young joo lee, in conversation
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Young Joo Lee is a multimedia artist from South Korea, currently living and working in Cambridge, MA and Los Angeles. Lee holds an MFA in Sculpture at Yale University (2017) and a Meisterschueler degree in Film at the Academy of Fine Arts Städelschule Frankfurt (2013).
In her recent moving image works, Lee's personal narratives as an immigrant, South Korean, and a woman interweave with the current and historical narratives to investigate the issues of alienation, discrimination, and mental illness in late capitalist society.
Lee’s works have been exhibited at the Alternative Space Loop- Seoul, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art- Seoul, The Drawing Center-New York, Museum of Modern Art, Zollamt - Frankfurt, Curitiba Biennial, and GLAS animation festival, among others. Lee completed several artist residencies including Macdowell (US), Sanskriti Foundation (India), MeetFactory (Czech Republic), and Incheon Art Platform (South Korea). She is currently a Harvard Film Study Center fellow She currently is a Visiting Lecturer in Animation and Immersive Media Art at the Department of Art, Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University. She was a College Fellow in Media Practice at Harvard University (2018-20), a Fulbright Scholar in Film & Digital Media (2015-18) and a recipient of DAAD artist scholarship (2010-12). Her work is represented by Ochi Projects, Los Angeles.
Lizardians combines animation, writing, music, and dance into such a compelling story. I loved that you included a watercolor painting of a panel on your website. It’s always so cool to see how artists arrive at their final piece. What was the process like behind creating Lizardians and working with a production team and cast?
Lizardians took quite a long time. I wrote the script in 2016 and it was supposed to be a live-action film. I was working with a writer and had many iterations and changes in the script, which changed the story a lot. But in the end, I ended up not working with the writer for the final version. When I finally received the funding to produce the film in April 2020, the pandemic had just started, so I had to adapt my plan to make it into a live-action film. That’s when I started to wonder if I could make it into a 3-D animation.
I had already interviewed many of the actors and wanted them to represent themselves as characters. I used software to create facial features using the photographs of the actors. For the main character, I wanted her to be a part of my process. I took on the role as if I was doing a performance piece.
I started writing the story after I encountered the stories about Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronic device manufacturing factory in China. The working conditions there were horrible and some of the workers committed suicide around 2010. This coincided with incidents at Samsung’s factories, in which workers were exposed to chemicals used in some of the electronic devices. Most of the workers were young women and many experienced miscarriages, unknown illnesses, and some even cancer. Some of them passed away due to that. In 2010, these two issues were happening at once and the way that these companies dealt with these problems were strikingly similar. Foxconn, for example, did not acknowledge that they knew about this, even though it would’ve been really hard for them not to. They were trying to push the responsibility of this elsewhere instead of addressing it.
Samsung similarly denied the correlation, saying that it’s difficult to track the illness because it develops over a long period of time and that these people already had conditions before they entered the company. The battle between the families of the victims and the company took 10 years, until finally the families were acknowledged and received compensation for the deaths of their family members. These kinds of stories really made me think a lot about the relationship between an individual and corporations that have their own systems of logic and operation. I think it’s almost impossible for individuals to understand or penetrate into the systems of corporations. Their stories melt away. As someone who has multiple electronic devices and uses them daily, I thought about the loss of the trace of the labor that goes into making those devices. The name value of an iPhone or MacBook has value in society and presents the corporation's image, hiding the other stories of the labor and effort that go into making those products. I was imagining a situation where this not only applies to electronic devices, but many other products that we use. We don't really see how these products are made or who made them. What if a product is recognizable as an individual's labor and time? In Lizardians, the product that Shelby produces is her own body parts.
Because we turned the film into 3D animation, there was another layer of dealing with the loss of human human touch and the labor behind the images. It was quite a lengthy process, taking about one year. Every scene was acted out via Zoom. I was directing them over Zoom and then using the footage for the final animation. I would say Lizardians is the most complex project that I've made.
I also noticed that in the Lizardians and Shangri-La exhibition brochures, you included Korean and an English translation. Why was it necessary for you to include translation and incorporate both languages?
I was born in South Korea, but I moved thirteen years ago. The exhibition took place in Korea, so most catalogs are bilingual. The funding came from Seoul Arts Foundation and the Harvard Film Study Center, which contributed to the bilinguality.
How to eat a bar of milk chocolate is one of your pieces that I felt was directly and overtly political. How did the inspiration to film that performance arrive?
