The ways in which contemporary art has reflected the concept of ‘eco-’ can be observed through the various genres related to the ecological. The genres of eco-related art such as land art, environmental art, ecological art, ecofeminist art, crop art, and Ecovention have been classified and expressed differently according to each standard, as if similar. They have been divided according to detailed criteria such as using nature, urging action for the environment, equating nature with humans, or observing ecosystems. Moreover, the artists within the categories of eco-art share a passion for the environment and for ensuring that the natural is observed in the context of humankind.
In this September issue, Superglue intends to break down the subdivided genre of contemporary art related to ‘eco-’ and penetrate it as a standard. The criterion is the relationship between humans and non-humans, which expands the concept of micro-eco-s such as nature, environment, and ecology to the concept of non-humans, and examines eco-Art that can emerge through this concept.
Seoul-based artist Sun Ho Lee pays attention to new ecosystems that unexpectedly arises amid technological advances and how they interact with their environment. The artist, whose work is inspired by Earth’s creatures and ecosystems, sci-fi fantasy, and a variety of stories based on them, depicts a new ecosystem that can be created in a virtual space using her formative environment and presents it as an independent story. She extends the relationship between humans and non-humans to the world beyond the one we currently exist in and pays attention to unexpected phenomena that can occur through technological development. In addition, the artist uses various technologies such as virtual space, AI machine learning, and AR to express works based on multiple media such as installation and printmaking, materially expressing the versatility of her narrative.
Below is an interview with artist Sun Ho Lee, and through a conversation with her, we hope to show how Sun Ho Lee demonstrates the relationship between humans and non-humans that can arise newly in contemporary art.
SuperGlue: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. To begin with, could you introduce yourself a bit?
Sun Ho Lee: I am Sun Ho Lee, a visual artist who creates synesthetic narratives through multiple media (installation, video, 3d graphics & printing, AI machine learning (GAN), etc.) I am talking about the change in the relationship between virtual ecosystems and living things realized by accelerating technology, and between virtual and physical spaces, the issues that exist in the connection line for the ecology in the modern sense. I create a kind of fiction and hypothesis in narrative development, build a virtual world, and unravel it through storytelling. Specifically, when composing a narrative, I refer to scientific and biological discovery elements to connect them or create a third story by referring to myths.
SG: I’m curious as to what made you choose the field of ecology as the subject of your works and visually unravel it.
SL: In 2020, I participated in a mentoring program to exhibit posters on the outer wall of the ARKO Art Center, and at that time, I created AD 2075-Birth of Genetically Modified Earth Organisms, Moss-A-Sapiens (MAS) under the theme of sustainability in a pandemic. To this end, a fictional creature called ‘Moss-A-Sapiens’ was created by referring to the biological elements of moss, and based on this, a story set in the future of the 22nd century was composed.
Moss-a-sapiens (hereafter MAS) of the story is small but has a significantly higher emotional index than Homo sapiens. This was made on the background of the biological organizational power of moss, the fact that it is altruistic to living things and non-living things (buildings), and it has the vitality to survive in space. I wanted to convey that a sustainable future exists as a result of the altruistic actions of each earthling along with macro-policy and that the existence of the future MAS exists in the present potential. The story will not end here but will be used as a material for variations to be created while working as an artist in the future.
At the time, I did not think that this work was the starting point of my works, but looking back, I can say it was the beginning. Since then, I have been interested in the field and come into contact with various technology media, so I have been pondering over the various ecology that can occur today. And in terms of delivering the topic, I was able to think about the way of direction to build the story with a certain narrative. To be more specific, we are currently exploring more in earnest materials such as science-fiction fantasy worldviews, biology, and biographies, which I was interested in related to the slippery ecosystem between the real and virtual, using 3D graphics and AI tools.
SG: It is impressive that it deals with the unexpected ecology that appears in the development of technology. What motivated you to pay attention to the concept of ecology that occurs in the relationship between the virtual world and the real world?
SL: In the past, the ecology I was thinking of was an interest in phenomena such as animals and living things, and I thought to a certain extent that it was the whole of nature. In that sense, I had a potential interest in ecology, such as looking for related documentaries or movies, but I couldn’t practically connect it to my work. Rather, after coming into contact with various technological media (computer graphics, AI, etc.) or photographed ecological images (microscope, space, aerial photography, etc.), I was able to take an interest in nature, and I drew into my work with images such as bio-patterns through them. In summary, after I became interested in virtual ecology through technology media, I rather looked back at the physical ecology. For this reason, now I get a lot of inspiration from the actual physical nature. Therefore, I think that a lot of field research is needed for future work, even for a sense of depth.
