In Conversation: Taedong Lee On "The Record, The Double, And The Singular"

By Natasha Tai
Taedong Lee in his studio (image courtesy of the artst)
From August 22 to October 22, 2023, WOAW Gallery Wan Chai will be presenting the duo-solo exhibition “The Record, The Double, And The Singular,” curating a dialogue between the works of contemporary artists Kitty Ng and Taedong Lee. The works of both artists originate from their personal archive of photographs. Rather than simply painting what can be observed, the images serve as a starting point for them to express their changing emotions and perspectives, transforming nostalgic scenes into a form of narrative visual imagery. 
At times, Korean painter Taedong Lee would often find himself swept away by his surrounding landscape. Lost in thought, he would allow nature to wash over his five senses – from the rich smell of the earth to the crisp breeze of the mountains, the feeling of the world on his skin often evokes memories he associates with the atmosphere of the scenery. This sentimentality has led to Lee’s unbridled curiosity towards exploring the landscape in his artistic practice. In order to capture the swell of emotion he feels, Lee uses photographs as a starting point to mediate his relationship with his memories. 
“I first began painting using photography to experiment with memories and emotions as a response to the landscapes I visited at Camberwell College of Arts in London,” said Lee. “At that time, I started painting by appreciating and immersing myself in accurate records of when they were taken, such as diaries, drawings, photographs, and videos. The habits of using photographs at that time have continued to this day.”
Taedong Lee, A white tree, 2023
For this exhibition, Lee opts for a different approach compared to his previous works. Instead of focusing on the memory captured in the photograph, he instead reflects on his current state of mind as he paints. This leads to a dynamic painting process, where his compositions would change based on his mood at the moment. As Lee fills the space with his memories, it is as if he is breathing his sentiments onto the canvas, creating landscapes crafted with layers of past memories and present emotions. 
“I start to draw with a short recollection of the past with the pictures. However, the current memories and emotions influence the past memory. The materials from the current memories can be shown and the current emotions expressed with my own color palettes, and touches, which continue to accumulate in my painting,” said Lee.
“Through this process, I find a new identity for myself,” he added. “I try to explore the liminal space of the subconscious and creation by expressing the spaces on a canvas with a vague and dreamy way.”
The landscapes of “The Record, The Double, And The Singular” reflect the “gloomy and mysterious atmosphere” Lee experienced during the pandemic, a period of time where he was isolated from everybody else in the world.
Taedong Lee, Escaping, 2022
“[The] fear of whether people could get the free back and the feeling of depression I felt in contrast to my past joys and my current condition, which formed the gloomy atmosphere on the canvas,” he explained.
To express the atmosphere of his surroundings, Lee conveys the changes in his emotional perspective through his use of varying brushwork, dynamic compositions, and textured materials. He values this degree of artistic freedom, to experiment with different techniques and styles to explore his own creative ideas and interests. His landscapes carry depth and dimension through a combination of impasto and thin layers of paint. He is also not afraid to opt for richer color palettes, choosing specific shades and tones in order to express his sentiments. 
“Warm and bright colors, for example, can convey happiness or energy, while cold and dark colors suggest sadness or reflection,” said Lee. “In addition, various brushstrokes reflect attitudes or changes at the time of painting. Vibrant, rough brush strokes suggest anxiety or excitement, but soft, calm brushstrokes suggest a lyrical atmosphere.”
“I am more of a night-owl,” he also admitted. “So I spend a lot of time walking and painting at night. I find myself using a lot of bright green colors in my paintings, as that is what grass would look like under the bright city street lights during that time. These moments are often accompanied by feelings of solitude and depression.”
Taedong Lee, The stones, 2023
The stones (2023) resonated the most with Lee. Representing a happy moment in the past, Lee had responded to the memory in a state of anxiety and melancholia. Despite the bright rocks at the corner of the canvas, Lee captured his worries through the tall trees, painting long shadows that cast a looming presence over the landscape. The brushwork of the shadows were also rough and jagged, dragging across the canvas to highlight a sense of underlying tension.
Escaping (2022) and Escaped (2022) also reflect the emotions Lee felt when gazing at the memory at different points in his life. Both paintings take inspiration from the same image – Escaping was painted during the pandemic period, and presents an image of desolation through Lee’s use of dark blue and layered paints. Escaped, on the other hand, was the same scene illustrated after the height of the pandemic, where Lee used more vibrant and detailed brushstrokes to highlight his bright elation.
Taedong Lee, Escaped, 2022
To express the broadening horizons of the forest and the deepening expanses of the ocean, Lee would opt for wider and longer canvases. On the other hand, he selects vertical and narrow canvases if he wants to focus on the presence of his subject. Lee would also choose larger canvases at times to offer a grander landscape for his audience to immerse themselves, manipulating the space to further blur the boundaries between dream and reality. 
When Lee paints, he paints for himself. Yet over time, he also gradually discovered more and more people who enjoy his paintings. He recognises now that his paintings are meant not only for himself, but for his audience as well, and hopes that his viewers can too recognise their own personal emotions within the space of his work.