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There is a secret space deep in the foundations of Lee Ufan Arles, a private museum recently opened by the Korean-born artist in the historic heart of the Provençal city. Here reside two of Lee’s signature paintings, each of which are so minimal that they appear as large individual brushstrokes. But, on closer inspection, one realises they are created through the patient application of many layers of subtly modulated colour—each applied directly to the gallery floor.

This underground display can only be visited by appointment, explains the institution’s general coordinator, Juliette Vignon. But it offers the lucky few “a concentration” of the artistic concerns that have preoccupied Lee for six decades. The works are deceptively simple, yet they are philosophical, conceived in direct relation to their environment. They perfectly capture the disposition of an artist who has made stone the “main character” of his life’s work, Vignon says.

Ancient Arles’s influence

The ancient stones of Arles—a Unesco World Heritage site recognised for its Roman monuments—certainly influenced Lee’s decision to open his foundation here in April 2022. So did the growing momentum around this small city, where Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin once came to paint, as a contemporary art destination. Long known to photography fans for the Rencontres d’Arles festival, founded in 1970, the city gained a new arts centre in 2021 with the completion of the Swiss collector Maja Hoffmann’s Luma Foundation campus.

Whereas Hoffmann has childhood roots in the region, Lee got to know Arles through his friend, the former Maeght Foundation director Michel Enrici, and the publishers Actes Sud. “The first real moment of connection” came in 2011, Lee tells The Art Newspaper, when when Actes Sud invited him to publish his first French-language monograph. Later, the artist imagined “a new space dedicated to my works but located in the Western part of the world”, following the earlier openings of Lee Ufan museums in Busan, Korea, and Naoshima, Japan, his adopted country since the age of 20.

The original plan was to base the foundation in New York, but the search for a suitable site there foundered. Lee’s “love and respect” for France in recent decades—he has kept a studio in Paris for 30 years—helped to elevate Arles as an alternative. He now sees a serendipitous resonance between the Roman city’s “special link with the past, and with time in general” and his long-term home in Japan, the “ancient” and “calm” coastal town of Kamakura. Moreover, Arles is “a place where an outsider can find a fitting milieu”, he says.

The search for a place in the world has been a leitmotif for Lee, who described his sense of being a perpetual outsider in a text in the early 1990s. “Koreans see me as being Japanised, the Japanese see me as being fundamentally Korean, and when I go to Europe, people set me aside as an Oriental,” he wrote. “I see myself as a ping-pong ball, the man in the middle, always being pushed back and forth with no one willing to accept me as an insider.”

Lee’s present determination for the foundation to be “self-funded and autonomous” reflects the fierce independence with which he has pursued a global art career against the odds, Vignon says. He migrated to Tokyo in the aftermath of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, then one of the world’s poorest countries. Though he studied philosophy and literature intensively, the language barrier led him to abandon his first dream of becoming a writer. By the late 1960s, he was radicalising post-war Japanese art as a member of Mono-ha, a collective of rebels working against Western Modernism. “He always wanted to make his own choices,” Vignon says, “so it’s very important to keep that freedom [in Arles].”

Lee had “reservations towards museums” in the past, he says, linked to the “emphasis on maintaining a variable and fluid relationship with space” he developed in his sculptural installations during the 1970s. That was the decade that brought him into the nomadic rhythms of the international art world and also when he adopted the title Relatum for his three-dimensional works. A term from philosophy that denotes an entity that relates to another, it points to the interconnections Lee sees between his sculptures, their surroundings and the viewer.

Exacting installation

“There is no instruction manual for how you install a Relatum,” says Sam Bardaouil, the co-director of the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin, which is staging a major Lee Ufan retrospective (until 28 April). Lee scoped out the space over several visits and “actively engaged with the placement of the work” going back to the late 1960s, Bardaouil says.

A similar dance took place at Lee Ufan Arles in the run-up to opening, according to Vignon. Lee collaborated with the revered Japanese architect Tadao Ando to refurbish the 17th-century mansion building, the Hôtel Vernon. Lee was so exacting in the site-specific installation of works, Vignon says, that he relocated some of them at the eleventh hour. “We had to rebuild some walls,” she says.

The Japanese architect Tadao Ando created display spaces in the foundation’s 17th-century building

The artist’s prerogative to orchestrate the perfect tension between sculpture and site is “going to be a very interesting challenge in posterity”, Bardaouil suggests. Now aged 87, Lee is realising his wish to “create a lasting legacy” and preserve his works for “future generations” through the foundation. The Arles space, registered in France as a nonprofit endowment fund, is in close dialogue with his studio over possible succession plans.

However, Lee is adamant it will not be “a mausoleum”, Vignon says, but “a living place where you can discover new artists or rediscover artists through Lee Ufan’s eyes”. To this end, Lee Ufan Arles has partnered with the beauty brand Guerlain to launch the annual Art & Environment Prize. Its first winner, the French painter and printmaker Djabril Boukhenaïssi, is currently in residence in Arles in preparation for a summer exhibition at the museum’s temporary space.

Following that, the autumn show promises both discovery and rediscovery: the curator Matthew Drutt is focusing on early 20th-century Suprematism inspired by two Malevich drawings in Lee’s private collection. Built organically, the collection reflects his wide-ranging interests, from Roman and Korean antiquities to Matisse. Though he donated a group of Joseon dynasty paintings and folding screens to the Musée Guimet in Paris in 2002, Lee has always been discreet about his collecting. But bringing works to Arles now offers another way to share his “creative journey” with the public.

Perhaps his art can be a “bridge”, he says, an invitation to reflect on “the intersections of cultures”. For this meditative space in Arles is, ultimately, about “the universal aspects of human experience”.

What more could one expect from the so-called “man in the middle”? The ever subtle and self-effacing Lee is not “making art about being in exile or politically marginalised” in any overt sense, Bardaouil says. But, he argues, Lee’s fundamentally transnational work and life, born of the feeling of “never fitting in”, leaves a legacy that goes far beyond his personal experience. It “opens up a path” for others in the globalised cultural world to follow.

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