Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator: Can you talk about the connections you are making between performance, installation and book arts?
Aimee Lee: I had a scholar recently tell me that she felt that my process of making my art and doing my research was itself the performance. I always thought that was cheating, because doesn't everyone have that process? And yet a bookbinder would never call herself a performance artist.
I've been documenting my process for years. And I do it because I work in fields that don't make sense to most people - that only are understandable to those who do it, too, and that's not a lot of people. Painters and writers never have to explain their work. But I've found that taking pictures and shooting video of papermaking, book binding, printing, etc., and showing them to people really help in creating a more invested audience.
I have to say that at heart, I will always be a performer. Not performing on a regular basis and not making performances regularly also affects me: I think that's partly why the work I'm making is getting bigger, and also why it's so labor intensive, because it still requires so much physical energy and stamina. A woman I met in Korea reminded me not to be afraid of learning how to make paper under a difficult teacher, and said, "you have to give up your entire body to learn a craft." So for now, I am sacrificing my entire self in that direction. I think it's the only respectful way to do it.
Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator: Do each of these practices allow you to tell different stories? And what are those stories?
Aimee Lee: I think these practices allow me to tell the same stories in different ways - in hopes that I might reach someone in a book that I might not reach in a performance, and vice versa. The easiest practice for me is to make books, because in my itinerancy, I can do that with a small space and just a few tools. You could say that about performance, but my big hang-up there is that inevitably, the documentation is key, so unless I feel great about my camera and camera person situation, it is a bigger operation.
My new show is all about using hanji to mine my history and ancestry. I've always used my life as subject and inspiration in my work, but in more of a direct storytelling fashion. But this show deals with a more subconscious level of my life, things that are unknown even to myself. I knew that I would have this theatre in Miami to act out my year of Fulbright research in Korea, and that was a great gift for me. Otherwise, I might have ended up not having an adequate way to synthesize my experience, which was hugely important to me. Not only because I was doing research that very few English speakers were doing or had done, but because it was in a field that I care about and in the country of my bloodline. I was finally going to Korea on my terms, as an adult, a scholar, and an artist, not just as a daughter or granddaughter or niece or cousin.
I had no idea what the artwork would look like the whole time I was in Korea. Even when I got off the plane in July after spending a whole year away, I had no idea. I had scheduled a solo residency in August for a month, where I was able to make art all day and not have to see a single person. I lived in a caretaker's cottage on a former farm on current national park land, and worked every day in an attic studio, letting whatever came out of me come out. And it definitely stumped me.
The work at Diaspora Vibe is work I've never made before, never seen before, but I trust it. It came out much larger than I usually work, using iconic imagery and no text, which is a huge departure from what I've done in the past. I should say, though, that right before I left for Korea in 2008, I had taken a fiber arts class with a Korean professor who talked about why she didn't use text in her art: she finds language and words so powerful that they overwhelm her work. I considered the idea a lot after meeting her, and played with not being so text-heavy. Then, going to Korea, I immediately saw also the English-centric nature of using so much text and that it doesn't necessarily translate as well to those who can't read English. So this work is also about reaching a larger audience on a more visceral level.
It's funny: the one book in the show (I was trained as a book artist so it's unusual to only have one book, but it was intentional) is 1. hard to read because it's all different shades of black and grey 2. hard to read because it's unclear how to turn the pages: they open on both sides and 3. dangerous to read because you could easily take a step backwards and fall down the stairs. Appropriately, it's called “In the dark” and comes from precisely that: coming upstairs to the studio one night on an accidental spurt of caffeine from green tea and working at dusk when all the colors start to disappear since there is so little light, and I was just grinding ink and inking paper without knowing exactly how dark the sheets were since those tonal differences are impossible to see in the dark. The text reads:
In the dark
things only seen by fingertips
things only by memory
I'm not a big color person, but this work surprised me because it was black and white, and mostly black. Very dark. At the opening, I met a papermaker who has been living and working in the area for a long time, and she remarked at all the black tones in the paper, saying that it's hard to make black paper. I had to explain to her that it wasn't black paper; it was paper that had been blackened with ink.
"Gaping" is one series in particular of three pieces that come from the ubiquitous Korean landscape of mountains. I think it's about 70% mountains if not more, and generally very rugged and uneven. But it also came from the idea of openings in these structures. The icons of peaks kept repeating themselves in my sketchbook and around the same time I had a dream where I was having a c-section (I've never been pregnant before), totally awake, and looking down at the incision and seeing nothing but lots of sheer black pantyhose coming out of it. I was thinking, "where's the baby? Why no blood? What's with the hose??" I ended up using a lot of sheer hanji that I had made - and even that came from a "mistake" - that particular paper ended up very thin by accident.
On the whole, though, much of the work mystifies me, but that doesn't worry me. I know that in time I will get enough space to be able to understand what was going on for me at the time and why this work emerged. Part of why it's so dark, wordless, and veiled is that I was thinking a lot about my male ancestry while I was making it, as well as while I was in Korea. I should preface by saying that I am completely at home in my interactions with women and have very deep friendships and mentorships with them. I am really keyed into all the dynamics between mothers and daughters, and get along fine with all of my female relatives. But the men have been more difficult to relate to, partly in my family because they just don't talk. Or at least, they didn't, while I was growing up.
