Encountering the Encounter

Written by Odin Strbac Low

I will discuss the material practice of artist and scholar Lee Ufan (b. 1936). To gain insight into why Lee engages in his methodical ideas around beings and nature, I will first look at his involvement to the Mono-ha (School of things) movement. Next, I will introduce the notion of the immaterial as material in his practice, with Lee’s concept of the ‘encounter’ as a lens by which his artwork and writing are centred upon. I will provide a perspective into how his works come to realisation, through reference to his sculptural series Relatum (1968-ongoing). In contrast, I will discuss his painting From Point (1973) from his series From Point (1973-1982), as an expansive investigation into relocating emphasis from the canvas to the viewer. Finally, the influence of philosophical ideas will be highlighted as fundamental to the way he engages with the world and its materials. I acknowledge that my findings are from observation and research, and I am not of the same cultural context as this artist.

Arising out of post-war Japan in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the Mono-ha movement contributed to the development of contemporality in the region by protesting altruistic ideals of Modernism. Mono-ha comprised of members from local universities in Tokyo who formed a dialogue around the agency of materials as they stand – usually stripped to their most simple constituents (Toshiaki 1986). ‘Mono-ha’ was used as a label to define artistic commonalities, yet Lee was crucial to the practice of the movement as he formulated their ideas in writing. His literature was twofold: first, it criticised the simplistic literalism of Western ‘conceptual’ practices by forcing perceptions onto materials (Lee 1971). Second, it offered an alternative replacement of power structures between objects and beings through a disregard for hierarchy in favour of equality (Lee 1969). Collectively, they evaluated the normalities of contemporary art, principally, the artists' subjectivity and the emphasis on “making” instead of presenting a thing “as it is” (Nakahira 1973; Nakamori 2015). Lee’s undertaking to seek out a new approach to grasping the pre-objective world in-turn became an account closely shared by Mono-ha artists. In explorations of form and space, some of the most influential works of the decade came out of Japan. His participation in this movement and the repercussions of its influence can still be seen in Lee’s most recent work as he continues to re-examine notions of matter and life through revealing material’s state of existence.

Significant to Lee's work is the way he employs the immaterial and material with equal importance to his artistic practice. It is not only essential to how his works are realised, but also how they are understood. When viewing his works, it is hard to deemphasise the importance emptiness plays in his dialogue with the viewer.  “The space you exist in with my [work], and the viewing experience leads to a dialogue…" Lee told Pace Gallery (Lee 2018). Thus, his artwork is stimulated by a combination of the observer’s continual engagement with the relations of its material and non-material existence (Kee 2008). It is a temporal relationship between what is present and what is absent which gives insight into the type of communication Lee is employing. He believes his work does not concern itself with meaning but rather it concerns itself with encounters. Lee provided a framework for his practice by stating the point at which human beings initiate a relationship with the physical world is where the idea of “the world as it is (sekai)” meets “the encounter (deai)” (Lee 1969). Rather than representing the Self in his art, Lee in his own words is exploring “a sense of infinity that transcends the human” (Lee 1970). Thus, we are not asked to value one material over the other when encountering his works, but instead, question our own preconceived notions of materiality.

Characteristically, Lee’s sculptural practice is a dialogue between inward and outward relationships. His ongoing series Relatum derives its name from the philosophical term signifying things or happenings in which there is a relation. These sculptural works transform the awareness of the viewer towards an encounter, whereby a symbiosis of object and material occurs. For example, in his Relatum (formerly Phenomenon and Perception B, 1968/2011/2013), Lee places a rock onto a square sheet of glass that rests on top of a steel plate of the same dimension. In the installation of the work, this glass shatters when the rock makes contact, forming a relationship of matter, gravity, and space. Lee emphasises the importance of working within the limits of his own physical capabilities in producing works like this (Lee 2018). The minimal interference of the artist foregrounds the encounter, force is only seen retrospectively by an audience. Unfolding within a gallery context, the materials establish relation to each other, Lee, and the viewer. Each of the works in the series, asks the observer to contemplate these natural and industrial substances in different ways. The viewer in Relatum is invited to move amongst each material, to reflect on it alone, and in relation to what is in its company (Kee 2008). In converging on the specific intangible and spatial juxtapositions of his materials, he is allowing us to see “the world as it is”, through an equilibrium that amplifies the instance of encounter. His rejection of illusionism, grounds these works in a physical reality which should be encountered physically, not merely through apathetic observation. In this sense, he can be likened to sculpture artist Richard Serra, who believes that his work is not “opting for opticality as its content” but rather “a field force that’s being generated [which] space is discerned physically” (Krauss 1986). By working in three-dimensionality, Lee communicates material history to us in a kind of open-mindedness.

