And that is the kind of smile often on the faces of people viewing Yi’s works that depict ordinary people in unexpected dimensions -- elongated out of proportion or squeezed squat. Even on that rainy afternoon, passersby stopped to look at the three towering sculptures, delighted at the unexpectedness of the works.
We met again Monday evening, this time at the Seoul office of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization that works in the field of migration. Yi’s sculptures of three siblings of Ghanaian and Korean parentage, titled “My Migrant Neighbors,” installed earlier in the day at the Seoul Plaza were created to celebrate the U.N.-designated International Migrants Day on Dec. 18.
|Artist Lee Hwan-kwon poses next to “My Migrant Neighbors” at the Seoul Plaza on Monday. The sculptures were created to mark International Migrants Day on Dec. 18. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)|
“I had always been thinking about ways to reduce prejudice,” said Yi, explaining that he learned a lot about difficulties and realities that migrants face in the process of working with IOM on the project. “I was shocked to learn about North Korean defectors choosing to go elsewhere after they arrive in South Korea,” he said.
“The children seem to really like the work,” said Yi, who showed the works to the three youngsters last Saturday at his studio. “The second child said, ‘Awesome! Look at this!’” Yi recalled with a smile of satisfaction on his face. “It made me feel very good, very fulfilled. It was encouraging,” Yi said, adding, “It was like getting a notice that you have passed the test.”
People who see Yi’s works -- oftentimes casual passersby on busy streets or plazas as many of his sculptures are displayed in open, public areas -- respond with curiosity. “Jangdokdae,” a set of six squat bronze figures of a friend’s family, elicits curious stares and amused looks from people walking around the historical Jeong-dong area. Many whip out their cellphones to take a picture, laughing even as they snap away.
Yi takes ordinary people as his subjects -- a teacher in front of a blackboard, a boy sitting in front of a fan enjoying the breeze, a woman hanging laundry -- and transforms them into “extraordinary” figures with “extraordinary” proportions.
“I work with everyday people because I don’t know anyone special,” Yi explained with a laugh before he turned serious and said, “Maybe they are a projection of myself. I am ordinary.”
|Lee Hwan-kwon with his work "My Migrant Neighbors" (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)|
It is often difficult to discern the facial expressions in his works: The three siblings of “My Migrant Neighbors” display little emotion. “My works are a juxtaposition of ordinary persons and strong images. The works grab attention because they arouse curiosity and create illusions,” Yi expounded.
In fact, no one is ordinary, in Yi’s view. “Everyone is good at heart, good persons. People are only different, living in different circumstances,” he said. “I am convinced that ordinary life is being true to oneself.”
Yi professes to not have particular themes or thoughts when it comes to his sculptures. “I do what I feel like doing,” he said. With “My Migrant Neighbors,” Yi sought to portray the children, whose Ghanaian mother passed away in 2008 and whose Korean father passed away two years later, as heroes.
When he was approached by the IOM with the idea for the sculptures, his first thought was to squash the figures short and fat. But he changed his mind after meeting with the models. “I realized that changing the figures that way wasn’t suitable. The children inspired me to return to my original style of straight figures,” Yi said.
He changed the size he had in mind, too. “Earlier, I was thinking about something 2 meters tall. But after meeting them I decided to give them more height,” he said. “I wanted to make people literally look up to them. I saw hidden heroes in the children,” he added.
Yi’s works are well-known in the international auction scene. He made a splashy international debut at the 2006 Christie’s auction in Hong Kong where his two sculptures each fetched 75 million won ($63,400), one of them selling at 10 times the estimate.
In March, Yi will hold an exhibition at the CMay Gallery in West Hollywood, California. His first work, “Bus Stop,” created in 2005 as a student, will also go on display near the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood for six months or more.
What explains his popularity? Yi cited strong visual stimulation as a factor. Indeed, the visual illusions created by his elongated or squat figures, figures that are bent disproportionately, catch viewers’ attention.
The distortions are not accidental -- much thought goes into how he creates the visual illusions. “Who should be the protagonist? What kind of situation is unfolding? Can it accommodate my world view? I realized that these are very important,” he said. Although the figures seem to have been pulled long, squashed flat or bent haphazardly, such manipulations are highly calculated moves made with the assistance of 3-D scanning and digital imaging.
Yi’s whimsical works bring simple joy to viewers, another reason for the popularity of his pieces.
“I might be a funny person after all, since there is projection of myself in my works,” he said modestly, not one for boisterous laughs.
There is humanness to his sculptures, too -- ordinary, unselfconscious people going about their lives.
Where does Yi find his inspirations? “Thoughts about humanity, thoughts about life inspired ‘My Migrant Neighbors,” Yi said. “I am curious about the human condition, human life. I wonder ‘How do those people live? Why do I feel the slightest bit of distance between those people and myself?’”
By Kim Hoo-ran (firstname.lastname@example.org)