Lee-Nam Lee: The Art of Appropriating New Meanings

by Sharon Kenney     

A Conversation between Monet and Sochi: Video Art, by Korean artist Lee-Nam Lee is a digital art exhibit currently on display at the Kalamazoo Institute of Art until August 18, 2012. The exhibit consists of several digital monitors and two video projections of masterpieces from the French Impressionist era and Korean art from the 1800s. However, Lee uses innovative technology to manipulate and create new meaning of past historical paintings. Lee brings art appropriation to a new level, and the effects are mesmerizing.

After replicating timeless works of art Lee uses Photoshop to convert the images into 3D image files, and uses video-editing software to create motion. In the main piece for which the exhibit is named, A Conversation between Monet and Sochi, Claude Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, an oil painting on canvas from 1873, is projecting on the left side of the wall, and an untitled ink landscape painting from the mid 1800s, by the Korean artist Sochi, real name Huh Ryun, is projected on the right side. The video, which lasts eleven minutes and thirty seconds, shows the two pieces interacting with each other. The works merge styles and symbols with each other, the seas connect with each other, and they both go through seasonal changes and from day to night. Snowfall moves over both of them at the same time in a very three-dimensional manner, which contributes to the feeling of cohesiveness of the two pieces. A fisherman from Monet’s work glides into Sochi’s; Sochi’s calligraphy slides into Monet’s. A backdrop of a city emerges behind the two images. Essentially, the pieces become one. They transcend cultural boundaries and converse with each other.

Lee-Nam Lee, A Conversation between Monet and Sochi, ca. 2009, video art, running time  11 min. 30 sec.

The effect that the works have on the viewer is one that holds the viewer’s attention for a significant amount of time. The works come alive and seem to communicate with the viewer, and create an intimate feeling of connectedness. The works also seem to surpass the two-dimensional screen and come out of the surface. In this way, Lee manages to go beyond the limited flat canvas and create new life. Through Lee’s manipulations of historical art pieces he creates entirely new meanings and raises questions about the connotations of the originals.

Another piece of Lee’s that manipulates and raises questions about historic art pieces is his New-Self Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh. In this work, Lee has created a montage of Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portraits in which Van Gogh slowly morphs into a later Van Gogh, and so on. While this is happening, which in it of itself is a captivating effect, Van Gogh blinks his eyes and puffs on a pipe that billows natural looking smoke, which appears as if it should leave the flat screen. This piece makes the viewer wonder what Lee could possibly be trying to state and furthermore, what thoughts and ideas are connected to Van Gogh already. This is the beauty of Lee’s art, and of appropriation art in general. Appropriation is not only reusing an already created image or form; appropriation must stay true to the spirit of the original work but in a different time and circumstance.

Lee-Nam Lee, New-Self Portrait, 2009, video art, running time 6 min. 20 sec.

When viewing the self-portraits of Van Gogh, one immediately questions the addition of the pipe to the work and what it could signify. When considering the image of the pipe in art history, René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1929) comes to mind. In this work, an image of a pipe is displayed above the words (translated in English) “this is not a pipe.” This opened the door for a number of possible analyses. The most widely expressed was that Magritte was stating that this is not a pipe, but a picture of a pipe. It makes the viewer remember that they are looking at a work of art which is a representation of the world and is not real. It is playful and sly. Further analysis of Magritte’s piece points to the possible Freudian symbol of the phallic nature of the pipe, and that what we see could mean an entirely different thing than what is blatantly obvious.

Connecting these ideas back to Lee’s New-Self Portrait, it could be argued that the placement of the pipe is to remind the viewer that, like Magritte’s message, this is not Van Gogh. These are not actually Van Gogh’s self-portraits, these are Lee’s versions of Van Gogh’s self-portraits. Furthermore, Lee’s piece could be a commentary on the popular habit of overanalyzing art work in general – especially that of Van Gogh in the attempt to further trying to understand his psyche. [1] Van Gogh’s self-portraits are not actually Van Gogh, and a viewer will never be able to actually know who Van Gogh was or what he thought through in-depth analysis of his works. This is the marvel of Lee’s works: his ability to re-master past masterpieces and question what they mean in a contemporary context.

Scholar Trafi-Prats once noted, “Artworks and other cultural artifacts have the potential to transcend their historical moment of creation, speaking again and anew in posthumous moments of interpretation, … [which in turn creates] belated meanings connected to the contexts and circumstances of the encounter.” [2] Furthermore, the new encounter with the appropriated piece is influenced by pre-existing knowledge of the work and questions. It is in this way that Lee’s captivating works push the viewer to imagine and create new meanings and expand upon established meanings in art history.


[1] Such as: Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (New York: Random House 2011).

[2] L. Trafí-Prats, “Art Historical Appropriation in a Visual Culture-Based Art Education,” Studies In Art Education 50, no. 2 (2009): 155. See also: Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October 12 (Spring 1980): 67-86.


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