First exhibited in 1973 at the Tokyo Gallery, Lee’s From Point series marked a shift from sculpture to the painted canvas. With this shift, Lee delved deeper into questioning the agency of the viewer and the artist within his material practice. In most instances, the difference between sculpture and painting can be distinguished by the planes’ physical shift from the ground to the wall. In the framework of a gallery space, the upright viewer encountering a painted canvas would treat it with certain hierarchical preconceptions due to its raised status. Lee sought to undermine these longstanding ways by suggesting a definitively material relationship between the viewer, the works’ elements, and site (Munroe 2011). For Lee, he was exploring infinity on the flat plane. In From Point (1973), glue and ground pigment spectrally consume a large canvas, 162 cm tall by 112 cm wide. From perfect clarity to near invisibility – rows of blue ‘points’ traverse the canvas from left to right. The encounter with its’ surface can be likened to the kind of logic found in philosophical methods of thinking; with its parameters set out and carefully followed, each row seen to its finality. Furthermore, the viewer encounters the raw hem of the unframed canvas, suggesting an action which was realised then equalised with the notion of the infinite. Something incomprehensible is thus materialised through particles of pigment as the retracing of the artists’ action is observed (Kee 2008). The Japanese critic Minemura Toshiaki, once described the works of From Point as Lee’s way of transitioning between spatial orientation (as in the case of Relatum) towards a concentration of temporal appearances and disappearances (Toshiaki 1977). To this effect, one might encounter From Point and see the importance found in the white negative space of the unbound canvas and its relation to infinity. It is through this series, that Lee first confronted the historical way painting is met by an observer, something which continues to inform his work he produces today.

Having published 16 books and over 100 essays and articles, Lee has engaged extensively with the philosophical in considering his own material practice throughout his career. In his developmental study at Nihon University from 1957-1961, he majored in philosophy, showing a keen interest in the works of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Kee 2008). When asked what appeal Lee has to the phenomenological works of the German philosopher Heidegger; he expressed, "his thinking didn't focus and centre around humans themselves, but asked very basic and fundamental questions around existence” (Lee 2018). By perceiving Lee and the artwork he creates, one can observe how carefully he considers existentiality. Yet, Lee has not gone without criticism for his views. One of the most notable examples is that of Hikosaka Naoyoshi, whereby, he accused Lee of “apolitical mysticism that suppressed human agency amid the crisis of expression in the late 1960s” (Hikosaka 1970). By occupying a space of multiplicities as a writer, philosopher, and artist, Lee has had to continually define his own practice. His artistic intervention is minimal in many cases, yet the interrelationship of space, the viewer, and materials are of most significance to interpreting Lee and the notions he is interrogating. Lee’s original title for Relatum was Phenomenology of Perception, in direct reference to philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s book of the same title (Beranger 1997). The intertwining of ‘interiority’ and ‘exteriority’, or mental and material are significant to the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, which Lee emphasises to refer to the constant reality in which everything is connected. This comes in opposition to the predominantly Western rationalist philosophical way of thinking – whereby human subjects create their own independent world of objectified images. For Lee, the philosophical connotations are as much part of the artwork, as the materials themselves. Consequently, in observation of Lee’s artworks, background knowledge of philosophy offers a deeper reading, however minimal or expansive such knowledge may be.

