Minny Lee: The States Project: Hawaii
Minny Lee, like myself, is a relative newcomer to the ( Hawaiian ) Islands. Both of us became residents only in recent years. We’ve known each other for just over a decade now, both unexpectedly finding ourselves feeling very much at home in this Pacific place; within that span our lives have taken winding and various paths but one thing we share is clear – the deep and spiritual connection to nature wherever we find it.
“Encounters” was shot while Minny was living in New Jersey; and what moves me the most is proof yet again that yes, cameras lie [ in a most magnificent way ], and the command with which Minny captured and created utterly otherworldly images from a small and somewhat limited space to work with. Each twilight, she went out back and brought her camera to the small woods behind her home and made it her practice to do this regularly. Speaking to Minny, and getting to know her voraciously growing library full of Thoreau, Emerson, books on Concord, MA and Walden Pond, one gets the sense of her sensitive appreciation for the nature surrounding her. But looking with all my senses at her “Encounters” project, it becomes even more crystallized.
Minny Lee was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. Growing up in Korea, she was influenced by Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism and Taoism. Her father’s love for literature and cinema led her to pursue indirect experiences of life through reading books and watching movies. During her high school years, she developed a love for poetry, voraciously reading and writing poems. In New York City, Lee completed a One-year Certificate Program in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at the International Center of Photography; a Master of Arts in Art History from the City College of New York; and a Master of Fine Arts in Advanced Photographic Studies from ICP-Bard. She attended and was awarded a fellowship from the Reflexions Masterclass Program in Europe and participated in an artist-in-residence program at Halsnøy Kloster in Norway. Lee is a multimedia artist who employs photography, audio, video, artist’s books and site-specific installations. Her work contemplates the concepts of time and space. Lee’s work has been exhibited at the Datz Museum of Art, The Center for Fine Art Photography, ISE Cultural Foundation Gallery, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and Pingyao International Photo festival, among other venues. Lee is a faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, teaching photography classes and at the Honolulu Museum of Art School, where she teaches an artist’s book class. Lee lives and works in Honolulu, Hawaii.
I consider photography as visual poetry. I am drawn to photography’s ability to transcend time and place. I constantly revisit personal memories and history through my photography, reflecting on my inner self than striving to represent reality. I am interested in the coexistence between the past and present, dream and reality, and absence and presence. Living in the Korean countryside surrounded by nature made me aware of the energy radiated from and through nature. I like to look at seemingly trivial elements in nature and elicit something more out of it. I am interested in the incidental moments of the passing of time and their surreal qualities and tensions between real and imagined.
Most photographs in Encounters were taken around my house in New Jersey while some were taken during travels in France. They are portraits of trees reflecting my inner state and childhood memories. I see each tree with its own personality. Although I photographed trees throughout the year, only the ones from winter night made the final selections. I can see trees’ silhouettes better in winter. Night creates an entirely different mood from daytime; dark, scary, uncertain moods dominate. I become ultra sensitive to sounds when I am amongst such trees at night. When trees move by carrying wind, their movements and sounds create beautiful harmony. Encounters has been published in a limited edition artist’s book and exhibited as an installation work that invites viewers to experience nature by utilizing slightly moving prints hanging from the ceiling and sound recordings. It aims to invite the visitors’ direct interaction with the photographs by walking around the prints as if they entered into a forest.
Can you remember one of the first times you felt moved by what we call “nature?” Could you describe it?
When I finished first grade, my family moved to the countryside in South Korea, about one hour north from Seoul. My father built a house on a hilltop mountain where he gradually created a beautiful garden. In late spring, I noticed feathery and fernlike plants coming out of the ground. I thought they were weeds until beautiful white, pink, and purple flowers bloomed one day. I learned that they were cosmoses. In South Korea, there is a rainy season in mid to late July. After hard rain for two weeks, cosmos stalks bent downward towards the ground. I thought they were dead but after a week or so, they grew upward again. The resilience of this fragile plant impressed me. In the fall, cosmoses bloomed on both sides of the country roads by the rice fields. I will never forget the first time seeing swaying cosmoses and swaying golden colored rice stalks on the school bus going home.
What were some of the thoughts and feelings running through you while shooting Encounters?
While observing trees more closely, my mind went to the time I spent in the Korean countryside. I realized how much I was disconnected from nature after living in big cities since high school. With the Encounters series, I tried to not have any preconceived ideas. Rather, I tried to follow my intuition and react to what was in front of me. It required a lot of concentration and as time passed, I focused more on winter trees at night, which required physical endurance. However, my mind stayed sharper and I could see each tree better within the dark silhouettes.
I know you are very attuned and sensitive to nature. I am as well while some people say they are not. Personally I believe we all are, each of us innately has that gift; but for a myriad of reasons some of us become more or less sensitive to that voice. What are your thoughts on this voice, how to listen to it, what dulls it, what it affects, etcetera ?
I also believe that most people are inclined to be attuned with nature. Otherwise, why would people spend time and money on gardening and landscaping or going away to the mountains or ocean-side? Some people maintain that inclination while others lose it. I think it depends on the upbringing of individual—growing up how much was the person influenced by nature. Listening to nature requires openness and concentration. In his “Walking” essay, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields.” Perhaps not many of us can do that these days but at least we can try to let go of worldly thoughts and engagements while being in nature.
What are some concepts and themes you hope to cover through your work, in any of your projects?
The main thread of my work is about time and place but it is not necessarily about a specific time and place. I believe that we simultaneously live in the past, present, and future because humans can remember and imagine. Coexistence of different times, passages of time, and timelessness all exist in my work. I am also interested in capturing the state of mind and pushing the notion of photography. Once a publisher told me that my work is about “poetry of photography.” I think he was right. It is the poetic possibility of photography that keeps me wandering with my camera year after year.
Name your top 7 books that also correlate to your work, whether or not you’ve read them yet. [ They can be a to-finish, or a to-read ].
Andrei Tarkovsky “Sculpting in Time”
Marcel Proust “In Search of Lost Time”
Hermann Hesse “Demian”
Henry Callahan “Water’s Edge”
Masahisa Fukase “The Ravens”
Henry David Thoreau “Walden”
Wassily Kandinsky “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”
Encounters has also been a handmade book made by you, an equally beautifully-made book published by Datz Press in Seoul, Korea, as well a very sensory installation you created at a few locations. What do you feel makes it adapt so well to these various mediums?
Whether it is a book or an installation, my concern was to make a connection with the viewer. With the “Encounters” book, I tried to take the viewer into my journey in nature. The book starts with intimate portraits of trees and segue into my essay about living in the countryside of South Korea. It is a story quite personal to me but I believe that even the most personal story or memory can be the most universal. The size of the book is small (5.5×7.5 inches) so that people can hold the book in their palm but it is one long piece (176-inch long accordion) so it continues as one piece. The whole process (from the first book dummy to the published book) took me six years. I modified it, little by little until it felt right. With the “Nightwalker” installation, rather than placing picture frames on the wall, I used the whole exhibition space to showcase my prints by hanging them from the ceiling. As viewers walked around, they made the prints move to and fro and they also became part of the exhibition. By playing sound recordings from different seasons in nature, I tried to evoke the feeling of walking in the forest. The sensory experience was exactly what I was trying to experiment with this piece.
What’s a book/movie/quote/person/artist/or place, that’s is giving you inspiration these days?
Peter Wohlleben “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World”
Movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
F. Scott Fitzgerald “The Great Gatsby”
Junot Díaz “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”
Henry David Thoreau “Walden” and his journals
Masahisa Fukase “The Raven”
Daido Moriyama “Dazai”
Big Island, Hawai’i
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.