SG: Then, I wonder if you are trying to differentiate between the ecology in the virtual space and the ecology in the real space in your work, or if you are just observing the phenomenon.
SL: While I was making my own narrative through references in various technical media, I came to think that it also has an organic ecology. Whether it is a physical creature or a data creature, I think that each has the energy that is created and destroyed like a luminous mineral in its own space. And at this time, I think that both spaces have an organic structure in which one problem leads to another. I think that it is a characteristic of modern society that all problems are interlocked regardless of the division of science, art, nature, etc., so I stare at it as an ecosystem. Of course, I also have my own values for these aspects, but in the way of expression, I guess it can seem that I only observe the phenomenon itself.
SG: It seems that a lot of it was captured in Ecology held at Gallery 9 this time. Is there any special reason for choosing the exhibition title as Ecology?
SL: This is the title of the exhibition that was pruned without frills. As the title of the first solo exhibition, I think it is plain but straightforward. I thought it was the beginning stage of my work, so I wanted to express what I was interested in clearly and concisely. In the previous exhibitions, I liked to create interesting names, but in this exhibition, I wanted to express them simply as a point, while being bluntly heavy. Actually, this title is very heavy for me now, but it was also a title that made my heart flutter because it felt like hitting a very old, beautiful, and traditional giant bell in the beginning stage. And above all, I thought that my comprehensive interest could be condensed into the word Ecology.
SG: Is there anything, in particular, you wanted to express through this exhibition?
SL: I think now I am in the beginning stage to accumulate my works. It was not easy to come up with what kind of work to actually do. So I wanted to try various things. For example, in the process of weaving a narration or creating a work, the image was taken with a microscope. It’s too sculptural, but in that way, I touched the various directions of ecology that I thought of as an experiment. In terms of media, besides graphics, I worked in various fields, such as using AI – BigGAN or using 3D printing. And recently, in the Unfold SAPY project of the Youth Arts Office, narrative planning was implemented as an extended interactive communication method through the Unity game engine and Microsoft Hololens 2 (Ar/Mr device development software) and it melted into a solo exhibition at Gallery 9. In fact, I don’t know how it would be conveyed to audiences, but I believe that each of them has seen it in their own way.
SG: In this exhibition, it was impressive to talk about the ecology of technology and organisms and to pay attention to the phenomena that arise from the imbalance that occurs in the gap. And the part that expresses it as a hybrid ecology is very interesting. What was the motive that led to this expression?
SL: Throughout the history of mankind, I believe that progress is inevitable. So, rather than saying that technological progress itself is good or bad, I think the key point is how to manage ambivalent technology. That is why I think that this itself is value-neutral and at the same time there are two sides of the coin. Therefore, in the process of its utilization, an imbalance that inevitably occurs or an unexpected phenomenon that appears in the gap between the imbalance occurs. For example, there is a climate crisis in physical space that is inversely proportional to the infinitely scalable metaverse and virtual space.
It is difficult to define an interesting technological phenomenon as a specific phenomenon, but the algorithmic behaviour of AI processing data in a way that detects, debugging, stacking, relating, and comparing, and some glitches in between are interesting to me. Based on my curiosity about how other AI algorithms will recognize the creatures created by AI, I tried running Orthodox Hybrids into another AI program. Although the external shape of those looked very amphibian to the human eye, the AI recognized most of them as birds, and also in many cases, it was interesting that it recognized them as objects such as cakes and toothbrushes. Errors that can be said to be a little sloppy like this come to me as a source of interest.
The reason why I expressed this as a hybrid ecology in this exhibition is that it was intermixed in terms of semantics as well as methods. For example, the worldview of certain contents, such as Pokemon, is derived and processed in various ways depending on the medium, such as Pokemon Go, and is mixed in both virtual and physical space from various angles. As such, I think that hybrid ecology is not a grandiose meaning, but a common word that expresses a daily life in which too many media or spaces will be mixed in the future. And what primarily makes this multi-media mixed space multi-faceted is the thing that human emotional enjoyment is added to the content and I believe the meaning will grow through this.
SG: I would like to talk about each of the works presented in this exhibition. When you first enter the gallery space, the looping video work Dawning Era stands out.