In conclusion, I have discussed some of the key elements of Lee’s material practice. Through his engagement in the Mono-ha movement and writings on the act of ‘encounter’, the importance of what is immaterial was presented as integral to his work. The series Relatum with its considerations of space and materiality was analysed as an example by which Lee uses sculpture as an outward dialogue to the world. Through exploration of the canvas plane as a material, the series From Point was shown to have expanded Lee’s interrogation of artistic agency. Lastly, key philosophical thoughts were identified as conceptual influences on this contemporary artist. As Lee continues to make work, viewers will continue to encounter art derived from action which invites them to carefully consider, slow down, and walk amongst the world perhaps less detached than before.


Figure 1: Lee Ufan, Relatum (formerly Phenomena and Perception B), 1968/2013. Steel, glass, and stone. Plate: 3/8 x 55 1/8 x 67 3/8 inches (1 x 140 x 171 cm); height of stone: approximately 13 1/2 inches (34.3 cm). The Rachofsky Collection and the Dallas Museum of Art through the TWO x TWO for AIDS and Art Fund <https://thewarehousedallas.org/artists/lee-ufan/>

Figure 2: Lee Ufan, From Point, 1973. 163 x 130 cm © Lee Ufan. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Beranger V 1997, interview with Lee Ufan, 10 July 1997. Cited in Lee Ufan, (Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume: Paris, 1997), p. 76.)

Hikosaka N 1970, ‘Lee Ufan hihan: ‘Hyōgen’ no naiteki kiki ni okeru Fascism (Critiquing Lee Ufan—Fascism based on the internal crisis of expression’, Dezain Hihyo, no. 12, November 1970

Heidegger M 1962, ‘Being and Time’. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco

Kee J 2008, ‘Points, Lines, Encounters: The World According to Lee Ufan’ Oxford Art Journal, vol. 31(3):403-424

Kishio S 1970, in a roundtable discussion ‘Mono ga hiraku atarashii sekai (The new world opened up by the object)’, Bijutsu Techo, vol. 22, no. 324, February 1970, p. 54

Krauss R 1986, ‘Richard Serra/Sculpture’ The Museum of Modern Art, New York City, p. 28

Lee U 1969, ‘Sekai to kozo (World and Structure)’, Dezain Hihyo, vol. 9, p. 132.

Lee U 1970, ‘In Search of Encounter: The Sources of Contemporary Art’, Bijutsu techo 22, no. 324, pp. 14-23.

Lee U 1971, ‘Henkaku no fuka: Geijutsu wa kore de iinoka? (Weakening of the change: Is it okay for art to be like this?)’, Bijutsu techo, vol. 23, no. 339, March 1971, p. 69

Lee U 2011, Lee Ufan installing Relatum (Formerly Phenomena and Perception B, 1968/2011), viewed 20 August 2022, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaQrn6J69wk>

Lee U 2018, Pacegallery interview with Lee Ufan, viewed 20 August 2022, <https://www.pacegallery.com/journal/an-interview-with-lee-ufan/>

Lee U 2018, Lee Ufan in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, viewed 10 August 2022, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NewS80v4BTU>

Lee U 2019, Lee Ufan interview, viewed 17 August 2022, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gGEe0-xWlQ>

Munroe A 2011, ‘Lee Ufan Marking Infinity’ Guggenheim Museum, New York City, web

Nakahira T 1973, ‘Naze shokubutsu zukan ka: Nakahira Takuma eizo ronshu’, Shobunsha, Tokyo

Nakamori Y 2015, ‘For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography 1968-1979’, The Museum Fine Arts Houston, Houston, 2015

Rawlings A 2009, ‘Illusions and Interrelationships Lee Ufan’, ArtAsiaPacific Magazine, Issue 62

Toshiaki M 1977, 'Tokisomuru kaiga' ('The painting becoming unbound'), Bijutsu Techo, vol. 29, no. 420, May 1977

Toshiaki M 1986, ‘Monoha to wa nande attaka? (What was Mono-ha?)’, Kamakura Gallery, Kamakura

‘Voices of Mono-ha Artists: Contemporary Art in Japan, circa 1970’ From a panel discussion at the University of Southern California, February 2012, transcribed by Fujioka H, translated by Iezumi Hiro R, Tomii R, and Yoshitake M