In “Things Unstable,” Seung-taek Lee’s aptly titled exhibition here, everyday objects and materials don’t behave as they should. In one work, stones are made to appear weightless, suspended by a web of ropes (Untitled, 1982–2022), or even plush and pillowlike when tightly “bound” by lengths of wire (Tied Stone, 1969). Paper, however, looks ruggedly impervious in the piece Untitled, 1983: Several sheets are crumpled up to contrast with the smooth wooden beams they sit on. The Korean artist has endeavored to collapse entrenched notions of medium since the 1950s, employing the term “non-sculpture” for his irreverent, sometimes humorous way of undermining an element’s properties in a given work via performative gestures, such as tying and crushing.
An early proponent of eco-art in the 1970s, Lee began doing outdoor performances with air and fire. A video of Wind-Folk Amusement, 1971—recently restaged along the Hudson River for this exhibition—depicts enormous lengths of red fabric mutating into different shapes due to the powerful gales on Nanji Island in Seoul, where the work was originally executed. And in Performance Art of Burning, 1989, flames create a group of ephemeral sculptures out of older works Lee splashed with gasoline. These spectacular events contrast with the mostly small-scale “non-sculptures” on display, which only hint at the artist’s myriad investigations over the past seventy years.
Lee contributes to, but doesn’t necessarily fit neatly within, the lineage of post-Minimalism, Mono-ha, and Land art. Here is an artist who developed his practice on the fringes of the postwar Korean avant-garde, resisting all manner of classification as a way to preserve the diminishing agency of nature in the wake of South Korea’s industrialization. Among Lee’s most direct works is “The Earth Performance” series, 1989–96, in which he transported giant PVC balloons painted to look like our planet to sites around the world, inviting passersby to touch, push, or care for the globes. One of these Earths sits in a corner of the gallery: It is both object and performance—bruised, scraped and, yet again, not behaving the way it should.