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Insights of an Eco Artist

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In conversation: Sangmin Tang Lee

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Sangmin Lee, born in South Korea in 1993, is a Korean artist best known for portraits featuring Korean queer individuals, including himself, through his practice of representing his subjects by utilizing his interdisciplinary approach to art-making.

18 November 2022

Sangmin Lee, born in South Korea in 1993, is a Korean artist best known for portraits featuring Korean queer individuals, including himself, through his practice of representing his subjects by utilizing his interdisciplinary approach to art-making.

Lee’s artistic career began after he took his first art class at Bellevue College in Bellevue, Washington State in the U.S. in 2015. Lee made a name for himself with his controversial and striking colored queer self-portraits with unusual objects such as high heels and copies of visa application forms. Throughout several exhibitions that featured his distinctive self-portraits, Lee raised awareness of queer existence in South Korea, where it is framed as synonymous with fear and ignorance, thus furthering his career as an artist.

In 2017, under the supervision of Bellevue College Professor Molly Vaughan, Lee began to create political portrayals of queer individuals from people he met through underground events in South Korea. The series of portraits are based on a photo shoot and often use traditional Korean cultural patterns that he inspired from his grandmother’s Korean traditional gourmet as background. Lee's sincere and vibrant portraits challenge viewers' preconceptions of their subjects and bring queer individuals into their rightful place in the public space, where they are so woefully underrepresented. 

Lee worked as a studio assistant under Professor Vaughan from 2018 to 2019. After Lee's return to South Korea in 2020, he became the first queer artist in history to hold a solo exhibition and a drag show at the highly prestigious N Seoul Tower. Since then, his work has been exhibited nationally and internationally in solo and group exhibitions, including "XPOSED - Naked & Not Afraid" at The Knox Contemporary Gallery of Art in Alberta, Canada, and "CV(=The Course of One’s Life)" at the Villa Hamilton in South Korea.

Sangmin Lee has now begun his multi-year portrait project “New Identity”, a collaboration with dozens of non-binary/trans Asians from across the globe, believing that the consistent representation of queer individuals in the public space is an act of activism. Lee predominantly presents his art as a struggle against objectification, social categorization, and, ultimately, vulnerability and exclusion from belonging.

See more of Sangmin Lee work´s here.

First of all, introduce yourself to our readers. How did you start getting involved with art? And when did you realize you wanted to be an artist?

Hello everyone, my name is Sangmin Tang Lee; I usually go by Tang. 

My involvement with art began with my first art class at Bellevue College in the town of Bellevue in Washington State in the U.S. in 2015. I had never thought about getting into art before taking this class. I grew up in Korea, where homosexuality is framed in the context of fear and ignorance, so I have always lived under this shadow. I had no role models growing up as a queer individual; I found my safe place in music, mostly the works of solo female musicians, but their distance from me was too great. Everything changed when I took my first art class at Bellevue College. On the first day of class, professor Molly Vaughan entered the classroom and introduced herself as a trans individual and stated that she makes art about her trans identity without concealing it. At that moment, I decided to be an artist. I’ve never thought that making art about being queer would necessarily lead to success; when I heard Professor Vaughan's story of being trans, I wanted to be a thriving Korean queer artist who represents queerness. I’ve never stopped making art since then. Molly Vaughan, not Lady Gaga or Beyonce, was the thriving queer individual whom I needed that I didn’t know I needed. 

Why do you dedicate your practice to creating political portrayals of queer individuals, highlighting objectification, social categorization, and exclusion from belonging? What was the first motivation behind it?

This question brings me back to 2016, after having taken just a few months of art classes. Back then, I hadn’t developed a clear direction on how I was going to represent queerness, yet figurative art had always been my favorite subject. On June 12, 2016, my practice took a huge leap forward when the Orlando nightclub shooting occurred. Every news outlet in the U.S. was talking about it, and I was curious as to how the Korean news media would report this tragic event. Would they omit certain words as usual? Such censorship would be impossible since the incident happened in a gay club. Shortly after the shooting, I found an article by Yonhap News, one of South Korea's biggest publicly funded news agencies, which reported that "the shooting occurred in a gay club, so there were no Korean casualties to report." I was speechless. Korea has more gay citizens than most people think, and yet the country acts as though gay people do not even exist among our families and our friends. Worse still, the government doesn’t care and only tries to erase our existence.

The result of this tragedy made me want to express my sexuality through my art, so I created a pattern with my legs whilst wearing heels and painted the Korean national flag in the middle. I believe that I found my path as an artist there, and I’m still creating political portrayals of Korean queer individuals, myself included.

We Exist, Mixed media on wood panel by Sangmin Tang Lee. Image courtesy of Sangmin Tang Lee.

One of your most recent works is this impactful multi-year portrait project “New Identity”. What can you tell us about the process and motivations? 

