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Book review: Lee Yil – Dynamics of Expansion and Reduction

Lee Yil book cover

Lee Yil: Dynamics of Expansion and Reduction
Selected Writings on Korean Contemporary Art, 1970 – 1996
Initial draft translations: Chung Yeon-shim, Park Eun-ah, Park Sung-ji
Final translations: Paul O’Kane, Song Bada
Published by AICA (International Association of Art Critics) /
Les Presses du Réel, Dijon, France, 2018, 212pp

How often do you read the learned essay that accompanies a new art exhibition and find yourself not understanding a word of it? For me, more often than I would like. I am never sure how to tell whether the essay is unclear because the writer is being deliberately obscure (to cover up the fact that he does not understand the artwork himself); or simply doesn’t know how to write clearly; or because I’m not clever enough to understand what he is saying. Then there are the instances where the essay seems to say absolutely nothing: a less than competent writer has been paid to fill a side of A4 and pens a few paragraphs of empty fluff.

If someone has decided to publish a collection of essays by a single critic, there must be a general consensus among the experts that he knows what he is talking about – he must be a significant figure in the art-historical world, and worth taking seriously. And fortunately, this collection of essays and criticism by prominent Korean art critic Lee Yil (1932-1997), are, amazingly, clear and for the most part comprehensible – clear to the extent that even where you’re not sure what it is he is trying to say you think it’s your fault for not being familiar enough with the subject matter or with the concepts involved, rather than the writer’s fault for being deliberately obscure. You are left with the feeling that, if you come back to the essay again in the future, you will understand it better. And that it will be actually worth the effort to do so.

What is even more amazing is that all the essays and articles in this collection are translations from the original Korean. I cannot imagine what a difficult exercise that must have been (though the fact that the task required as many as five translators is indicative that the task was herculean). But Paul O’Kane and Bada Song, who were responsible for the final drafts, have produced results that read as if the articles were (a) originally written in English by (b) someone who is trying to communicate with a broader audience than just other art critics. That is quite an achievement.

Paul O'Kane talks at the launch of Lee Yil's selected writings
Paul O’Kane talks at the launch of Lee Yil’s selected writings at the KCC, 23 March 2018. Jean-Marc Poinsot, series editor, looks on.

The book is a selection from a two-volume publication (in Korean) of all of Lee Yil’s writings. The selection is divided into two parts: a dozen or so essays on art-historical trends or trying to place in context the works in a particular group show; and over twenty, usually briefer, pieces focusing on the work of individual artists. In both cases it is fascinating to read, a few decades after the event, a contemporary take on trends in art history or on the importance of a particular artist.

Yes, there are articles I don’t understand too well. The 1970 article, Dynamics of Expansion and Reduction, that gave this collection its title is a case in point. There is a general consensus that post-war Korean art history included an “Art Informel” phase and a “Dansaekhwa” phase – in both of which Park Seo-bo was a leading light. But there were other things going on as well. Does it make sense to talk of a single “phase” in between those two major trends mentioned above ? Lee Yil’s solution is to posit a phase of “expansion and reduction” – which I’m not sure I fully understand – and which would be made clearer by the presence of images to illustrate key exemplars in this phase. But, to be honest, I think I might not understand Lee’s concept because maybe there wasn’t really a leading trend that held primacy in between informel and monochrome – and that seems to be what is suggested by a graphical timeline of Korean art history that I happened to photograph last year when I was browsing round SeMA (Seoul Museum of Art, near the Deoksugung).

Timeline of Korean art history in the 60s and 70s
Timeline of Korean art history in the 60s and 70s, on display at SeMA

It must have been tough to select which pieces to translate. One can choose to grumble about what the collection could have been: it would have been nice, as noted above, to have many more illustrations (which of course would have increased the cost and timeline); it would have been nice to have had the two essays Lee Yil wrote as introductions to the Korean entries to the Paris Biennale in 1963 and 65 – perhaps ruled out for being in French rather than Korean. And among the many artists featured in the book are some big names (Park Seo-bo, Kim Whan-ki, Yun Hyong-keun) and some lesser known ones. One big name is notable by his absence: one is dying to know whether Lee ever wrote about Nam June Paik, and if so what he had to say about him.

But these grumbles are more a compliment than criticism: I simply want more of it, and I would rather celebrate that the collection has happened at all. It would certainly be vain to hope for a follow-up book with the remaining essays. In the real world, this volume probably has a limited readership, no matter how much that readership might appreciate its value; and AICA must move on to the third volume in their Art Critics of the World series.

Finally, there is one feature of Lee Yil’s writing that is totally endearing and which makes you trust that he isn’t consciously trying to befuddle you when you don’t immediately grasp his argument: he is disarmingly open when he himself doesn’t understand a particular artist. “To be honest, Kim Ki-rin’s painting still remains a mystery to me,” he confesses (p 134)1; and “Lee Dong-youb’s painting is not easy to grasp.” (p169). If only all critics were that frank.

Highly recommended, as a supplement to general overviews of the period such as Charlotte Horlyck’s Korean Art from the 19th Century to the Present.


  1. The artist’s name is more usually rendered as Kim Gui-line. []

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