Girl On Fire: When Creativity Burns

Analyzing an artist’s creative process once the work is already done may give the impression that creating is a very simple act  – the artist sitting around the beautifully disorganized atelier, waiting for insight from the heavens. I hate to be the one giving the bad news: that’s not how it works. It was a summer day in 2010 when the South Korean artist Yujin Lee realized what was going to be a relevant topic for her production for the years to follow. While most of the people in Europe were struggling with the effects of the Eyjafjallajökull (good luck pronouncing it!) volcano in Iceland, she was getting to know her new muse: a black and white picture of volcanic smoke found on a newspaper. To gather the rest of the story, we followed the smoke signals of Yujin Lee, leading us all the way into her home/studio.


Arising From The Ashes

“It was a big issue as all the flights were canceled; it was all over the news," recounts Lee. "I found this really nice black and white picture and I thought it was very pretty and I made it into a drawing. I was in a residency at that time so I showed it at the open studio and a lot of people responded to it because they were also aware of what was going on.”

Drawing detail. Photo: Chris Phillips.

The artist then started to collect images of volcanic eruptions and other explosions. The insight brought by the newspaper became the trigger to a series of fourteen drawings. Permeating between natural and artificial, beauty and violence, the result challenges our eyes as they look like 2D sculptures. “They are a mix of natural explosions and artificial explosions. I totally took them out of the context – I only drew the smoke and whatever is the residue and took out the entire environment. I wanted it to look more like a little creature and also emphasize this difference between the natural and the artificial.”

Politically Incorrect?

Even for experienced artists, the creative process requires trial and error, be it choosing the right techniques or sharpening the artistic statement. Considering that a great part of her production features explosions, it may seem a somewhat controversy and delicate topic to deal with in Germany, making it easy to associate her creations with political statements. Interestingly, her most recent exhibition in Berlin, Chronos and Kairos, presented the "Telescope Series" at Morgen Contemporary, raising reflections on the way cultures relate to catastrophes. 

How to start a fire? Yujin Lee stands in front of a drawing. Photo: Chris Phillips.

“It started as an aesthetic interest but I think a lot of people perceive it as political. Actually, for me it would be hard to say it is political because I’m not trying to say anything through my drawings. It is taking subjects from the political field but it's not necessarily being political. I’m not trying to say this is good or this is bad, or trying to take sides on anything.”

After graduating from a university in the USA, Yujin, inspired by their particular approach (instigating students to communicate conceptual and political thoughts through their works), went back to her home country and exhibited a portrait series of the Korean president. “After I did the president series, I actually felt it was a failure. My goal was to say something about this violent modern history of Korea, but I realized that what people were really getting out of the work wasn’t really that and I began to feel a little bit hopeless about wanting to say something political through art.”

Yujin Lee showing her huge explosion drawings. Photo: Chris Phillips

“And so that’s why I kind of departed from being so literally political and then I reached this work which I think it was a good balance for me – working with aesthetics, working with the art language while still being relevant to contemporary issues, but not being so directly political.”

Inspiration Burning Within

Eyjafjallajökull, by the way, is not going to be the only awkward name to be mentioned in this article. “51 Smiling Buddhas” is the title of Yujin’s recent explosion series (which are being exhibited in Sofia this month) and although Buddism is in her family roots, it has nothing to do with the drawings. During her research, Yuijn realized that nuclear weapon tests receive rather unusual names. For example, there's Teapot, Sunbeam, Roller Coaster and Guardian. The sarcastic title "Smiling Buddha" was borrowed from India's first nuclear weapon explosion.

A drawing from the 51 Smiling Buddhas series. Photo: Chris Phillips

Still in progress, Lee’s current project is a series of twenty portraits – before you ask, no, they are not from Angela Merkel. Far from that, the pictures will be from half Germans and half from Koreans descendants. Inspired by the immigration movement in the 60s and the 70s – when many Korean nurses were sent to Germany – she developed a process that involves video-recorded interviews. The questions vary throughout the many subjects and, after watching the video without the audio, she chooses the exact frame to draw.

Work in progress: Germans and Koreans are portrayed in this new series. Photo: Chris Phillips

“When I did this work [the explosions] of course there were people saying oh it is just too aesthetic – there is always criticism for whatever you do. The reason I’m doing this series is also because I wanted my work to be more socially related. I am from Korea and I have experienced this kind of identity questioning – I didn’t want the topic to be totally outside of me but somehow connected to my personal experience.”

When The Smoke Clears

Like Yujin Lee, many artists often have to deal with being misunderstood: where they're own perceptions and ideas about their own work may not match those of the public eye. Although artworks are made to be seen, they are often liable to the most diverse interpretations and misunderstandings. From the most theoretical viewer – who'll prefer to establish criteria in order to interpret it, such as the artist background, his past creations, his tastes, etc. – down to the most naïve amateur, we're always exposed to the possibility of getting it wrong. 

It is up to the artists to decide if they should take the viewers' opinions into account and apply them to their creative process in order to attain more universal comprehension. Either that, or consider that being understood doesn’t really matter if they are expressing what they feel: that the only consequential burning is not the one that may happen at the public stake, but the one fueled by the creative fire inside.

Article by Bel Borst