Yongbaek Lee



Wolgot-myeon, Gimpo, Gyeonggi-do

Yongbaek Lee is an internationally renowned artist in Korea. His works that we encounter in many parts of the world, including the Venice Biennale and the Nanjing Triennale, stretch boundaries of everything; be it themes or medias used. He has a collector’s heart, accumulating a vast number of vintage stereos, but when the critical moment comes, he boldly leaves everything behind to venture out and head on. That was how he returned from Germany 20 years ago, left Hapjeong-dong 8 years ago to settle down in the city of Gimpo. The voice of the village foreman streamed through the loudspeaker, followed by the howling of his three dogs as we seated ourselves near the pond. In the place bonded by art, people and nature, a nice conversation was carried on with the height of our voices adjusting occasionally to the sounds within the studio.


Hyemin Kwon

This is one enormous studio (660sqm).

The size of my exhibitions are getting bigger so apparently I needed a larger studio. I was in Hapjeong-dong for 10 years before bringing myself to this new studio here in Gimpo. But most of all, I began to dislike Seoul. Back in the days a lot of the garages in the Hongdae area were rented out as studios for artists. There were so many of us there starting from Hapjeong all the way to Hongdae, that if I’d drop by all of my friends’ studios for a glass of alcohol one by one, it was enough to get me drunk. And there was this one guy who would sell exactly 50 plates of soup in front of his studio for exactly 2 hours every morning to pay his rent and finance his works. The culture that was so rich has now vanished and only the commercial is left and everyone is just selling. The fun is not there anymore.


They say a certain space can inspire an artist with its own energy (spirit).

Things have been going pretty well after I moved my studio. Also, my mind has grown peaceful inside which I think improved my health too. Being in the countryside allows me to clearly witness the change of seasons and the circle of life and death within it, something that I hadn’t noticed when I lived in Seoul. Watching life fading away in the winter but soon resurrecting in spring, my dog giving birth to her nine puppies—I feel the spirit of ‘life’ so vividly. And emptying my thoughts calmly to make room for new ideas is possible only because I’m here.


Where’s your favorite spot from this studio?

It’s the mountain in the back of the studio. I personally planted 100 apricot trees there and when spring comes they are the first to flower . And when they’re finally in full blossom, I switch my phone off and glue myself to this studio for a while. I would head to the apricot forest and sit on one of the chairs I had placed, stay still and feel the vague scent of flowers carried by the wind brushing past me, which is something that I absolutely love.


We were told this place is a work by architect Baikseon Kim.

Yes, it’s his work and he is a close friend who knows me better than anyone else. When we were in college, some of the senior classmates thought we’d make a good match as friends and introduced us to each other, like a date, and our friendship have built from then on. Throughout the years we’d each work on our own territories under the influence of each other. We are perfectly aware of one another so whenever we have an issue in our hands, we sit in front of coffee, talk through the day, and in the end always come up with a fair solution.


Can you share us what sparked you to collect vintage stereos?

I had purchased a couple of speakers from a friend by chance. I started to do some research in order to assemble them correctly and soon learned that they didn’t harmonize with the existing appliances. So I began to search for the right amp, the right wires and apparently it got me here, ten years later. If this was interpreted as a game, I’m about to face ‘The End’ of it now.


What’s the magnetism of vintage stereos?

The joy of assembling. It’s far from the pleasures of simple purchasings of those nice and expensive, finished products. The wires, amps, units, speakers, can generate different sounds depending on what kind they are when assembled. The resolution, which is the degree of clearness, the sound field, the degree of the width and depth of a sound, and the three-dimensional feel are the three basic elements to consider in order to assemble them in the way they would play the type of sound you prefer. Sharing the design(assembly) process of stereos or participating blind tests to see which makes better sound are also great things to do with the members of the vintage stereo club I’m in. To be frank, it is fair to say that stereos have actually degenerated than they were developed. Until this day stereos have focused more on the heightened level of sound and portability. For instance, there’s a high-end stereo that runs at 3000W in my living room. But the 4.5W stereo I have here (studio) is from 1922. It requires at least 15W to power a bulb so this is just amazing, using only a tiny bit of power to make it work.


And is it true you have a special episode related to Sir Namjune Paik (a prominent figure of video art)?

After my college graduation, I left to study in Germany, mainly to hear lectures from Sir Namjune Paik. But he ended his lectures before I entered the school and instead sent me a hand-written recommendation letter for the Stuttgart State Academy of Art, where Bill Viola (his student) was expected to hold a class there. Sir Paik probably thought it was another good option I could take. But as Bill Viola gained his fame in a flash, he resigned from school, so I ended up being taught by another professor for 5 years. I was finally able to meet Sir Paik when there was an installation going on in front of the new annex building of the Stuttgart Academy. In Germany, other than scholarships, the universities offer students the right to speak through voting on a number of issues. Out of the three nominated installation works, Sir Paik’s received the highest vote. He came to check on the installation and I was able to have dinner with him, where I showed him my works. He advised me to find the place that could bring my ideas to life at a fast speed or else to go back to Korea and become an artist representing the country. He meant if I were to be invited as a national guest, people would be drawn to the messages of my works a lot more intensely. A week later I got rid of all of my works and flew back home. That was 1996 when I was 31.