The title “New Identity” was inspired by a Korean government identification number composition protocol. The Korean government assigns the seventh-to-last digit of a citizen's ID number according to their sex designated at birth; the seventh-to-last digit of the ID number of citizens born before 2000 is 1 for those designated as males and 2 for those designated as females. Note that the South Korean education system never teaches the difference between gender and sex, only instructs individuals on how to assimilate into the government-mandated conventional social gender construction rather than make them feel as if they belong in their own country regardless of their perception of their own gender. According to a survey conducted by Dawoon in 2021, 33.6% of LGBTQIA+ Korean citizens aged 19 to 34 have experienced gender discrimination, and almost 40% of non-binary or trans citizens have considered committing suicide as a result of this discrimination. Thus, the project serves as an important beacon to LGBTQIA+ citizens struggling with social categorization or objectification in Korea. 

The project involves creating life-size portraits of non-binary or trans individuals living in Korea. Since this project represents non-binary or trans individuals whom I met through underground events in South Korea, it requires more than just working in a studio. I go out to gay bars, meet people and have conversations about their lives in Korea as queer individuals. Sometimes I go on stage, explain what I do, and ask for volunteers to participate in my project. The resulting series of portraits are based on a photo shoot presentation format and implement traditional Korean cultural patterns as backgrounds on canvas using charcoal, pastel, and oil paint. Volunteers participate in a photo shoot session at a studio during which I let them do whatever they want to do as long as they think it represents themselves; all I do is give them a safe space. I create the portraits on canvas after the photo shoot.

June, Mixed media on canvas, 51 x 63 inch by Sangmin Tang Lee. Image courtesy of Sangmin Tang Lee

Self-portrait, Mixed media on canvas, 63 x 51 inch by Sangmin Tang Lee. Image courtesy of Sangmin Tang Lee.

How does South Korean culture influence your practice both conceptually and visually?

South Korea tends to stigmatize anything that is “controversial”, and the existence of LGBTQIA+ people is no exception. Most people still believe that the LGBTQIA+ community is an invention of modern Western culture, so they think that Korean LGBTQIA+ people don’t exist. Even if they’re featuring our culture on a broadcast, for example, of drag artists, they remove the true history of the phenomenon to make people believe that it’s part of the normative heterosexual culture which has always existed. This culture of omission influences not only my practice but also the foundation of my practice. Living in this oppressive environment makes me represent queer existence in Korea more directly, in the hope that my work can be addressed outside rigid and repressive social constructs. I strive to punch audiences in their faces with my work rather than letting them engage with it however they want. For that matter, my work transcends conceptual abstraction. On the other hand, my practice visually embraces the traditional beauty of Korea. I create traditional patterns inspired by the traditional Korean garments hanbok or raden from my grandmother's giant closet and use them as backgrounds. I try to bring traditional elements into my work because I find that such features are most effective in communicating the Korean identity of queer Korean individuals.

You moved from South Korea to the U.S and then back to South Korea. How was the experience and how does it influence your current practice?

Moving to the Seattle area changed my life. I found my passion there and the liberal and diverse environment provided a safe place where I could be myself which I never had in South Korea as a queer person. Ultimately, it taught me how to see myself, others, and the entire world without my view being distorted by any particular lens. The beginning of my practice in Washington was about my identity as a queer person in South Korea, but my work quickly transitioned to address what’s happening in the queer, and especially the gay, communities. For example, I made a drawing about how dating apps and Prep proliferated in the modern gay community. Representing queer individuals never occurred to me since I was surrounded by queer individuals most of the time there. After I moved back to South Korea, observing woefully underrepresented LGBTQIA+ members made me return to the origin of my practice: challenging viewers' preconceptions and bringing queer individuals into their rightful place in the public space. 

Dating(_), Graphite pencil on paper by Sangmin Tang Lee. Image courtesy of Sangmin Tang Lee.

What is for you the most challenging part of your work? How do you manage it?

I am always fighting; I fight rejection from public spaces, I fight with others’ doubts about my artistic career, and I fight with my uncertain future. Whenever I feel down, I think about myself in my youth: the queer kid who lived among bullies and loneliness during my teenage years, wishing that I could see and meet other queer people. I believe that kids are going through right now what I went through in school, and I don’t want anyone to suffer as I did. I hope they see my work on social media or in public spaces and it makes them feel safe and makes them believe that they are not a freak or alone. And I return to painting again. 

Can you name an artist or artwork that is a great inspiration for you as an artist?

I’ve always been drawn to figure drawings; I still don’t know why. I visited The Art Institute of Chicago a few years ago during a special exhibition on Andy Warhol, but I chose to stay on the second floor, where Renaissance period drawings were featured. I sketched master’s drawings for five hours on the first day, then returned on the next day to sketch more. My three favorite figure drawing artists are Hans Beller, Rick Sharfer, and Shane Wolf.

What is for you the biggest challenge we face as individuals and artists navigating the current state of things?

Money. I believe that no one is getting into art because they want to make enough money to live comfortably. I, of course, got into art not because of money but because I am compelled by a personal mission. Artists need money to continue our practice, which is our ultimate goal - the biggest challenge we face as individuals and artists. Freedom is the most expensive commodity in modern society. 

Lastly, any artist, podcast, book, or platform you would like to recommend?

The Confession Tour DVD by Madonna. This is the definition of controversial practice—the creation of the provocative. And.. the three books that influenced me the most are The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs, The End of Gender by Debra Soh, and Art and Homosexuality by Christopher Reed.

What’s on your mind?

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