist residency on a small island called, Halsnøy. I flew to Berlin then transferred to Bergen, a port city located in the western part of Norway. From Bergen, I rode a boat for two hours and thirty minutes to Stord Island, then from there, transferred to another boat to Halsnøy Island. During the two boat rides, I saw several women knitting for the duration of the voyage. There are a noticeable number of yarn shops in any Norwegian city. Once I got to Halsnøy and stayed there for three weeks, I understood why knitting is popular in Norway. I was there in May and the temperature was often in the mid 30°F range and it rained every day except for three days. In May, the sun doesn’t go down until 9pm or 10pm but in the fall and winter, the sun goes down at around 4pm. The winters there are long and cold so sweaters and wool socks are must haves. Some men knit in Norway as well but it is mostly performed by women who knit for their family. I went to a local yarn store and saw housewives coming into the shop and it looked like it was a social gathering spot as well. I only knew how to knit a simple wool scarf so I bought yarn and started to knit and began recording a video of me knitting in various locations. The knitting is connected to Norwegians and their culture and tradition but the act of knitting is also about the passage of time.

MH: Has the photographer Harry Callahan had any influence on your work?

Minny LeeSea, Montauk, New York, 2011

ML: Harry Callahan is the single most important photographer for me. I admire his work very much for his long years of dedication to the medium and his experimental spirit. I love Callahan’s Water’s Edge photobook and his writing in the Afterword. Callahan’s writing reveals a lot about him as a photographer and his philosophy as the great artist that he is. He began the theme of water’s edge in 1938 at Lake Huron and later at Lake Michigan. He continued the series at New England beaches. After forty years of doing this, he wrote, “I think that nearly every artist continually wants to reach the edge of nothingness—the point where you can’t go any farther. I feel I have come close to that at various times with the Beach Series photographs. A determined single-mindedness and an insistent inner need has led me to that point.” I feel this idea is similar to Asian philosophy, particularly Buddhism. One can meditate for so long that one can finally reach a state of nothingness—transcending one’s self and arriving somewhere beyond. I love Callahan’s photographs of nature but I like his photographs of his wife, Eleanor even more. They reveal an exchange of love between husband and wife, photographer and subject. How much Eleanor gave in and offered herself but also how much Callahan loved to photograph her—so tender and loving, experimental, and formally exciting too. Callahan’s photographs contain an aspect of simplicity of form rooted from his deep observation and understanding of the subject matter.

MH: Some of your self-portraits remind me of film stills. Have you been influenced by certain movies?

Minny LeeSelf-Portrait, Paris, France, 2012

ML: My photography has been mostly non-narrative and void of human presence. When I started the self-portrait series in 2010, I felt a need to construct a narrative. Growing up, I didn’t have the opportunity to watch movies, except ones they aired on TV. Once I started making videos a few years ago, I started to pay attention to the art of narrative and cinematography in films. When I make the self-portrait, I draw inspiration from a 17th-century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. He painted about 35 paintings in his lifetime and they are often paintings of people engaged in mundane activities, such as a milkmaid pouring milk from a pitcher into a bowl. I am drawn to the ambiguity within the story. My favorite painting is Mistress and Maid (c. 1667-1668). There is a maid who is delivering a letter to a mistress wearing a yellow fur gown sitting at her desk. While her right hand is holding a pen, her left-hand touches her chin slightly. It seems that she is in the middle of writing a letter and was interrupted by the delivery of the letter. There is the sense of anxiety and wonder in her gestures. I have been wondering about the content of the letter and story of the mistress ever since I saw the painting but it is still a mystery to me. This is the power of a still image and what a painting can do to the viewer. With my self-portrait series, I work around the atmosphere without adding preps or artificial lighting, which is the polar opposite of typical moviemaking. I am interested in looking at domestic settings and making something out of it.

MH: Your photograph Self-Portrait, Bethlehem, PA, 2011 has an eerie, unsettling feel to it; things may not be as they first appear? You mentioned that “a lot of my photographs are dark,” and that “some people have mentioned David Lynch,” could you comment on this further?

Minny LeeSelf Portrait, Bethlehem, PA, 2011

ML: There are two sides of darkness I am referring to: the psychological sense and the temporal sense. I associate traumatic history of the place to my own trauma for the former (psychological darkness). In the beginning, I made self-portraits in places that had experienced war: an Italian convent used as a military barracks during World War II and then abandoned, an American military base disguised as a fishing village then abandoned, Pearl Harbor, etc. While studying its history, I found that the Hotel Bethlehem had been used as a convalescence home for soldiers returning from WWI. I grew up in Korea when the country went through forced industrialization, military dictatorships, political upheavals, and fighting for democracy. I retain some pleasant memories but there are many horrible memories from my childhood. I tried to tie in with this past history by creating a certain mood in the picture.

