Khan Lee: Bringing Universality to Art

Posted by Kaavya Lakshmanan & filed under Art & Design, People to Watch.


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I had the chance to sit down with Korea-born Vancouver artist, Khan Lee, whose Hearts & Arrows show in Centre A was the talk of the town. The show is a film of Lee carving a diamond out of a block of ice. Shot in Stanley Park, and overlooking the East, the film shows Lee’s process of carving the diamond to the setting of the rising early morning sun. The film starts in darkness, with the silhouette of Lee carving the ice, and as the film progresses, the rising sun shines light on the finished product: a beautiful carved diamond.

I was intrigued by his piece, particularly by his background of a Korea-born artist.

Tell me a bit about yourself. How and when did you know you wanted to be an artist? How did you get started with art in Seoul, Korea? What types of art have you produced in the past?

I went to architecture school for two years when I was back in Korea, and then I got an opportunity to come here. It turns out in BC you have to have a Bachelor’s degree to go into Architecture School. I figured I was always interested in art, but I never had an opportunity to actually to get really into it. So I got into Art School, thinking I’ll go back to starting architecture after. But that never happened.

[Art and architecture are] similar in a way, but also very different. You don’t really have to rely on somebody else’s finances to fulfill your needs. I think that’s the part that I really liked about art. I like to call myself a sculptor.


Tell me a little about the Heart and Arrows show in particular. How did you come up with this particular project? What is it about and what message are you trying to convey?

I have no idea where [the idea] came from! It came from somewhere, and as I spent more time thinking about it, it made a lot of sense. A lot of other things that I was thinking about kinda coincidentally gave me a clue that that’s what I should be doing.

The most interesting thing for me is that diamond is also called “ice” sometimes as a slang. They both have a lot of similarities but a lot of differences at the same time. They are quite opposite. They’re both clear substances that are in solid form that you can make into something else. Diamonds are supposed to be permanent but ice isn’t. But at the same time, ice is kind of permanent because when you preserve things in ice, they kind of last forever. So there are a lot of interesting things [there]. Also, when I was going to school, our school was never really about skills, so I kind of also wanted to spend some time trying to learn something and trying be good at it, because I never had those kinds of practices in art school. So between that and the ice itself, the diamond itself, and the locality that we’re living in this global world and often forget what we have here…so I like to create this one moment that you get to experience. Location wise, I thought about picking a location that was a bit more remote, but then realized that every location has to have a reason, and there’s [no place] I can think of that is better than where I live.



It was my intention to start with black and end in white. The camera cannot see what your eyes can see.

How long did it take you to sculpt the piece?

First of all, I had to learn how to carve it. The first time I carved it, it took me about 2 hours. But [during the take seen in the film], because of the time of [the] day, and the way the sun was rising, I knew I only had about forty-five minutes. I knew that if I couldn’t do it in forty-five minutes, I’d have no video. But luckily I got better over time, and I was able to perform in that duration of time.

I shot it many times, around half a dozen times, in a few different locations. Some [locations] didn’t work out, some I didn’t like. For some, it started raining in the middle of the shoot! How many times did I carve it? I don’t really know. I don’t really like to keep track of these things.

What inspired you when working on the Heart and Arrows project? 

I can’t really say if there’s anything particular that inspired me. I thought about it everyday a lot. I may call myself an artist sometimes, but I have my job where I work for someone else. I have my responsibilities in my family and in my neighbourhood. If something inspires my artwork, it has to be from [the] everyday.

I had the idea for a long time, but when you have an idea it doesn’t really mean anything. By the time I actually started spending energy into it, it was probably about two and a half years ago.

Was this particular project similar or different to art you’ve created in the past?

There’s always a similarity in the process itself and the duration it takes to get something done.

Is there a specific purpose or theme to each of your creations or does each piece symbolize something different?

I think the ideas and inspirations could be different. But the philosophy itself is pretty consistent. I have certain kinds of beliefs and certain kinds of understandings of the world. What I’m interested in and how I look at the world seem to be very similar to each other. That kind of translates into the work that I am making. 

Does your Korean background play any role in your creations?

Not necessarily. The fact that I have a non-Western background pushes me to work a different way. The fact that I may have a different understanding of art from what they tell you in school makes me work differently. I’m more interested in making work that has less to do with the history of Western art. I’m more interested in making work that’s more universal. I’m more interested in making work that you could look at and appreciate without knowing all the baggages.



Khan Lee’s Hearts & Arrows show will be playing until July 27th.

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