Going back to the Confucian hierarchy, there really was not much that older men had to say to young girls or women besides find a good husband. On top of that, my father was always quiet and rarely spoke. This has changed as he has gotten older, but I was thinking even of my grandfather, and my great uncle, and my uncles, and how I know very little about them and have/had seemingly superficial relationships with them. I was thinking about what I have learned from them through guessing what they were thinking or learning just from their actions or stories about them that I would hear from female relatives. Every family has its own mythology. So what was mine, and how have I been shaped by the men in my life that sometimes seem more absent than present? Not to say that is a negative thing at all: I think absence is a defining presence in most people's lives. And what have I learned from all those quiet spaces? Not empty, but silent.
Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator: Can you talk about your history with Hanji? I know about your research with the Fulbright. Can you tell me a little about how that began for you?
Aimee Lee: I was born in NY to Korean parents, so until I left the home to go to nursery school at four years of age, Korean was my only language. That shifted dramatically once I went to school, and once I got old enough to be embarrassed by being Korean. But my parents always spoke Korean to me and my sister, even though we responded in English. They also sent us to Korea every few summers, but once I got obsessed with becoming a concert violinist, all I did from about 13 years of age was to go to music programs in the summer, not Korea. After seven years of not visiting Korea, I was in a Chinese landscape painting art history class at Oberlin College. One class session was in the college museum, which had just acquired several Chinese paintings on scrolls, and we got to see them in person, while the curator noted that the paper they were painted on was from Korea. I remember this creamy, gold-flecked paper, and the sudden thought, "why am I in this class? I don't know *anything* about Korean art history, or Korean art, or Korea." I went home and called my parents and asked them to send me to Korea that summer so I could re-learn Korean. From that summer on, I only spoke Korean to them, not English. It was a very awkward transition, but I am glad I did it, because it made my recent research all the more possible.
That was when I was 20. I became an art major, graduated, worked for a symphony orchestra, worked as a violin teacher, worked as a grant maker. Still no paper on my mind. But I loved book arts, which I had learned about in my final year at Oberlin, and when I decided to go to grad school, I picked an interdisciplinary one, and it happened to require papermaking as a core class. That was my first semester of grad school, and I was hooked from day one.
Paper has always been important to me, often without me even understanding. From a young age, I always loved paper that was closer to handmade than not. I think that most people feel this way: I have seen countless strangers over the years get excited just seeing handmade paper, and even more so when they touch it. That would be one of the major reasons that I am so drawn to it: tactility. Paper doesn't make any sense if you don't get to touch it. And since I work so intensely with my hands, paper is ideal for me because it requires so much labor just to make.
I may sound like a one-note character, which makes me laugh, because I have been accused my whole life of being a dabbler, of trying too many things, of wanting to do too much. I started out thinking I was going to be a concert violinist, and then a conceptual artist, and then a book artist, and perhaps a dancer of sorts, and definitely a performance artist, and then maybe even a writer. When I first met papermaking, everything came together. Instant love was a plastic apron, my hands in a huge vat of cold water, and pulp everywhere. But I think my life led to this.
Water: I grew up along a river that I never fully appreciated until I went away to a landlocked college. Discipline: I am accustomed to rigorous physical practice, either with my body or in tandem with an instrument. Labor: I have always loved to work, and work hard. Hands: I call them magic hands. I could never live without them, and they always stay busy. They have seen me through the biggest traumas of my life, weaving and knitting when I couldn’t sleep, making things to express otherwise inexpressible things. Books: I have always loved to read. My mother never trusted babysitters, so she would send us to the public library next door when we were young. I can’t imagine a better way to grow up than next door to a public library. I love to make books, gift them, and use them. And books are made of paper, including the ones with music printed all over them. Nature and sustainability: Paper comes from plants. And learning the cycles of plants, when to harvest, how to cook, how to make ash water to cook the plants, which plants will yield what kind of fiber or dye, is all intrinsically tied up in the land and how we care for it. In the past, paper was made by farmers, and for good reason. Performance: Papermaking uses the whole body, and its product can clothe and adorn the body, create spaces for it to move through, and act as props to communicate with others.
The last thing I want to mention about performance is that it is inextricably connected to ritual, intention, and meaning. In that way, it keeps me grounded, and in a way that I know has grounded people from the beginning of human existence. The best performances for me connect me to myself and the rest of the world around me - a reminder that we are all connected, even though we almost never feel that way.
Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator: Can you talk about your relationship to diaspora? I love how Rosie Gordon-Wallace speaks about concepts of diaspora as complex and multi-layered and am curious to hear your perspectives.
Aimee Lee: For a long time, diaspora for me was only linked to west African dance, and to an African diaspora. I did my undergraduate semester abroad in Kingston, Jamaica, and that was another opening for me to realize that the African diaspora in the US was only a very small piece of it.
I really can't remember when I realized that diaspora was much more inclusive than that, and I know that I only recently began to identify as part of a Korean diaspora. I think that my assumption was that diaspora could only refer to those who still had strong communities outside of their homelands, and because I had grown up in such a white American suburb with only one other Korean family in the village, I didn't think I counted. But that's not how I think today, and that's what I love about the word: the scattering about is so wide and huge. It's not just a very concentrated effort in one place - it spreads out even wider than its place of origin. And yet you know that you still have a place of origin, no matter how far away it is - in space, time, history, or blood.
Mostly, my relationship to diaspora has been about a kind of freedom - a freedom to live the way I choose because I am removed from the culture my parents were born into. Yet as I return more to Korea and do the research I am doing, I realize that my freedom comes with a responsibility to be respectful, and that it only comes because of the choices that my parents made. My path has been similar to many children of immigrants: I pulled far, far away from the original culture, and then came back, but on my terms and on my own road. This is the most important part of diaspora to me: that it is about the roundtrip, not just the initial spreading out from center. It is about every party benefitting from the dispersion, and about worldviews widening as a result.