Exclusive Interview: Surreal Dreamscapes with JeeYoung Lee

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

"I don’t like to urge the audience to interpret my works in my own way only. I want them to create their own stories through my works. I wish that they would be reminded of their past moments hidden deep in their memories when they see my works."

When one comes across the artworks of JeeYoung Lee, there are two words that spring to mind instantly: dream and surrealism. The talented Korean artist and photographer manages to merge both of these worlds beautifully, by creating twisted surrealistic scenarios and theatrical performances of different elements, abundant in colours, forms and imagination, like scenes taken straight out of Alice in Wonderland or one of the quirky movies of Tim Burton.

During the interview with Artrootz, the artist revealed the work that lies behind all the surrealistic images and ideas, as well as possible future plans that lie ahead for the artist.

Loveseek, Inkjet print, 2014 by JeeYoung Lee

In her small studio, the artist attempts to intersect photography and installation art, by playing with different scenarios and distorting different realities, in a way that suits her artistic purpose and without editing or modifying the image after the shooting session. The hypnotic scenes involve several natural elements, from birds to fish, oversized flowers and furniture, usually in strong, even flashy colours, with one more predominant for each set. The outcome of each picture is a mix between dreamlike scenery and a nightmare vision, a careful depiction of various mental or emotional states, which the viewer can reflect on or associate with.

"The scenery I picture in my head is not real, but it reflects my perception of reality, therefore it is 'real' to me. ‘Existence’ is an important concept of my philosophy, I contain the set intact in the photo. Besides, I consider the creation and destruction of the set as an integral part of my creative process."

Coming from a family with artistic background, the artist recognized her passion for art from an early age and decided to explore it further and this led to a career path in the industry of film production and theater, in which JeeYoung Lee worked for quite some time. Acquiring some important knowledge on concepts and technical skills that would later come in handy and will be visible especially in the stage-like expression of her photographs, she sustains that she still didn't feel fully satisfied with the work itself, feeling often a lack of creative freedom.

"In college, I picked up an interest in theater and film production art. I was a member of the school’s filmmaking club. We made short films and music videos together and I often headed the art department. Later I took a couple of semesters off to work as an assistant at a commercial film production company. After a few months, although it was interesting, I realized the industry was not the best outlet for my creativity. It didn’t offer the creative freedom I had expected and I was constantly bombarded with work. This is when I started taking staged photographs for my bachelor’s exhibition which brought me back to my roots. I went on to study photography in grad school to gain in-depth knowledge. My debut as an artist was in 2009 when I graduated from grad school."

One of the main points of being successful in the artistic field is, according to JeeYoung Lee, the ability to let yourself completely immersed in your work, even to the point of obsession, once the idea is clearly shaped in the mind. Afterwards, research is also an important stage in the process, with the person willing to "agonize over and over in searching for themes, expression, concept, proper medium." The artist also warns about the significance of keeping the right balance between anxiety and self-conviction, of keeping believing in yourself despite the circumstances and "have a clear worldview".

The turning point in the artist's career was during 2014, when she held her first solo exhibition at Opiom Gallery in France and she received a lot of media attention, that created the foundation for her to be known later on at an international level.

This is not enough, Inkjet print, 2012 by JeeYoung Lee

What distinguishes the work of JeeYoung Lee from the creations of other similar artists and photographers is that the sets are constructed manually and carefully, over many hours and each and every element in the scene is handcrafted, has a specific meaning, so in the end there is a precise, overall connection among all elements in the set. Nothing is placed there by accident or randomly and everything supports the storytelling process. Moreover, the audience can easily find itself immersed in the scenarios depicted by the images, because of the interactive quality of the artworks.

Her artistic process of creation involves several stages, all performed in a controlled environment - her art studio. She stops at one particular images, after taking several shots and removes some of the lines that help to hang objects from the ceiling, or sometimes plays with the lighting so the scenes become more dramatic or powerful, but overall the image is left untouched in terms of editing process.