SL: In Dawning Era, the story was inspired by the scene of the rocket launch and the screen processing screen that appears when the program is installed. The progress of technology is value-neutral, but if there is an imbalance in its use, it has the meaning of causing confusion between the ecological patterns of humans and other living beings, especially non-subjects of technological development. It is a repetitive looping type of work with certain development, paying attention to the infinite possibilities that arise in the process. I thought that installing something in the ecology of actual data represents a great expansion. The launch process that appears in the middle of the video is a turning point in the video, and in a semantic sense, it means the infinite expandability and possibilities of installing a program in the world of data. Furthermore, when it is applied to a rocket in physical reality, it means that the time when space exploration became possible is a turning point in human history and the possibility of future survival. In that sense, the work was conceived as a research possibility for the recovery of a comprehensive earth organism, rather than a simple alternative territorial search. As much as that, I want to talk about the need to illuminate the ambivalent potential of a single technology as a turning point in contemporary society and the organically chained ripple effect from various angles.
SG: The way to exhibit Orthodox Hybrid was interesting as well. The accumulated various images were presented in such a way that the visitors looked through their personal screens with QR codes provided in the exhibition hall. Is there any particular reason you chose this method?
SL: 소Considering the collection and distribution, I chose the method that was most accessible on-site. Due to the pandemic, scanning QR has become a common situation and it was definitely easier to use than in the past. Furthermore, rather than uploading it on the web and providing data minute by minute, I wanted them to come to the actual exhibition and take them as if catching Pokémon. I wanted to take something with a rareness that appears in a specific place like a slightly rare Pokemon.
SG: In the case of Sirens, the expression of form and colour was very impressive. It was a work that showed a lot more visual balance than the previous two works. Looking at this work, I wondered where he got his visual inspiration.
SL: I get a lot of inspiration from the visuals of biological and culture medium pictures. Specifically, the work referred to corals among Cnidaria organisms in the sea. With these colours and shapes, I wanted to create a regular bio-pattern like a honeycomb when plant cells are enlarged. In particular, although the overall shape is not symmetrical like a sphere, I tried to create a shape in which a symmetrical pattern seen from one side is visible.
SG: The use of various mediums is also impressive. Various technologies, from virtual space, AI machine learning, and 3D printing, were applied to the work.
SL: Originally, I focused on installations and prints with material properties, but naturally, my interest in the topic of ecology and my curiosity about the medium led me to explore other technologies and directions. In addition to simple interest, the reason why I want to work on graphics through virtual empathy is that, in terms of space and cost, the virtual space can be constructed in detail for storytelling materials and textures. And I think that the method of deriving the work in the physical space is also a great advantage in that it is diverse, such as VR and print. In that sense, I continue to do what I want to do in the virtual space, but of course, I also worry about what kind of method it will be when I take out the actual installation or work in the physical space. In the end, they go back and forth between space and technology according to the work or subject but do not simply apply various media for diversity.
SG: Besides the technology used in this exhibition, is there anything else you would like to try?
SL: As I capture the subject of ecology and unravel it in a visual way using technology, I am basically interested in the things that occur in technological ecology. In the short term, I plan to create VR and AR content. In that sense, I feel the need to study game engines and coding for a certain amount in addition to 3D tools. I am interested in the immediate occurrence, so I want to try this part more. Although it cannot be defined as one thing in the long term, I hope to work with researchers and creators in various fields, for example, engineers, biologists, field experts, visual and sound artists, etc. He also hopes to work with the team to create an actual ecosystem based on a specific physical geography, as a kind of documentary.
SG: If so, do the works to be presented in future exhibitions contain similar stories in context?
SL: I am currently in the stage of thinking about what more I can find and process, so I think the context of the story I am talking about will be maintained. And although it may be natural, I can answer yes when I ask myself if a person is really interested in this field, so I feel that ‘ecology’ pays attention to me in the long run and has a lot of sustainable charm.
SG: Please tell me your plans for the future.
SL: In the second half of this year, I plan to hold two exhibitions in Jongro, Keep in Touch and the Onsu-gonggan, Hapjeong. In terms of work, besides research, I think it is necessary to deal with tools, that is, to polish more technically. I think that it will be possible to express the things I want to express more clearly and freely only when it is completed in the technical aspect. Of course, the same goes for various attempts.
SG: Thank you for taking the time to interview me. Is there anything you want to say one last time?
SL: This interview turned out to be a good opportunity, and I think it was a fun opportunity to reflect on my work from the viewer’s point of view and on my own. Now, it feels like taking the first step toward something, but I wonder what the future will be like 10, 20, 30 years from now.
We support the movement of visual artist Sun Ho Lee, who is building his own ecology,
Keep it glued. SuperGlue
Keep your eyes on Sun Ho Lee’s Instagram @visceralwarmth