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  • Sarah Tsung

Interview: Maia Ruth Lee

Interview with Maia Ruth Lee, conducted by Sarah Tsung

September 16, 2021

ST: I would like to start by asking for a brief overview of your practice, just to ground us both.

MRL: I went to school in Seoul and studied painting at Hongik University. Once I graduated, I was completely fed up with art. I was like, how do I sustain a living? This was the most useless thing to study, what do I do with my life now, sort of thing. I started an art publication with friends and we got into more community-driven, collective-based art projects. We self-published a magazine called Chillzine and dove into this whole new world—let’s just make a name for ourselves, let's get our own jobs. Screw painting and screw the patriarchy and this whole system. We’re gonna pave our own way. That was the basis, for me, for finding my ground as an artist. Not so much school, but joining hands with my fellow artists in Korea, and being independent for the first time. So zines, publications, are a big, important factor in my practice—they were the first things that grounded me as an artist. The thing that drew me to them was that collective aspect of it, the community aspect of it. And collaborating became a huge aspect of my work.

After arriving in the United States in 2011, I was left to my own elements for the first time as an artist and I started to come back to art. There was a huge gap in between, like 10 to 15 years of not creating work. Coming to the US really jolted me into figuring out what my voice was. After living in Asia my whole life, I didn’t feel that necessity until I came to the US. From this urgency came all of the work that followed. So a lot of the work stems from diasporic experiences, but also from migration, of moving location, the idea of labor and what it means in this day and age. As a woman of color in a foreign country, this idea of family, fragmented families, this idea of self-preservation and of protection. A lot of the work seeped out of those larger ideas, and the materials followed thereafter.

ST: The body of work that you’ve given us invokes both language and migration. Language can be so community-based—I’m interested in hearing how your work interacts with, or transcends, geographic boundaries.

MRL: The recent body of work really came from moving here [Salida, Colorado] and obviously the pandemic. It is a reaction and response to recent events, and to events in my personal life as well, and those works were very much made with an idea of the audience in mind because I was thinking about language as a whole, the expansion of language. In some ways, I’ve always created work inspired by asemic writing, even before I knew what it was, and growing up with parents who are linguists, it came from this notion that language was at the forefront of our identity. I really appreciate that, because it was important to be able to speak Korean and to be able to speak English. But because they really studied and examined language, it was always talked about. It packages so much into one—our ideologies, cultures, our ancestral narratives, so when I learned about asemic writing I was excited to know I wasn’t alone, that there was a whole movement to support what my ideas were.

Asemic writing is a global style of writing that is without context; it’s an open semantic form of writing that is more like a shadow or an impression of conventional writing. The creators of asemic writing are from all over the world—it’s international in its mission, and ignores obstacles like education and background. It becomes this really open-ended, but also very judgment-free, accessible language. The example I always bring up is, as children, before we learned how to write and were just scribbling—that can be considered asemic writing. In a way, we’ve all participated in asemic writing. Before you’re able to learn the alphabet and how letters create words, you’re seeing these forms as shapes. I love how universal it is. So I think that, combined with this larger concept of a language of grief, molded together and went hand-in-hand for those recent works.

ST: I wonder about a sense of belonging with asemic writing. As a largely formal, visual language, and something that isn’t spoken, how does asemic writing communicate? Who does it speak to?

MRL: When you think about language, it’s a tool for communication. So when you take the practicality out of it, how can it be communicative? And I think the answer to that is, you know, communication itself needs to expand. The idea of communication. What I tried to hone in on with this body of work is that grief—as an experience that we are all collectively going through on different levels—cannot always be articulated. It can be deep and difficult. Creating space for that illegibility of language, saying that there is this whole area of experiences and emotions that is hard to describe—just having that space communicates a lot. Giving space and creating the platform for certain emotions and experiences is giving way to many people and experiences to say, I don’t need to articulate to be understood. It’s not articulating anything, but it’s an extension of what language is.

ST: And that’s so powerful, I think, in the context of diaspora, and the sort of tension between displacement and belonging.

MRL: Exactly. Especially when you’re someone who speaks more than one language, for example, it’s so great to be able to speak multiple languages, but it can be confusing. Each language has such a different spirit. I can feel really fragmented when I’m speaking Korean, or English, or Nepali. How do you describe those gaps that are created between all the different languages in the world?

ST: You mentioned that you had an audience in mind for this recent set of works—is the work meant to speak to anyone that can relate to feelings of grief and disembodiment?

MRL: I think the audience is everyone. Every language has imperfections and falls short of explaining certain experiences, such as grief. It’s my attempt at accentuating the fact that language is not as evolved as humans are. In this body of work, each work has a different communication method. I did also include a series of typewritten letters, which are actually legible, because I wanted there to be a legible aspect to this illegibility as well. Because that’s our attempt at trying to communicate, even if it does fall short. By reading some of these personal communications, you see what is trying to fill in the gaps. We can see what falls short and what works.

