Artist Jee Young Lee Explains How She Makes Art Out Of Trash

Photo: Courtesy of Opiom Gallery.
For Korean artist Jee Young Lee, anything can be made into a masterpiece. Case in point? Lee's upcoming exhibit at Refinery29's 29Rooms event, "Ocean of Creativity," features a masterpiece made entirely from recycled trash.
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The 29Rooms piece isn't the first time Lee has taken inspiration from everyday materials. For her series "Daze: Stage of Mind," Lee used materials like paper cups and plywood to stage masterpieces in her Seoul studio, which she then photographed.
"I just want the viewer to enjoy themselves when looking at the work," Lee told Refinery29 of her 29Rooms exhibit. "I'm very open to whatever they'll perceive, or whatever they'll think about with the work. I want the work to be a playground for the viewers."
Refinery29 spoke to Lee about her upcoming exhibit via Skype, with the help of her friend Mike for English translations. Read on to see what inspired the project and what she hopes 29Rooms' guests will take away from the piece.
Refinery29: In your past projects, you've worked with other common materials for the work in your studio that you photographed. Why, for this project, did you decide to focus on trash as the material?
"I took the concept that you guys gave me, using trash as art, and I just took it literally in practice. I tried to find pieces of material that are commonly used as the materials for this project."
Is there a significance to the fact that you have chosen, specifically, plastic bottles and cups? Is the exhibit a statement about our culture of disposal and creating too much waste?
"The answer to that is 'yes.' Without knowingly, we dispose trash, or plastic cups... It's something that's very commonly used in our everyday lives. And I thought plastic cups and bottles are good materials that would have a significance because of the fact that they're something that we see and use every day. I've probably use much more than the amount that's on the actual stage in my life."
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Why did you choose to create a scene about the ocean, and marine life?
"First of all, I love the ocean. Recently, I became aware of the fact that minute plastics could be found in toothpaste or cosmetic materials and cleaners. They're a big problem in our ecosystem nowadays. I was really into this marine life problem, so I've chosen to focus on plastic as the main material."
Why did you choose to make the birds out of newspaper? Is there any significance to them being black and white, while everything in the water is more colorful?
"There wasn't a real meaning behind it at first. It was more of a visual thing for me, using black and white. But in our modern society, information is thrown away all the time — of course, nowadays, through the internet. But the fact that information is thrown away is actually the meaning behind the newspaper and the birds, because birds represent giving information and taking back information. And newspapers are an old form of giving information. There's too much information being thrown away, so that's the meaning behind the birds."
Do you consider yourself an activist? And if so, what kind?
"I don't really call myself an activist. But considering the fact that artists express themselves, it naturally occurs that when certain things that they want to say are related to politics or the ecosystem, I think, naturally, sometimes I can be an activist, in some form or another... Through this work, I think there are messages that I can consider myself an activist. The message behind the work is basically that pollution and contamination are in the modern society."
A lot of the Stage of Mind scenes that you created featured human models. Is there any significance to the fact that the 29Rooms installation doesn't feature depictions of people within the scene?
"I want the viewers to be the models in the scene. You're saying that we don't have the actual person, but when people are there, there are actually people in the scene."
What do you hope that visitors to your exhibit at 29Rooms will take away from the experience?
"Since I believe the viewers, or the visitors, are the models themselves, I just hope that the visitors, or the models, will consider themselves as one and think back to themselves upon the background or the scene that they are in. And [I hope that they'll] just have a flashback or look back on their own story, or the story of the past, and the story of things that they'll see... Basically, I want people to find their own story through my artwork."
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Do you hope that they'll start using less plastic?
"Well, not necessarily. If the thing that they're looking at has an impact on them, I don't want it to be too uncomfortable. But if it is, that's good as well. If they could think about it for a little bit, I think that's good enough."
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
29Rooms is Refinery29's funhouse of style, culture, and technology. Find out more about this year's event here.
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