One morning earlier this month, the artist Mire Lee was sitting outside at a cafe in Seoul as she discussed an artwork that she came up with just as she started planning “Black Sun,” her show opening soon at the New Museum in Manhattan.
“I still need to work on it a little,” Lee said, setting down her coffee to pull up a video of the work on her phone. Onscreen, a whirlpool of beige liquid clay swirled around a cement basin and down a drain at its center, as more of it flowed in from a hole higher in the bowl. It was a bizarre sight — a kind of mucky bath that was perpetually being drained while vaguely conjuring bodily substances. A peristaltic pump on the floor kept it flowing.
“I’ve been trying to make the viscosity just about right so that you can see the hole continuously,” she said, “but honestly, maybe it’s not perfectly there.”
Welcome to the world of Mire (“me-ray”) Lee, where motors, tubes, and pumps paired with silicone, ceramics, fabrics and liquids become sculptures that are bizarre, messy and (in more ways than one) moving. Pushing lines of taste, her inventions can suggest organs ripped from bodies, mysterious deep-sea creatures or sci-fi wraiths. They pulsate, drip, twist, ooze, squirm and sometimes even metamorphose, and when they were displayed alongside the menacing work of the “Alien” artist H.R. Giger in a 2021 exhibition in Berlin, they looked right at home.
They have also made Lee, 34, a sought-after figure globally. Her New Museum outing, which opens June 29, comes after a string of appearances at some of the international art circuit’s most important showcases: the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, the Busan Biennale in her native South Korea and the Venice Biennale. That was where Lee erected scaffolding and festooned it with ceramics that recalled animal bones or entrails, and hoses that spewed a glaze over them — gradually making everything more and more red — before being recycled through grates below.
“What I loved about her work is that it feels almost like a digestive system of an organism, you know?” said Cecilia Alemani, the director and chief curator of High Line Art in New York, who was the artistic director of the 2022 Venice Biennale. “It feels like you’re looking inside the guts of a dragon, or like something that you don’t actually want to see. But there is also this sensuality of the skin of the sculptures, the idea of the epidermis that changes and is also quite delicate in a way.”
Lee’s works can induce horror and awe, though they often also harbor a disquieting vulnerability. They do not quite belong to this world, you sense, and they threaten to malfunction or become sentient at any second. She is “using the machine as a metaphor for all kinds of different possible emotions or states of being,” said Gary Carrion-Murayari, who is curating the New Museum show with Madeline Weisburg, and “trying to create a physical sensation that may evoke an emotion. To me, that’s a quite unusual and a backward way to think about technology.”
Within the fourth floor of the Bowery institution, Lee is constructing a tall room, wrapped in plastic, that will contain a group of her kinetic sculptures, including the one she showed me. Textiles dipped in liquid clay will hang on its interior walls. It may be warm in there, thanks to a steam machine, which will keep her clay humid. “I like it to be a bit unpleasant,” she said, “so that it feels like it’s actually getting onto you.”
The show’s title, “Black Sun,” comes from the title of the philosopher Julia Kristeva’s 1987 volume on melancholia. The book “talks a little bit about the impossibility of communication when you are depressed,” Lee told me in a video interview in April from New York, where she was working in a studio in Queens making ceramics for the exhibition. “For me, it’s also a sublime thing,” she said. In that state, “you become impenetrable, like you become absolute in a way. This I really love.”
Far from impenetrable, Lee is bracingly candid, and dryly funny, in conversation. “I think in general I don’t know how to chill or relax,” she said.
At the cafe, she was wearing a large green jacket and Nikes. She has a tattoo on her ring finger of an open circle that she gave herself. She showed me another in-progress New Museum piece — a lumpy ceramic mass tied in the style of shibari, or Japanese rope bondage — and said that she intended to display it on the ground “like a dead body or like a sleeping body.”
Since 2018, Lee has had her studio in Amsterdam, where she received a residency at the Rijksakademie, but she has spent most of her life in Seoul. Her father is an artist, and her mother ran a publishing company and taught art at a middle school. “I wanted to become a filmmaker, which, if I think about it now, it was the stupidest idea ever because you have to work with a lot of people, and I love to be my own boss,” she said. “So, it’s cool that didn’t happen.”
Instead, Lee got a B.F.A. in sculpture, and then an M.F.A., from the prestigious Seoul National University. “I always wanted to make wild-looking kind of works, or crude works,” she said, but she was never content. “It would look a little bit too contained or too intentional or just fake.” Then she found a solution. “Using motors and techniques that I was really, like, bad at gave me surprising results,” she said. (Her unorthodox materials have extended to cement mixers, which churned sculptures at an exhibition in Frankfurt last year.)
In an unsettling installation at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) in 2016, “Andrea, in my mildest dreams,” thin streams of a silicone-oil mixture rain into a low pool amid screens with videos of young women aboard crowded trains. At the time, Lee had an incomplete understanding of her equipment, and had to make follow-up visits to keep it running properly, she said. “I felt a bit like a burden to the museum.”
Kinetic art has long been something of a niche field, ripe for innovation, and you could link Lee to one of its pioneers, the risk-taking Jean Tinguely, particularly his deathly late work. Another precursor is the classic 1987 short film “The Way Things Go,” by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, which follows a Rube Goldberg-worthy chain of events. Watching it “blew my mind a little,” Lee said, “but not in a way that it fed my soul or anything.”
What did nourish her soul was the work of the celebrated sculptor Louise Bourgeois and that of Santiago Sierra, whose controversial projects have included paying people modest sums to sit inside cardboard boxes or stand facing a wall in a gallery. “I love his use of cruelty,” Lee said, arguing that in his art “there’s no excuse, there’s no wrapping.”
Lee’s art is not cruel, mercifully, but it is unflinching. It channels impulses, fantasies and imagery that usually go unspoken in polite company. Flesh is on display. Abstracted bodies and psyches are being tortured or breaking down, or they are under threat. The women riding the train are about to be groped, one of several instances of Lee’s taking inspiration from pornography. (She appropriated the clips.)
And yet, for all of their darkness and implied violence, many of Lee’s works also seem to yearn for connection, for intimacy. Her video “Sleeping mom” (2020) shows exactly that; her mother resting with her eyes closed, holding a pillow. “I want to keep her close, or I want to involve her or something,” Lee said. In 2017, she and the artist Haneyl Choi did a performance — a sort of sendup of a canonical one by Marina Abramović and Ulay — that involved sleeping in bed all night, naked, with a (clothed) guest. Her view of that now: “Really embarrassing.”
When SeMA commissioned her to make a sculpture for its lobby, she asked 10 artists to give her elements of their own work that were “swallowed,” as its then-director, Beck Jee-sook, put it in an email, by a skeletal steel sphere high up in the space that can rotate on its axis. Lee named the 2019 piece, “i wanna be together.”
Lee’s recent focus has been holes, which also obliquely speaks to a desire for communion and exchange. After focusing on sculptures that aim to contain liquid flows and prevent leaks, she said, “I’m now interested in the holes and gaps that make the leakage happen.” That sounds like a formula for having unexpected things transpire.
There is a feeling of opportunity in Lee’s practice right now, too. Her operations are still nimble — she has three part-time assistants — and she said that she is “interested in making big work, like architectural scale. I’m interested in making more, like, theatrical works.”
“I want to be freer than now,” Lee said a moment later, but then she started laughing, and before she explained more, she made a quick disclaimer. “I think I am pretty free,” she said.