Plenty of artists draw inspiration from their own lives for the objects they create, but few exhibitions come as close to pure autobiography as Sammy Lee’s “Remind Me Tomorrow,” currently at the Emmanuel Art Gallery.
Lee has a story to tell, starting with her emigration from South Korea to the United States, voluntarily and alone, when she was just 16, and continuing through maturity and onto motherhood. There is well over a decade’s worth of work in the show, and it unfolds in chapters that are both rhythmic and overlapping.
While it is largely — and perhaps expectedly — about the duality of a human being pulled from one place and dropped in another, Lee’s narrative is full of surprises, unexpected turns and some genuine humor. Her vocabulary is a rich blend of sculpture, video, paper constructions and larger-than-life installations.
Art is, in a sense, her primary language, and one that allows her to get around the limits of both English and Korean to express the deeper, emotional experiences she has had on her journey. Walking through the show, you get a sense that both her life and her creative output have been thoughtful and thorough processes with both demanding plenty of difficult work.
If you go
Sammy Lee, “Remind Me Tomorrow” continues through July 15 at the Emmanuel Gallery, located on the Auraria Campus in downtown Denver. The exhibition is free but check with the gallery for the latest info on pandemic restrictions. Info at 303-315-7431 or emmanuelgallery.org.
Lee pours labor into her objects, even the ones that appear simple on the surface. Take, for example, her stack of black suitcases that stretches from floor-to-ceiling at Emmanuel. Lee titled the piece “FOB, Arrived,” and she has recreated it in various configurations since she first thought it up in 2016.
Suitcases carry a special resonance for immigrants, Lee suggests, because they are limited in size and force choices about what a person might bring along and leave behind as they transition from one existence to another. It’s not just about choosing sweaters and shoes as one might do going on vacation, but a forced separating of belongings at the core of identity from those that must necessarily be let go. Imagine making such delicate decisions at just 16 years of age.
Lee makes this object, like several others, very personal by wrapping the suitcases in a “skin” she makes from paper. The overlay gives the suitcases a uniform texture and a human-like connection to each other and their owners.
Making this skin is a process unto itself, and Lee carries it out as if it were an ancient ritual, as a video in the exhibition demonstrates. She combines the Korean paper-making process called joomchi with a method of doing laundry called tadumi. It’s an intricate exercise of adding and subtracting moisture to a material or fabric to achieve desired results, and it ends with an extended, cadenced beating of the material with small paddles, similar to playing a drum.
The end result for the laundry is a freshly ironed cleanliness. For the paper skin, it is a quality of strength and malleability that Lee exploits to make such works as “Korean-American Supper,” a paper cast of the table setting of the first dinner she remembers having in the United States. For Lee, the paper is almost like clay that can be shaped and dried out to create many different things.
Or to cover monumental pieces like “Chandeliers,” from 2019, which is basically five found chandeliers that sit in a ruined pile in the middle of the gallery floor. The immediate implication is that they dropped from their ceiling perch into a disastrous mess. The larger implication is that life doesn’t always go as planned. Lee understands absurdity.
Part of that comes from motherhood, another theme that runs through “Remind Me Tomorrow.” There’s a piece titled “Mamabot,” a 6-foot-tall wall-mounted robot sculpture made from photo frames, feathers, small plastic toys and more. The piece is a dark and daunting manifestation of the massive challenges of raising happy children, maintaining a career, and staying sane.
Lee’s kids are now 13 and 5, but she hasn’t forgotten the jobs of baby care. The piece “Changing Station” is an actual industrial conveyor belt upon which she has placed forms representing infant clothes that appear to be in mid-diaper change. It’s as if changing an infant is as arduous and relentless as factory work, and suggests efficiency is key to both endeavors.
That half-funny bit might seem far afield from Lee’s pieces about geographic identity but it all comes together. Things change, roles change, environments change and people evolve into different things. They adjust.
Lee is mindful about it all and invites others to consider the topic deeply as well. The showpiece of the exhibition, which was curated by Emmanuel director Jeff Lambson, is an installation titled “Street Art Cart,” which Lee made in 2018 during an artist residency in South Korea.
It is a full-scale recreation of a common Korean food cart with one sensational exception: It can be folded up and carried around in a suitcase. It is an art object itself, but also a platform for making other artworks that will evolve over time.
For this show, Lee is using it as a setting for an interactive, cross-cultural experiment that asks gallery visitors to create an imaginary meal for someone they love using only the traditional plates, bowls and utensils of Korean culture. The challenge, for example, might be to figure out how to integrate things like chopsticks into the Mexican or Italian or American Southern meal the visitor might be more familiar with.
Lee will then take the place settings that emerge and cast them into sculptural pieces using the paper she creates. Her goal is to make 100 casts and one day arrange them into a massive, multi-culinary dinner party set up on a single table.
The creation of the piece could go on forever, and that’s what makes it — along with Lee’s other work — compelling.
In a world where travel, communication, media, technology and politics constantly change the landscape, identity is a shape-shifter, a process with no beginning and no end. We strive for it, to figure out who we are, but it is elusive. Perhaps, as this show hints, impossible.
There’s a little sadness to that and, yes, this show can be little sad. But it also invites you to relax, to see the universal search for self not as a burden, but as a practice, like yoga, where the work is in the trying rather than achieving.
It’s a lesson in finding moments — challenging, enlightening, humorous, beautiful — along the way.
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