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Meet John Junghun Lee

Today we’d like to introduce you to John Junghun Lee.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I am an LA-based artist working primarily in video and sculpture.

I was born in South Korea and grew up in a small suburban city called Cheonan. I have always loved making things with my hands. I especially loved drawing and origami. I think a lot of my interest in art and design came from my mom. She studied furniture design and craft when she was younger, but then she married my dad and had me and my sister. She has been a housewife since then, but she always made something in her side. I remember pencil holders on her desk made out of ordinary milk containers, decorated with patterned papers and stickers. She was always happy to teach me how to draw. She was a great teacher too – when I took my first serious art classes in middle school, the teacher asked me if I have had private drawing lessons. I don’t draw so much anymore unless I am sketching, but I still enjoy collage a lot. I think of my video and sculpture as a kind of collage.

Around eight years ago, I moved to Los Angeles. I was 15 years ago and didn’t really speak English. I was lucky to go to an art high school in downtown LA because knowing ways to express myself other than language has helped me to adjust to the new country. After high school, I decided to pursue art and started at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Here, I met great teachers and peers and learned a lot about contemporary art, art history, art theory, and literary criticism. I also started to gain confidence with my English and started to actively incorporate language in my work.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
My work often involves a lot of research and writing. Making a heavily text-based work as a person who speaks English as a second language is always a challenge. I have limited vocabulary, excess to cultural references, and accents, and I have to work around them to remain a kind of integrity or validity that the art world, academia, and myself want. I think there is an inherent politics in getting one’s voice heard, especially when one speaks in a non-native language. So for me, making a point in my work feels like a form of empowerment. Maybe it’s a bit of the American dream as well.

I am also grateful for my friends because without them I can’t be making a kind of work that I make. Proofreading and suggestion are an essential part of my process. My friends make this journey not only smooth but also meaningful.

John Junghun Lee Studio – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the others?
My main medium is video. I make video-essays that are didactic and critical, while simultaneously being emotional and deeply personal. I find the discrepancy between them productive because it always leads me to profound thoughts.

One of my videos, “I-V-W” (2018) is a story of a man who can’t cry. The narrator, enacted by two male voice actors, confesses his inability to mourn after his grandmother’s death and the guilt from it. The narrator then talks about one of Vermeer’s paintings “The Geographer” – its optics and colonial context. Finally, the video talks about how certain images (and camera) can substitute for the act of crying.

I also do performance. In my recent one “Reading 24/7” (2019), I read the first chapter of “24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep” by Jonathan Crary – basically a book about the connection between our economy and not sleeping – while drinking seven cups of tall-sized, caffeinated Starbucks drinks. Before every new drink, I announced the name of the drink.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
One time I showed my video “I-V-W” to my aunt when it was exhibited and she started to cry. I never saw my work invoking so much emotion. I was surprised and happy about it and I wish to do it again to a larger audience.

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