One of the interesting details that can be found across all JeeYoung's images is the impossibility of communicating directly with the main character in the set, the artist itself: the look is never directed towards the viewer, but often hidden or absent, gazing somewhere far away. This contributes to the overall dreamlike atmosphere of the creative photographs, to representations of deeper states of mind and interior conflicts that have to be solved privately or intimately, because as the artist admits, her work is interlinked with "personal experiences, emotions, dreams and memories. I describe my inner psychological landscape in my work. You can say that each scene in my photographs is a story put together with fragments from my memory and experience".

Breeze, Inkjet print, 2016 by JeeYoung Lee

Although living in an urban environment, nature is constantly a source of inspiration for her artistic creations, because of the diversity of its elements, colours, forms and structures. Even the tiniest creature can find its place in the artistic set of JeeYoung's photographs, bringing to mind the surrealistic world of Alice in Wonderland or the fantastical worlds captured by Tim Burton in movies such as Big Fish or in films by Michel Gondry, as the artist herself admits. Just like in these directors' visions, the artist also attempts to present innocent narratives of strong feelings, from joy, anger to sorrow and pleasure or states of mind that the viewer can correlate to easily without dramatism or melancholy: "I have been metamorphosizing the objects in my work to give the audience a different perspective of a certain emotion whether it would be anxiety or hope or expectation. The meaning of the colors used is also an important factor".

In JeeYoung Lee's opinion, the power of art and especially contemporary art lies in the ability to create debates, raise questions and finally enrich people's lives and open new horizons and possibilities of expression, especially with the current access to technology and social media as a great way to promote art and artists worlwide. Freedom of expression should be granted naturally and this is still an issue in many countries in which artists don't thrive and thus have to emigrate. The artist retains the idea that despite all this accessiblity, art itself should not become mainstream or become political on purpose but instead, follow its natural path:" It is quite natural that art handles political, psychological, religious and social issues. However, it is not deemed artists' obligation. It is up to the artist's tendency and interest".

Flu from State of Mind by JeeYoung Lee

For JeeYoung Lee, the estimated time to accomplish one of her works is two months or longer, if working only by herself. In her view, overall the photographs have developed a lot in time because of her interests and scope of work that increased as well, by experimenting in very different spaces with site-specific installations or touching sensitive topics of global environmental impact and using specific materials to help with expressing these topics, such as plastic bottles, plastic bags, newspapers, for example during her event in U.S., "29 Rooms" .

Gamer, Inkjet print, 2010 by JeeYoung Lee

Asked whether she could pick a favourite among her creations, JeeYoung revealed Anxiety as probably the best work so far, because of the complexity of its creation: the external self and the mental state combined, the photograph on one side and then the video, also because it stands for the emotional state in which the artist was at that time, under pressure and anxiety:

"Anxiety is about apprehension and unease. The objects in the photograph are covered in pearly bumps and the color is restricted to one tone. As you already know, pearls form inside the shellfish after many agonizing years. In Korean, there is an idiom that goes ‘to suffer from measles.’ It can be roughly translated into the English term ‘no pain, no gain.’ Around that time a friend of mine was suffering from a skin condition. Apparently, it was caused by chronic stress. This left a lasting impression. Any visible irregularities that continue to grow are considered a disease that can be deadly in the natural world. I thought rashes had the perfect form to visualize my anxiety and sense of uncertainty. Although this piece was initially inspired by a tumultuous time in my life, I also wanted to portray the age-old wisdom – that one can grow and be fruitful only when they overcome their personal fears and anxieties". 

Anxiety, Inkjet print 2013, Diptych by JeeYoung Lee

Discussing about her future aspirations, ideas and plans, JeeYoung revealed her need to constantly expand her view on the world and her themes in her artistic creations, within the series Stage of Mind that she will continue to explore further by linking her personal emotional experiences and diversifying the way she will display her work to the public: "Recently I had some time to think about the negative effect that humans have made to mother nature again due to the COVID-19 situation, so I might work on something related. Currently I am feeling quite adventurous. I would like to hold a large-scale exhibition with works I have yet to released".

Stay tuned with JeeYoung Lee's amazing projects and ideas by following her Instagram page!

Nightscape, Inkjet print, 2012 by JeeYoung Lee

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