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Lee Ufan Portrait © Studioleeufan Photo By Claire Dornrgb

From his days as a young philosophy student in Tokyo to his present status as one of the most celebrated artists of his generation, Lee Ufan began his journey as a major theoretical and practical proponent of the Japanese avant-garde Mono-ha (School of Things) which presented works made of raw physical materials that have barely been manipulated. Mono-ha rejected Western notions of representation, focusing on the relationship between materials and perception rather than on expression or intervention. His output has continued to be at the forefront of critical thinking, and he has asserted that, “art in its deepest places is always about politics ... but art is not a weapon.” In Ufan’s work, images and emotions give rise to questions related to larger structures of power – questions of rampant consumerism, the forces of industrialisation and capitalism, and the constant pressure we feel continually to perform under these conditions. This critical investigation of the relationship between subjects and objects lies at the heart of Ufan’s practice. This autumn, Ufan and global coffee brand illy launched a new illy Art Collection, a collaboration of artwork and object at this year’s Frieze art fair in London’s Regent’s Park, with an evocative espresso cup design.

Interview by Christabel Stewart 
Portrait by Claire Dorn

CHRISTABEL STEWART Is there anything in particular that prepared you for the palate of art, in your upbringing or early education?

LEE UFAN As a child, I learned how to draw dots and lines, the basic training for drawing. I was fascinated by the way my grandfather and my mother polished antique furniture and crockery to make them shine.

CS You are a painter, sculptor, writer and philosopher who came to prominence in the late 1960s as part of the Mono-ha group. Could you talk a bit about your continued commitment to the integrity of materials in your work?

LU The late 1960s were a time when modern values were dismantled and new expressions were tried across the world. In other words, images superimposed on objects were removed and everything began to look different. Artists viewed a material as matter itself and focused on its state and its relationship to space with the hope of opening up new expressions, rather than using material to represent certain images. Thus, the basic motif of Mono-ha is to connect what I make and what I do not make. Mono-ha is an approach to making less, painting less and leaving many things as they are. It was a groundbreaking movement that was critical of civilisation.

CS I’ve read that the work of Jackson Pollock provided one catalyst for your experimentations with painting in the 1970s, but whereas Pollock’s action paintings are characterised by gestural freedom and spontaneous acts of artistic creation, you take your time. Can you talk about the continued importance of very marked, repeated brush- strokes in your work?

LU Jackson Pollock’s paintings provide a sense of freedom and chaos. If you look closely, there is breath and order in them. In the same period, Arnold Newman’s colour field paintings are formal, but full. I was very much inspired by these artists. However, I have been drawing dots and lines since I was a child, so I developed the discipline into a new form of painting with an interpretation from the perspective of time. Although my work is neither free nor formal, I have continued my discipline over a long period of time and trust the canvas, which has formed my own painting.

CS In a period marked by a radical reassessment of capitalist values, as much as an interrogation of Western artistic signification, you pertinently described the canvas as a “territory”. Has this continued to be the case?

LU The canvas has long been the painter’s territory. Modern abstractionism, especially, was a form of colonialism where you fill the canvas only with your own thoughts. Today, such a value is broken. The canvas, paints and brushes are not mere tools or materials for an autocratic artist, but rather, they should be used to express themselves.

CS In paring down your work to its most basic components, you enter what you call “a dialogue with practices of not-producing and not-creating”.

LU A work of art is not expressed solely through my thoughts. It develops through the intersection of internal and external elements – between my thoughts and what are not my thoughts, between canvas, paint, air, time and unconsciousness. A work of art is made up of many parts that am not. Moreover, after I put down the brush, the process of nature and time will permeate and reveal itself.

2023 Illy Art Collection Lee Ufan 2023 Grgb

illy Art Collection Lee Ufan cups, the 127th illy Art Collection

CS What about the role of the ego in the production of art – is it something to be mastered or repressed? Is an absence of ego an aim, or indeed an aesthetic?

LU The ego plays a large role in the creation of an artwork. However, this role is limited because there is also the intervention of time, space, materials and unconsciousness that cannot be controlled. In other words, consciousness acts as a guide towards the acceptance of externality.

CS You have cited Western thinkers such as Heidegger and Foucault as influential in your work. Fellow Korean and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han posits Western philosophy as presence, and Eastern thought as absence. Is this a useful binary for you?

LU It is true that the essence of Western philosophy is existence whereas that of Eastern philosophy is non-existence. However, in ancient times in both East and West, variability is prominent and the distinction between existence and non-existence is blurred. Today is the age of variability.

CS Would you describe your work as having an intellectual approach? And is it necessary for viewers to come armed with a certain sophistication, too?

LU My work, whether painting or sculpture, has an intellectual component, but it is first and foremost alive. It is a force that comes from practising physically before any preliminary knowledge or information.

CS Do you aspire to the condition of music, the purest of the arts which exists in its truest form only momentarily in the air, temporary and eternal?

LU I have had a complex about music since childhood. Music is a formless, invisible expression that sometimes shakes my soul. Art, on the other hand, is characterised by being primarily a visible expression. So for a long time, I considered art to be of a lower level. Recently, however, I have had the experience of seeing the invisible and hearing the inaudible dimensions of the world via the visual. Many people point out that what I am doing now appears to be musical.

CS Can you talk about your studios across Japan, the US and France? Does this geography serve you well?

LU Located in northeast Asia, Japan is a temperate region. I have been living here for a long time with my family. As a result of this geographical influence, I create soft works in an Asian, or more specifically Japanese, atmosphere. However, when I make art in France and sometimes in the United States, I feel a sense of tension and struggle at work. The works become larger in scale with a focus on materials and emphasise a sense of presence or power. My experiences in both places keep me refreshed.

CS You have used your artistic collaboration with Italian coffee makers, illy, to demonstrate the fluid co-existence of objects and ideas. A signature emphasis on negative space as opposed to expression, you present a pared-down brush stroke, one in red, the other in blue. Is there a significance in the colours used for this primary colour pairing?

LU I do not attach any special meaning to colour. Rather, I would say my works are pure. However, there are times and places where I feel the need for colour to play a role. Red and blue are colours that are universally present everywhere. I used brushstrokes of these colours as slight accents on the little white coffee cups; I wanted to evoke a sense of sparkling freshness with them. I want people to feel happiness and eternity in the moment they pick up a cup of coffee. ◉