A Buddhist Sensibility
Korean artist Ki-hyang Lee designs works infused with a rich aesthetic and spiritual depth rare in fashion. A dedicated Buddhist, she says that clothing is life itself. For the last decade Lee has united Buddhist motifs with the human body. By bringing religion into the realm of the everyday, her beautiful clothing is already changing the way people think about Buddhist design. Korea has produced some of the most sublime Buddhist art in the world but Buddhism today, says Lee, has a "corny and old-fashioned" image. Her aim is to make Buddhism more attractive to the world while keeping its teachings intact.
Lee has had several solo fashion shows and taken part in numerous group exhibitions in Korea, Germany and the United States. Since 1996 she has been an assistant professor in the department of clothing and textiles at Hansung University in Seoul, where she teaches courses in wearable art and design process. She also researches a variety of topics related to Korean textiles and costume. Now a luminous light in the Korean design world, Lee reached this point in her artistic and academic career by a roundabout path.
As an art student in Seoul in the late 1970s, Lee majored in sculpture, finding, however, that working with mass only made her realize how much she missed color. In 1979, while a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, she switched to printmaking; working with color made her happy but using acids and solvents did not. At the time, she had a friend studying fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and this friend, Lee noted, was always satisfied with what she was doing. Lee herself was interested in fashion design but that was simply not an option when she was first in art school.
Yet, in 1985 while her husband was pursuing a doctorate at Harvard, she started taking classes at the School of Fashion Design in Boston. "I was never happier in my academic life." says Lee. "I knew this was it for me." After finishing school, she worked as a children's fashion designer but about eight months later her husband received a six-month position in Germany and the family left the United States.
Back again in Korea after almost ten years abroad, Lee was confused about herself and her country. "When I came back to Korea," she says, "I wondered who I was, where I had come from, what I was doing. I had to find out what my country was all about." Trained in the European art tradition, she knew little about Korean art. Her mother-in-law, a devout Buddhist who has supported Lee in her career, suggested that she attend lectures on Buddhism. Lee at first resisted the idea, then ended up going. The lectures, an introduction to Buddhist fundamentals, caused a profound change in her life.
"I was stunned to discover what Buddhism was really about," she says. "I was chagrined that I hadn't encountered it until age thirty-five, but so happy that I finally did. Buddhism teaches that everyone is a buddha and able therefore to do whatever she of he wants. I felt there was much to do before I died, much to show the world." Buddhism also brought her a precious appreciation for Korean arts, culture and history.
Shortly after her return, Lee was offered a teaching job at a two-year college of fashion design. "That led her, in 1992, to a master of arts degree in design. Her mentor in graduate school was Bae Chun Bum, a noted Korean designer and scholar. "He taught me what fashion design was," says Lee, quick to compliment those who have helped to shape her. "He made me strong and gave me the basis of my future. If he had been able to speak English, he should have been very famous."
Lee credits her husband Pil-hwa Yoo, a professor of marketing and fellow Buddhist, with her love of travel, particularly to Buddhist countries. She has made a pilgrimage to India, toured Buddhist sites in China and looks forward to visiting Tibet. In 1994 Lee went to Japan to study ar the Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. At first hesitant about going because of the history of Japanese treatment of Koreans, "like what Germans did to Jews," she was curious, on the other hand, because Japan is a prosperous Buddhist country with much to offer.
When Lee returned to Seoul from Japan in 1995, she immersed herself in preparing for a solo exhibition, Towards the World Beyond, which was held late that year. It took nine months of concentrated work to create the nine costumes in the show. Inspiration for her images was derived from the Buddhist hanging paintings displayed in temple courtyards for sacred performances of music and dance; these performances, by masked priests in homage to Buddha, were common at Korean temples.
Made of one hundred percent cotton and sometime embellished with quilting, the costumes in Towards the World Beyond are handpainted with often dramatic yet always refined images of Amitabul (Amitabha), the paradisiac buddha, Sokkamoni (Sakyamuni), the historical buddha, Kwanseum (Avalokitesvara), the bodhisattva of compassion, Jijang (Ksitigarbha), the bodhisattva of the nether world, and Tongjin, the bodhisattva who protects the lotus of the True Law. Others depict graceful mudras (hand gestures), deva(celestial beings), and lotus blossoms.
Though inspired by Korean and Chinese Buddhist paintings and murals, Lee did not just reproduce ancient images; she was always aware, for one thing, that the images would ultimately be fitted to the human body. "I was always thinking about breasts, waists, hips and legs and exaggerating those parts of the body, making the waist slimmer, hips begger and such. Then I would put the painted fabric onto a mannequin, move it around and decide where to change and deform things. After that, I made the pattern, then cut the fabric."
