Inside the Artist's Mind with Lee Ufan

18 Oct 2023

For over three decades, illycaffè has celebrated the union of art and coffee with its illy Art Collection, which features limited-edition designs by renowned artists worldwide. This year, at Frieze London, illy unveiled its 127th Art Collection, created by Korean artist Lee Ufan. Ufan is a leading figure in the Mono-ha (School of Things) movement, which emerged in Japan in the late 1960s. His work is characterized by its simplicity and minimalism and his use of everyday objects and materials to explore the relationship between nature, art, and the human condition. Ufan created a series of cups decorated with a single, expressive brushstroke for the illy Art Collection. The cups are left partially unpainted, preserving the white porcelain and inviting viewers to contemplate the relationship between the two elements.

Read on below to learn more about Ufan and his practice.

Photo courtesy of Illy x  Lee Ufan
Photo courtesy of Illy x Lee Ufan
Photo courtesy of Illy x  Lee Ufan
Photo courtesy of Illy x Lee Ufan
Photo courtesy of Illy x  Lee Ufan
Photo courtesy of Illy x Lee Ufan
Photo courtesy of Illy x  Lee Ufan
Photo courtesy of Illy x Lee Ufan

Gideon Fortune: In a world where we're now more connected than ever, is the state-of-the-art world where you thought it would be in terms of the Art Market and creation itself?

Lee Ufan: The movements in this highly developed capitalist society are reflected in the art world. These days, art is treated like a medium of information and valued only for its value as a commercial product, which is not a desirable situation. The value of an artwork is basically not related to its value as a commercial product.

Gideon: We're always quick to recommend Lee Ufan Arles to anyone spending time in the region. Now, about 1 1/2 years later, are there any reflections about the space you'd like to share?

Lee: Arles is not a central place in the region. But importantly, it is a provincial town that reflects the history of surrounding regions. In other words, I want the Lee Ufan Arles space to provide viewers with an opportunity and a place to think about culture from a step away.

Gideon: Which artistic talents, in the realm of sculpture or beyond, do you believe are pushing the boundaries of contemporary creation?

Lee: Art should not be seen as providing answers like what AI symbolizes today. It should serve as a trigger to see, feel and think in relation to the external world and the other.

Gideon: Speaking to your collaboration with illy, they have collaborated with some famed artists like Yoko Ono, William Kentridge, Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, and now you—what makes artist collaborations like this so important and cool?

Lee: Art can provide a big hint or a big realization. It can also provide a scene or a moment that makes the viewer feel fresh with a sparkle, like morning dew. I want it to make you smile and say, "Wow, that's cool," as you pick up your cup to sip coffee.

Gideon: You say your process starts as a conscious one and becomes a thoughtless process. A dear friend of mine and a fan of yours wants to know if you are able to further explain the transition or the moments before and after it.

Lee: I start out with lots of thoughts and plans for an artwork. Once I'm in the middle of my work, my conscious and subconscious minds switch back and forth or even become a sea of subconsciousness. This means that thoughts of mine and thoughts of not mine alternate. So, it is desirable to have a space of expressions that are like an active intersection between myself and the external world rather than entirely unconsciousness only.

Gideon: When attempting to create an experience for viewers that is outside the realm of normal life, do you ever intentionally seek inspiration from ordinary things or just let everything come to you as is and create from there?

Lee: An artwork itself is never transcendent, but the moment or place of encounter with the work is transcendent. This is the transcendence of encounter. A work of art should not remain an everyday object but a structure and a state that sparkles and opens up as viewers approach it.

Gideon: Any advice for artists or art scholars today? And maybe for collectors?

Lee: What matters in artistic expression is not meaning or instruction but a sense of life that resonates in the moment of encounter. A great work of art is one that evokes an endless sense of pure transcendence.

-- Words by Gideon Fortune