You bravely chose to walk the path of an artist at a young age, although it didn’t ensure success.

I wasn’t a bit interested in succeeding. I was rather relaxed, thinking it’d still be okay even if I don’t get much luck to succeed. I was 41 when I first sold my work, which I suppose didn’t happen so early. Until then I worked as a part-time tutor and a filming producer to keep my works going on the side. I had produced a documentary of a ceramic biennale, interview footages of art museum directors and even a couple of shoots for the TV program <Animal Farm>. I made money through my practical skills and used it to make artworks that didn’t sell, but I still think those were the happiest years of my life. And since my first sell, I’ve come this far as an artist, solely with my work for the last ten years.


In 2011 you were selected as the national participant of the Venice Art Biennale.

I was lucky but for some reason I was sure that one day I’d be presenting myself out in the international art world. Rather than being selected or not, it was the timing that mattered most. If an artist gains fame at a young age with a particular artwork, it’s more likely that the artist gets bound to that specific piece, because it sells well. But in my case, the timing was right after the years I’ve been running away, searching for the things more original since I tend not to like what others like. And thanks to myself, I think that part of me helped.


During the recent years, your solo exhibitions were held more frequently abroad.

Nowadays I often feel like the world is too small. It only takes 5 hours from Seoul to Busan and 30 hours to circle the Earth, so apparently, it’s just too small. With South America and the Middle East yet to show, I’ve literally traveled ‘around’ the globe showing my works. The closest one is arranged to be on view in China in 2018.


What is it that you seek through your art?

I seek to touch people’s hearts. Sometimes, even at the things that aren’t actually art, there are times when we feel ‘wow this is art!’ And I think that’s how art should be—to assist the audience to feel a new kind of joy and freedom. Back in 1999, I was shooting a documentary called ‘Tactile Documentary’ and I had casted a transgender in it. I went to gay bars every single night for six months to persuade this transgender to be in it. It seemed like it wasn’t for the money but rather (s)he was waiting to see if I could move (her)his heart. I was finally able to. And it came to me that not only the documentary but the persuasion, the effort and the whole process to make it happen had been part of the art. After all, it wasn’t about viewing that person superficially and use him/her merely as a medium of art but it was to look into their lives, listen carefully to their agonies and be able to break my own prejudice. A work that’s themed on changing a perspective of a subject can become the turning point for the audience, as it can deeply touch their heart and break the bias against the subject. This is what I wish to do.


Do you think artistry is something that can be taught?

Yes I think it is. Because there’s always a moment for everyone to be able to go beyond their limits. You know, leafing through your old diary might surprise you by discovering how deeply you were buried inside your thoughts or emotions, with your words spread out like poetry. And that’s where art starts. I think I only scratched the surface of what Joseph Beuys meant with his  famous quote, “Everyone is an artist," until now, where I can fully fathom its meaning. The vintage stereo club members are a good example. All of them joined to do something upon their free will after retirement, away from the weight of work or family responsibilities, which triggers a great deal of creativity or desire that pour out of them. I can’t say what we do is art but I think it’s pretty much artistic.


What is your current interest?

Building a hanok has been my long-cherished dream. I’m the type who has to see it to the end of anything I put my hands on. When I was obsessed with scuba diving, I went into the water more than a hundred times in a year. And for the past three years, all of the books I bought relate to hanoks. If I ever get the chance, I’d love to live in one of the hanoks I build.


Is there a specific reason?

I always thought if I ever have kids, I should raise them in a hanok, in an environment where they can grow different imaginations from that of the colorless places like the apartment buildings. I myself grew up in a hanok and I still recall the fascinating layout of the house. The master bedroom allowed an inclining and declining flow of movement, the different levels of the entrance space were so much fun for a little kid and the names of the flowers and grass that grew in our yard and the ability to observe and distinguish them just by their appearances were I think the real, priceless education I could ever have had.


What is your future plan?

I’d like to establish a small art museum here. An art museum with a ‘breaking art’ concept that delivers the works that quickly pick up the stream of our society. For a conventional art museum, it normally takes 2 to 3 years to plan and to finally exhibit in front of the public. If the content falls behind the speed of change, then it won’t be able to reach out to people and eventually rot.



bar sangsuri

Dongmangno 86, Mapo-gu, Seoul
6 Sangsu

“It’s a place for all ages, from youngsters to the middle-aged.”


Once you get out of exit 4 at Sangsu Station, you’ll notice the vintage-styled ‘bar Sangsuri’ right away. For those who remember ‘bar-da’ in Hongdae, this is good news because the owner who ran ‘bar-da’ moved and reopened it here under a new name.  The large list of alcohol and side dish and the cozy ambience adds great joy to the place, with guests occasionally playing music as well. Yongbaek Lee calls the place ‘a generation-less bar.’ Bars in Hongdae are dominated by people in the 20s but here, the age ranges up to 50s and 60s. Sitting around the large table among a variety of nationalities, ages and gender, while drinking, eating, talking and having lots of fun are scenes common to this place.