The faces of her buddhas and bodhisattvas are not those of traditional Korean Buddhist art, which Lee terms conservative. Rather, the images reflect her viewpoint in 1995. Some Buddhist priests who attended the show were not happy with her faces, but Lee shrugs off such criticism. "My job is to make Buddhist art live in the modern world and to make people happy. I want to be a messenger of the Buddha's teaching to the world. To me making fabric and religion are the same."
Nonetheless, she "hates" being called a Buddhist artist. "I'm an artist. I do what I do not just for Buddhists but for people all over the world. I admire American artists who make art out of their flag, and that's the kind of thing I'm trying to do."
Color and how to use it, says Lee, was an "agony" for her. Both Buddhism and shamanism, another important part of Korea's spiritual heritage, use strong colors that are not much to Lee's liking. She prefers complementary colors, and even these are toned down with gray. "I like aqua blues through emerald greens but have to be careful not to use them too much. Oranges and greens are much more Korean." For the show she used greens and oranges in subtle shades, toned down with natural lights and darks to suggest the patina of age. "I cannot work without gray," emphasizes Lee, who also antiqued the fabric surface by later painting cracks on it. "I very much like the delicate patina that comes from age."
Mandala Revelation, Lee's next major solo show, was held in 1999. If the underlying theme of the 1995 show was Buddhism in general, that of her new show was the Lotus Sutra. In this sutra, one of the most important in the Buddhist canon, Sakyamuni preaches the true law to the entire universe, which includes among others, heavenly beings, humans, demons, beasts, hungry ghosts and hell-dwellers, to the delight of all.
Lee based her show on yongsanjae, Korea's oldest and most elaborate Buddhist ceremony, which is performed in praise of the Buddha and the truth of his teachings. The purpose of the ceremony, Lee explains, is to bring the Buddha's teachings to all beings, living and dead, through song and dance. In this way, dead souls are led to salvation and paradise. The ceremony, once occasion for a village festival, starts with the symbolic arrival of buddhas and bodhisattvas from all over the universe, followed by the ritual cleansing of the dead souls. Tapestries, paintings and handmade paper lotuses and other flowers decorate the temple courtyard and hall, and chants, songs and dances are performed. The souls listen to the teaching and are saved.
Lee approached the show in the manner of an opera or a zen ceremony. She put in two years of preparation, designing nineteen costumes, as well as the setting and lighting and commissioning of music and dances. Handpainting the costumes for the 1995 show had taught her a lesson; for these costumes patterns were stenciled on black tussard silk and sheer organdy. Though she used the basic oriental colors of red, blue, yellow, black and white on the costumes, she muted them with gray to make them compatible with the black fabric. She found herself again struggling to eliminate the tint of shamanism from the colors being used. "I just can't use vivid colors. I try and try but just can't do it."
Models, as bodhisattvas, wore nine of the costumes; the other ten were displayed on the first floor of the two-floor gallery, which was strewn with paper lotuses. A symbol of the Buddha, the lotus is a flower that blooms in mud yet is unstained by the dirt of its environment. Lee had her elegant bodhisattvas come walking down the stairs from the second floor to the surprise of the audience waiting among the paper lotuses below.
Audience reaction was overwhelming; ordinary spectators and art critics alike were stunned and moved. Best of all for Lee, perhaps, the show made people thing about what Buddhist design was and could be. There is little, she points out, between the refined art that can still be seen in temple halls and the cheap souvenirs sold at temples. Her aim was to make something between those two extremes, while developing her ideas as art. With her show she had succeeded in creating and presenting "things with beautiful motifs for everyday life."
Sincere, reflective and determined, Ki-hyang Lee is on an artistic and spiritual journey of self-discovery that embraces the world. "I want to serve people," she says, "while expressing Buddha's world to the world through art. My dream is to make a wonderful museum filled with my Buddhist design, with a Korean-style teahouse and lotus ponds. I would like to serve guests there and make them happy. There are many costume museums but this will be a Buddhist costume museum. If it becomes world famous, Buddha should be happy with what I have done. In my next life, I want to do this kind of work again."
_Photo: (1st image) LONG SHAM with traditional geometric patterns of a gentle wave washing over a rock; the lotus motifs are primarily in a golden color to contrast with the black organdy and traditional Korean knot ornament dangles in the front of her dress.
-LOTUS FLOWER IN MUD ENSEMBLE, cape and dress with mandarin style collar, 1988.
The appeal of these two bodhisattva front and back of cape are reminiscent of the innocence and beauty of the lotus that reveals its elegance in the muddy water.
-SCENT OF THE BLOOMING LOTUS SERIES I, dress and bolero jacket of tussard silk and organdy, 1988.
Her hairdo is inspired by traditional hairstyles but modified for a contemporary context.
Photographs courtesy of the artist.
Jacqueline Ruyak writes about artists and translates Japanese literature. She lived in Japan for fifteen years and now devides her time between rural Pennsylvania and rural Japan.