ST: The tension between legibility and illegibility is interesting as well, because you mentioned that you’re trying to work with a “lexicon of illegibility.” I wonder if you can elaborate a little on what you mean when you’re building out a “lexicon”?

MRL: Creating this body of work based on the illegibility of grief was my attempt to say that not everything needs to be read. I think that in itself is very oppressive—who gets to read what? I want this to reach not only English speakers and English writers and people who are fluent in English, but for it to be in no specific language. Anyone could approach the work and think that it looks like it could be read, and think that, well, I’m not sure if I should be reading or viewing these works. The formats that I use, like a scroll, or something that looks like an old tablet with symbols on them—these glyph-like abstract shapes—there is a moment when they seem like ancient scriptures. Upon realizing what the materials are, there’s a sort of relief in being able to say I recognize this, I know what these materials are, I’ve experienced them.

ST: The materials you use invoke bodily sensations—you use bandages, which might signal wounds, or heating blankets that might create some kind of comfort. Would you say that you’re mining those personal experiences to create your communicative effects?

MRL: I would say so. We all have some kind of memory with those materials. For me, personally, all of these materials evoke a certain narrative. I grew up with heating blankets. In Nepal, there’s no central heating, so the bed is the only warm place in the house. So the idea of crawling into bed and being comforted by the warmth—you know you’re going to have a good night’s sleep. And the heating blanket, I think, is such a typical object for migrant families. In Korea, everyone has a heated blanket.

And bandages, and sewing patterns—I never grew up sewing, but clothing is something we can all relate to. And something like clothing, when fragmented and taken apart, is made up of these abstract shapes. But looking at them side by side, you can sort of envision the impression of the body. You can recognize this is the collar, or this is part of the pant or the inside of a pocket. Those elements are things we live with every day without really thinking about it. That really tied into the idea of the experiences that are so much a part of our lives right now, that we’re wearing these difficult emotions and experiences without knowing what to do with them.

ST: How do you approach using such a broad range of materials that aren’t traditional art materials?

MRL: I’ve always been interested in unconventional materials—it’s always been quite intuitive to me. It takes me a while to land on a material to work with because I like to experiment and test a material to see how we can collaborate. I like to see their layers and meanings before I start to use them in my work, so sometimes it takes years. The bandage works, for example, the first time I incorporated them into my work was 10 years ago. I tested it and didn’t do anything with them. I figured out how to best use and incorporate the material, but then it sat in my studio for 10 years. It was interesting to bring it back because it finally actually made sense.

Sewing patterns were a new material for me, and I think it was about the body. It made so much sense. In thinking about creating a new lexicon out of found objects that already had abstract shapes, the first thing that came to mind was sewing patterns. Even with that, I tested them in various ways. Do I actually use the sewing pattern? Do I trace them, do I collage them? There are a billion ways to use this material. What I landed on is where I felt like the materials could really speak for themselves.

The heat blankets, for example, are also something that I experimented with 10 years ago that finally came together for this show. They’re interesting because my hand is no part of the work, I’ve just married two objects together—the heat blanket and the thermochromic fabric. And there’s so much joy in that for me, to find materials that work together. It’s a form of collaboration for me.

ST: How do you find your found objects?

MRL: It’s accessibility for me, it’s about being resourceful. I like to look around my immediate surroundings and see what I can find. It’s inspiring to work with found objects because they already carry so many meanings. Sometimes it can really seep into the work seamlessly. A lot of the time, it’s being intuitive and thinking about the concept first, and then trying to see what I can get my hands on that’s easy to acquire. And that’s why I’m not drawn to high production, high-quality materials. That’s hard to access and requires a lot of production money. Found objects are a means for me to continue my practice without hindering me from creating specific works.

ST: That’s such an immigrant mindset, to go into it thinking about how to make do with what you already have.

MRL: It really is! It’s like, what can I use? It’s totally an immigrant mindset.

ST: The idea of accessibility is coming up a lot—accessibility of language and accessibility of materials. Art can feel so opaque sometimes, so this emphasis on accessibility is really powerful.

MRL: My viewpoint is that we need to open up everything. We all need to have access to these incredible resources that each institution, or country, or culture, can provide. And the gatekeepers, whether it’s the patriarchal system, or classism, or whatnot—I think art has the power to really break that down, if that is its message. I’ve always been a strong believer of things being shared.


Maia Ruth Lee is an artist born in Busan, South Korea, and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal. Lee’s recent solo exhibition took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver in 2021. Other solo exhibitions were in 2016 and 2018 at Eli Ping Frances Perkins (NY) and Jack Hanley Gallery (NY) respectively. Lee has participated in numerous group exhibitions including the Whitney Biennial 2019, CANADA gallery, Studio Museum 127, Salon 94 in New York, and Roberts & Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles. Lee was a recipient of the Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist Grant in 2017 and her work is held in the public collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art.


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