Lee Ufan and the Art of Margins

May 29, 2019

By Allison Yoo, Barnard College.

Originally published in the 2019 print edition.

Lee Ufan was a Korean-born artist, working primarily in Japan beginning in 1956.1 Throughout his career, Lee participated in multiple art movements, though he is most well known for his leading role in “Mono-ha,” or the “School of Things.” Founded in 1968 in Tokyo, Mono-ha was a short-lived artistic phenomenon that developed out of close relations between Lee and sculptor Sekine Nobuo which ultimately sought to redefine the category known as non-art in the Japanese modern art scene. They presented objects in their “essential states,” liberated from pre-ascribed intentions, dissolving the boundary that divides the subject and object into separate entities.2 Lee, contributing to the movement through his Relatum series (1968-present), sought to observe the relationships that arise between objects and their surrounding spaces by juxtaposing natural and industrial materials in transient arrangements on the floor.3 These works present a strong sense of emptiness or absence, facilitating relational encounters. Lee states that blankness is not simply empty space, but an elevated realm that is opened by the encounter of self and other.

‘Relatum’ is a philosophical term that refers to objects or events between which a relation exists. In this series, Lee created a variety of configurations, mostly consisting of large stones and steel plates. The steel plate, despite its lack of use value in its current state, is identified with the unique qualities of steel—heavy and strong. Lee, however, emphasizes the plate’s utility that keeps it at the threshold of change.4 The plate exists in an in-between state: it has the potential to be used in manufacturing and construction, but ultimately awaits human intervention to mold its purpose —whether it is for industrial use or art. On the other hand, he claims that stone is a matter of nature, not an invention within the limits of the mind. Its value is therefore familiar to us; yet, we realize its materiality as an unknown that is completely detached from our human realm.5

The juxtaposition of the two objects’ exteriors renders a direct phenomenological experience of matter and existence that operates as an ‘encounter’ with what Lee calls ‘the other’—the external world. In Modernism, the only meaning of ‘making’ was objectifying an idea by concretizing an image. In the realm of art, it is necessary to recognize the other and open up a site of encounter between the outside world and self, which Lee achieves.6 He states that, as an artist, he “prefer[s] to offer a visual opportunity through which viewers can encounter the world,” rather than to make an object that is simply to be seen.7 Art exists in the ambivalent territory between ideas and reality, opening up the space as a place of interaction, mutual influence, and contradictions.8 Lee thus defines an encounter as a moment “mediated by a kind of directness…and interactive event” that involves the inner self and the external world to “break through the systematic shell of the everyday.”9 Lee sees encounters as ephemeral, expressive acts that allow us to reexamine the ambiguity of self and the other.10

This arrangement of externalities produces an encounter that suggests an intimate yet distant relation wherein the viewer can perceive the work as separate from each object’s original context. By presenting the objects in a particular composition, Lee opens up a space for his viewers to discover this inseparable relationship. The gaps between the placement of objects and the randomness of their positions invite the viewer to physically enter into dialogue with a work by walking around the arrangement. While viewers occupy the sculptural space, their contemplation of the relationships between objects presented and the interaction of artist, artwork, and viewer fills the empty space in and around the sculpture. In this way, Lee invites the viewer to join in on his meditation on perception of space and relationality as they encounter his works.

Enhancing this idea is the suggestion that Lee effaced the modernist idea of the autonomy of art.11 As a continuation of the non-art tradition, Lee establishes a connection not only between the objects in the composition, but also the viewers and object, and moreover viewers and the artist himself. Lee hopes that these “imprints” of the objects’ materiality will urge his viewers to turn to the spatial emptiness evident between the objects.12 The viewer, entering the work as the “other,” is faced with an “encounter” with the art. The blank space that surrounds the simple arrangement of stone and steel plate is left for their consideration of the spatial dynamics of the work, relations that exist within it, and the unstated values implicit in each aspect of Relatum.