That was quite a spontaneous performance piece. I found this chocolate bar at the JFK Airport on my way back to LA. At the time, in 2018, Donald Trump was the president and I just had to buy one because it was just such a bizarre product. The chocolate bar was an object that recorded the present time and I just wanted to get one for myself. I didn't know what to do with it. It was standing in my studio for a while and I was just thinking about it. I think I was renewing my visa back then and the process was quite stressful due to the increased anti-immigrant sentiment all over the news. I was building up frustration and anger to this figure and I thought of eating the image and what it represents. In a way, it’s a way to attack, but at the same time, I digested it because it's chocolate. I think that was kind of my way of dealing with what I was feeling at the time. Chocolate is a sweet thing, but the image on it contrasted with that sweetness. I think that contrast is interesting given the history of chocolate. Chocolate was used during war. M&Ms, for example, were invented as an emergency food that wouldn’t melt in soldiers’ pockets. Chocolate was also one of the first things that were introduced to Korea by the United States.
I’m also curious about the drawings you display on your website and the text that accompanies some of them. Are those drawings in series with one another? How does drawing play a role in your work in other media like performance and animation?
Some of them loosely connect to each other and some stand alone. Drawing and writing are how I start brainstorming my work. A lot of the drawings are expanded into stories and are snapshots of bigger narratives. Some of those I developed into film or video works. Drawings for me are more intuitive. They contain what I’m thinking about or what I'm encountering and experiencing.
I try to unpack my drawings to see if I can develop them into longer stories. I think drawing becomes the foundation for what I'm going to make next. Text is sort of hard to explain. As I draw, I write and sometimes they come together. For example, for the drawing of a woman giving birth to a wardrobe, I felt that I needed the sentence for the drawing to be complete.
You studied art at Yale, The Academy of Fine Arts in Germany, and Hongik University. Can you talk about what it was like learning in three different countries?
In Korea, I created a foundation for my artistic practice. I tried out everything. I was primarily doing painting, but most of my professors were male and in a certain age group, so they didn’t like my approach to painting. That made me pivot to non-painting mediums.
I think it has changed a lot now, but when I was in school, I still dealt with that conservatism as a woman. For example, one professor would say that most of us female students would marry and never make art again. That really got to me. I became very interested in social issues and what constructs personal experience, and what made me become who I am, or how I perceive other people or myself. I began searching for female artists who I could connect and look up to because of the lack of examples that I saw around. That led me to go to Germany. I lived in Germany as a child for three years, so it wasn't a totally foreign place. I had some unresolved feelings about living there. I had great, but also traumatic experiences and I wanted to revisit that. Germany also just has really nice art museums and support for artists. It’s a very artistically-rich country.
The German school system is totally different. The school I went to was almost like a residency. There were no formal classes and only a meeting once a week, so I had a lot of free time. This was really good for me because I didn't want classes at the time. I just wanted to make things and be in an artists’ space. It was more practical learning how to survive as an artist and be independent.
The reason why I came to the US was firstly because I received the Fulbright Scholarship. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford coming to the US. I had been feeling tired of feeling like an outsider in Europe. I think the diversity in the US, especially in cities like New York, made me think I could live and work here.
I was going to go to film school initially. All the other places that I applied to were film schools. But the reason why I went to the sculpture program was because of the similar freedom I craved when I was in Germany. Because of my multimedia tendencies—wanting to do sculpture, film, and performance—the cross-disciplinary and multimedia approach at their program seemed more fitting. My two years at Yale were great—I was exposed to screenwriting and other classes that I couldn't take when I was in Germany or in Korea. I had the opportunity to take the skills that I gained to come up with new ideas.
I found it really fascinating what you said in your interview with Women Cinemakers about the future of women in interdisciplinary art: “there are more female students than male students in art schools, while there are more male artists in museums and galleries. It means that the situation changes for the female students when they graduate…” Your work deals with otherness in a historical and personal context. How have you coped or responded to being othered in your artistic and non-artistic life?
It’s changing a lot. I’m seeing a lot of positive change both in the United States and in Korea. I’ve been teaching at Harvard for the past four years and I think I combat this by giving more opportunities to female students. I would never discriminate against male students, but I’m more conscious of the difficulties that female, nonwhite, or international students experience and I’m mindful of that when I’m teaching. Recommending students what to do and providing resources and information to them as much as possible is really important to me because it’s something I didn’t receive. That’s how I want to change this, on top of the work I make and stories I tell and uplift that raise awareness and promote underrepresented groups.
Your fellowship and your collaboration with the other Media Practice Fellows Margaret Rhee and Sohin Hwang sounds so exciting! How did this group come about? Do you all take inspiration from each other’s work?
That was from 2018 to 2019. I received the College Fellow in Media Practice Fellowship. We were the first cohort—Margaret, Sohin, and I—and we collaborated on many things, but most importantly, we held a panel on women, mobility, and technology to promote women in technology, because women are still underrepresented in technology. All of our work, even though we’re in different fields, address similar themes and concerns. It was very exciting that we crossed paths and had this opportunity.