Lee Ufan starts every day in exactly the same manner. He wakes at 8:30 a.m., and does his daily exercises, a 30-minute routine he has fine-tuned over the years. He bashfully shrugs off a request to explain these exercises, but he will say that they’re meditative, and include well-rehearsed breathing exercises that prepare him for the working day ahead. His breath, you see, is a vital instrument for his work, just as important as the expansive canvasses he paints on, or the sizeable brushes he uses to apply each precise stroke.
“At first glance, my artwork looks very easy – like anybody could just put a stroke there – but if you stand in front of it, you should really feel that something is alive. Each stroke is alive, and with this living stroke, I create a certain vibration,” he says. He has a careful way of talking.
We are sitting in his Paris studio, located in a quiet, leafy courtyard of a bustling boulevard in the 9th arrondissement. The studio is spare, with just a small table and a few chairs in the corner. The walls are obscured by a number of canvasses stacked against one another. ey face inwards, depriving the room entirely of decoration. Lee’s faded crimson shirt – coupled with baggy dark blue jeans, grey socks, and slides – is the only ash of colour in the room.
For my visit, he's fixed a pot of the same green tea he enjoys after his morning exercises and before starting a demanding work session. “Intense concentration is needed for my work,” he says of his practice, which sees him lying horizontally above canvasses that are laid out at on the ground. The intensity of each individual stroke makes it physically gruelling work. “An untrained person could only continue working like this for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. But thanks to my discipline and preparation, I can keep going for two to three hours,” he says.
Rigour played an important part in Lee’s life from a very young age. He was born in the mid 1930s into a traditional Korean family with an upbringing he describes as ‘strict.’ “We were taught to be modest and very disciplined, and that we should have a clear separation between relaxation time and working time,” he says. “I have lived in such a way ever since my childhood.”
Questions about Lee’s childhood seem to make him slightly uncomfortable. He came of age during the Korean War, and suggests that any fond boyhood memories have been tainted by that tragedy. At the age of 20, however, Lee left Korea for Japan to study philosophy and literature at Nihon University in Tokyo. It was at this time that he began his work as an artist, having already studied calligraphy and painting in Seoul. He fell in with a group of modern artists, including Japanese artist Nobuo Sekine. they were later dubbed もの派 Mono-ha – ‘ The School of Things’ – and history remembers them as Japan’s first major international modern art movement. The name was, at first, a disparaging term used by their critics. Instead of painting or creating, the group attempted to work with ‘things’ that already existed, Lee explains, and they only took the label on to describe themselves grudgingly. “The two ideas of creating and not creating have always existed for me,” Lee says; evidence that many of Mono-ha’s basic principles continue to define his work today.
The most important thing to Lee is the way in which the objects he works with interact with their surroundings – be it the pigment he uses to paint with, or the boulders and iron plates he employs for his sculptural work. “So many artists propose their artwork independently from the atmosphere or the space,” he says, “but my work is inseparable from the environment.” Almost all of Lee’s exhibitions are site specifc, intended to react and interact with their context. For his 2014 exhibition at Versailles, 10 new sculptures from his long running Relatum series were installed in dialogue with the historic château and its grounds. At his own eponymous art museum, a space designed by architect Tadao Ando on the Japanese island of Naoshima, there is a gallery space in which he painted his work directly onto the walls.
The canvasses currently sitting in this studio, obscured from view, are destined for an exhibition at Château La Coste. This will be Lee’s second project at the winery, and art and architectural park in the south of France. “I went there to check everything – the atmosphere, the environment, the space – before I started working,” he says of his preparation for the exhibition. “I want the visitor to encounter my artwork. I’m not saying that reason and theory are not important, but they are secondary to the feeling you experience when looking at the artwork.”
Now in his fifth decade as a working artist, Lee shows little sign of slowing down. His unlined face belies his 80 years, perhaps because his concept of happiness (a subject that makes him blush) remains inextricably connected to his work. “My life is organised around my artwork, my creations. When I feel I did a good job, or I had a wonderful exhibition, that is a good thing,” he says. “But then, a moment later, I am looking forward to the next thing.”