Lee, now an established artist in Asia, Europe and the United States, makes use of negative space as part of what he calls the “Art of Margins.”13 The idea of blank space used to describe Lee’s works is translated from the Korean word yeo-baek (餘白). Signaling margins, this term is literally translated to “leftover-white.” This refers to whiteness in marginal space, but can be interpreted in various contexts: it could mean an absence, emptiness, or silence. Understanding these words in Lee’s work requires the viewers to return to his definition of blankness as an elevated realm of art that is opened by the encounter of self and other. Lee writes that he sees encounters as “expressive acts that shift art away from the modern process of representation” and allows us to “reexamine the ambiguity of self and other in a relationship involving interiority and exteriority.”14 The leftover hollow space in sculptural installations both embodies Lee’s ideas of encounter and leaves room for exploration through fissures in the materiality of the artworks. He considers blankness an absence of a mark, an empty canvas that is still abundant in meaning and implications. Although the work may bear a physical absence, it is filled with the resonance of phenomenological encounters. Such may be in the form of silence, the lack of noise, or void—the nonexistence of physical matter.

Lee’s works are influenced by his philosophical inclination towards presenting Zen thought through Western notions of phenomenology. Lee’s use of blankness corresponds to the concept of “absolute nothingness” in Zen Buddhism, particularly the metaphysics of the Kyoto School, which sought to relate Zen to Western traditions of ontology.15 In 1941, Nishida Kitarō, the founder of the Kyoto School, wrote in Artistic Creation as an Act of Historical Formation that he finds the “spirituality of Eastern Art” not in masterful, monumental works—as does the West—but in the emphasis of formlessness.16 The Kyoto School’s philosophy of “absolute nothingness” read through Lee’s interpretations of phenomenology helps elucidate the role of blankness in his oeuvre.

In his Relatum series, where he juxtaposes stones with large metal plates, Lee interprets blankness as literal empty space that he fills with the resonance of nothingness. For instance, in Relatum – Dialogue Z (2014), installed in the Château de Versailles, there is a strong sense of emptiness that permeates in and around the arrangement of the stone and large reflective piece of metal. The negative space between the objects in the installation is hence filled with Lee’s encounter with his audience, who become the external being. Although the composition of Lee’s installation seems rather spatially empty, the space is filled with meditations on aesthetics. Through his art of blankness, Lee claims the transcendental power of absolute nothingness to transform the static object into a living structure that conveys relationality.

Blankness can be translated into various contexts of Zen philosophy, and its connotations in Lee’s art are demonstrated as a phenomenon that Lee calls ‘encounter.’ While the Zen interpretation of blankness in Lee’s works indicate nothingness—perhaps even an absence—the effect that they have on its viewers calls for a greater significance than mere non-existence. The negative space in Lee Ufan’s art brings its beholders into a different realm of thought, thus enabling the potential of various encounters hidden inside the blank margins.


1 Simon Morley, “Retaining Plenitude: Lee Ufan and the ‘Indistinct,’” Journal of Visual Art

Practice 17, no. 2/3 (June 2018): 173–87, 175.

2 Mika Monique Yoshitake. “Lee Ufan and the Art of Mono-Ha in Postwar Japan (1968–1972).” Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles, 2012. 36.

3 Mika Monique Yoshitake. “Mono-ha: Living Structures.” In Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-Ha. Edited by Mika Yoshitake, Lisa Gabrielle Mark, Jane Hyun, Blum & Poe, and Gladstone Gallery, 97-117. Los Angeles, Calif.: Blum & Poe, 2012. 99.

4 Lee Ufan. The Art of Margins여백의 예술. Seoul: Hyundae Munhak, 2002. 176-178.

5 Ibid., 181-182.

6 Lee Ufan. “In Search of Encounter: The Sources of Contemporary Art.” In From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan, 1945-1989. Edited by Doryun Chong, 218-223. 1st ed. New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 2013. 218-219.

7 Ibid.

8 Lee Ufan. Dansaekhwa with Lee Ufan. Seoul: Kukje Gallery, 2015. 5.

9 Ibid., 220-221.

10 Ibid.

11 Joan Kee. “Points, Lines, Encounters: The World According to Lee Ufan.” Oxford Art Journal 31, no. 3 (2008): 405–24. 409.

12 Alexandra Munroe and Lee Ufan. Lee Ufan : Marking Infinity. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2011. 31.

13 Lee, The Art of Margins. 16-17.

14 Lee Ufan. “In Search of Encounter: The Sources of Contemporary Art.” In From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan, 1945-1989. Edited by Doryun Chong, 218-223. 1st ed. New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 2013. 220.

15 Jason M. Wirth. “Truly Nothing: The Kyoto School and Art.” In Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conversations with the Kyoto School. Edited by Bret W. Davis, Brian Schroeder, and Jason M. Wirth, 286-304. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. 292.

16 Ibid., 292.

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