Trailblazing nonagenarian artist honored for redefining Korean fiber art

The Korea Times

In the 1950s and 1960s, Lee Shin-ja stood out as something of an oddball in Korea’s fiber art scene.


Fresh out of college with a major in applied arts, the twentysomething creator got her hands on materials that resonated with the country’s post-war life ― burlap sacks for wheat, mosquito nets and low-priced wallpaper ―in place of conventional textiles.

She would cut them up and plaster the pieces on boldly threaded and dyed needlework that sat somewhere between figurative art and abstraction ― as witnessed in the likes of “Neurosis” (1961) and “Portrait of My Daughter” (1962).


In the eyes of other textile art masters and her peers, who dedicated their embroidery skills to creating detailed and static compositions adorned with classic Korean motifs as typically seen in folding screens, Lee’s approach appeared to have taken a wrecking ball to the traditional boundaries of the craft.


“Without any formal training in embroidery or weaving, I often became the subject of ridicule, with people jokingly asking whether I stitched my works with my toes instead of my fingers,” Lee recalled.


“If I had allowed such criticism to discourage me, I wouldn't have been able to continue creating such (crude yet daring) pieces. I believe the fact that I chose to do whatever I pleased, unabated, was what helped broaden the realm of the country’s fiber art,” she added.


The 93-year-old spoke as she stood inside the hall at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Gwacheon in Gyeonggi Province, where her latest retrospective, “Threadscapes,” opened, Sept. 22.


The exhibition traces the evolution of her tradition-defying craftsmanship through some 90 embroidery works and tapestries spanning five decades from the 1950s to 2000s. And visitors are offered a chance to observe closely both the front and back sides of her woven textiles that firmly position Lee as a trailblazer of Korean fabric art.

Installation view of Lee Shin-ja's "Threadscapes" at the MMCA Gwacheon / Courtesy of MMCA


It was through “Wall Hanging” (1971), displayed at the 1972 “Kukjon,” or the juried National Art Exhibition, that Lee shook up Korea’s fabric art scene once again with the introduction of the then-foreign genre of tapestry.


But instead of resorting to traditional weaving techniques, the artist would add a unique sense of texture and volume to her textiles by pulling, twisting, intertwining and pile-weaving threads ― like in “Forest” (1972) or “Conversation between Circles I” (1970s) ― to create relief-like structures populated by organic shapes and contrasting hues.


Lee was also a maverick when it comes to the materials used in her works. She would go out of her way to purchase distinct-looking yarn sweaters from the street market and unravel them or buy bedding threads and dye them in order to incorporate those fibers into her pieces.

Lee Shin-ja's "Destination I" (1987), left, and "Prince of the Forest" (1987), both of which are stage costumes made with dyed felt and cotton threads / Newsis


In the early 1980s, following the death of her husband, painter Chang Un-sang (1926-82), Lee produced a series of works, such as “Prayer I” (1985), which employed a striking interplay of red and black to convey her sense of grief, despair and at the same time, her profound reverence for life.


The artist's spirit of experimentation continued as the years passed.

She expanded the scope of her craft to stage costume and drapery designs, epitomized by the likes of “Destination I” (1987) and “Prince of the Forest” (1987).

Her subjects also began to include scenes pulled from her childhood memories ― like the exquisite sunrise or seascape off the coast of Uljin, her hometown in southeastern Korea, brimming with spiritual vitality.


Lee Shin-ja's 19-meter-long tapestry entitled “The Han River, Life Vein of Seoul” (1990-93) / Courtesy of MMCA


Centerpiece of the exhibition is Lee’s monumental “The Han River, Life Vein of Seoul” (1990-93).


The 19-meter-long piece was created after one of her trips to France, where she, much to her surprise, came across some of the largest tapestries she had ever seen in her life.


“That was when I decided to leave behind a work on a similarly ambitious scale,” she recalled.


The tapestry, while reminiscent of a traditional Korean ink wash painting, captures the modern-day scenery around Seoul’s iconic river ― from the Olympic Stadium and 63 Building to towering bridges and Mount Nam ― in a dreamy haze.


“Threadscapes” runs through Feb. 18, 2024, at the MMCA Gwacheon.

September 29, 2023
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