In the temporal sense, I like to photograph at night where there is very little available light. The camera is a magic box that can capture images even in a complete darkness. It requires a long exposure and patience. Most people associate night with pitch-black darkness. In reality, many colors flourish at night. I once photographed a brown colored sky at 11pm and at midnight, a bluish-greenish sky. I see things much better at night and my senses are more attuned and focused. The night evokes tension and suspense. During the day, there are too many visible things; I end up seeing much less.

Some people mentioned that my self-portraits reminded them of David Lynch’s films. I only watched one of his films a few years ago and I am not very familiar with his work. People would characterize his films as eerie and strange. Perhaps they see that kind of sentiment in my photographs. Someone mentioned that my pictures from the night sea reminded him of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series. He said that each episode begins with falling water and there is sadness to it. He thought my sea pictures convey a passage of time and sadness.

MH: In your statement, you say that “I am interested in the coexistence between past and present, dreams and reality, and absence and presence.” Can you tell me how this relates to your Teatro series from Italy, 2009?

Minny LeeTeatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy, 2009

Minny LeeTeatro Malibran, Venice, Italy, 2009

ML: Teatro La Fenice was the perfect place for making images addressing duality because of its unusual history. Its fate thwarted its fame several times. La Fenice was built in 1792 to replace San Benedetto Theater that was burnt to the ground in 1774. But La Fenice too was burnt in 1836 and again in 1996. It was rebuilt and reopened in 2003. When I visited in October 2009, navigating through isles, balconies, and backstage, I was asking, “Why did this place and its predecessor burn so many times?” I fathomed that there could be ghosts who walked around and remembered their glorious times. I thought about how I could photograph their absence while still feeling their presence. Through the slit of stage curtains, I imagined the opera singer waiting to stage his or her grand entry to perform. For the theater seats, I imagined audiences pouring into the theater looking for their seats in anticipation of a great performance. I let ghosts from the past glory guide me through all these imagined scenarios. The photograph of theater seats with a spotlight pointing in the middle is from Teatro Malibran, which was opened in 1678. In these two theaters, the coexistence between past and present, dreams and reality, and absence and presence was ever more appealing.

MH: In the installation Nightwalker, your tree photographs are printed on rice paper and hang from the ceiling reminding me of scrolls. Were you inspired by hanging scrolls from your native South Korea?

Nightwalker from Minny Lee on Vimeo.

ML: For the Nightwalker installation, I did not think about hanging scrolls in particular. I tried to activate the exhibition space by animating prints and adding sound. I thought that if I have several prints that are hung not too far from each other, going through them could evoke the feeling of walking in a forest. I turned on a fan from the side so that the prints would move to and fro. I also played sounds of nature that I recorded during different seasons. I tried to bring in different senses to make a sensory experience rather than limiting it to a visual experience. I chose rice paper because of its transparent quality when hit by a spotlight. Rice paper looks fragile but it is very resilient. The Nightwalker installation was a turning point for me in terms of my approach to exhibition space and soliciting viewer engagement.

Minny Lee was born in South Korea and has been living in the US since 1992. Most recently, Lee was invited to participate in an artist-in-residence program at Halsnøy Kloster in Norway where she focused on video projects on the theme of tradition and surrounding nature. Lee’s main subject matters are nature and her relationship to time and space.

Lee’s photographs were exhibited at Datz Museum of Art in 2015, Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2012, The Center for Fine Art Photography in 2012 & 2011, Mois de la Photo à Paris in 2010, and Pingyao International Photography festival in 2008 among other venues. Lee’s photographs were published in several books and magazines including Mois de la Photo À Paris 2010: Paris Collectionne (France) and Photo Raw magazine (Finland). Her assignment works appeared in Newsday newspaper.

In 2009, Lee was selected to attend the Reflexions Masterclass in Europe, a two-year seminar lead by Giorgia Fiorio and Gabriel Bauret. Lee is a 2008 graduate of the International Center of Photography’s one-year certificate program. Her previous studies include fashion and art history and she worked as a photography magazine writer. She lives and works in New Jersey.

More on Minny Lee here.

Buy Minny Lee’s book Encounters here.

Michael Hopkins is a writer and artist who makes drawings, paintings, and sculptures. He has work in numerous museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago. He has work in numerous corporate art collections including the Progressive Collection and the Wellcome Trust Collection in London, England. He is a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant recipient.