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Lee Ufan in Kamakura, 2020, Photo by Lee Bona © Lee Ufan

Essays

Lee Ufan

Artists Respond

Written April 22, 2020
Translated by Ashley Rawlings

For our ongoing Artists Respond series, Lee Ufan contributes a philosophical essay in which he reflects on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on humanity and the environment and proclaims an urgent need to re-define our relationship with nature, technology and the state. His full essay follows.

The history of civilization is mostly an account of war, but it cannot be told without stories of fights against plague. All manner of new viruses have been circulating in recent years, and humanity battles with these invisible enemies day and night. To read scientific reports on viruses makes one realize what perplexing, mysterious beings they are. Viruses are tiny, invisible particles that do not easily bind with living organisms and inanimate objects, but fundamentally they are part of the genetic makeup of higher organisms, and they circulate openly among animals and humans. Moreover, they appear to be two-sided beings that bring with them not only the risk of death but promote life within the progress and evolution of humanity. Therefore, as an unavoidable aspect of life, they cannot be eradicated or destroyed. For a start, there are no permanent allies or unchanging enemies in this world. Today’s friends will be tomorrow’s foes, only to become friends again. The virus is a symbol of two-sided existence. It seems that the natural order is for us to coexist under the threat of extinction, which in turn stimulates and strengthens us.

There are surely different types of viruses. In order to alternately fight them and live in acceptance of them, we will need to exert more vitality—that is, our entire physical, intellectual, and spiritual strength—but it raises many other questions as well. As we know from the yakubyōgami (spirits of pestilence), the more we confront each other the stronger we become, and the structure of a virus, which varies in appearance according to the time and context, is highly dialectical and suggestive. In other words, to be alive means to be constantly engaged with the external and the Other while we develop our responses to the situation and the moment. I am thinking about these occurrences in the environment that I am familiar with, as well as the danger in our relationship with these viral relatives, who are both our nemesis and our source of strength. Naturally, humans exist in a world of living beings. We all know that modern civilizations built by humankind alone faced collapse. From the destruction of the environment and the ozone layer, to the depletion of food and natural resources, and the spread of pollution and nuclear contamination, scientific data shows that civilization will not survive the next fifty years if it remains on its current path. Therefore, like modern art, modern medicine must be dismantled. The role of the yakubyōgami had no place in that discipline. At last, the path can now lead away from anthropocentricism and toward a reconsideration of life as intrinsic to the reciprocity of the ecosystem and the environment. What the existence of this virus teaches us is precisely the synchronicity of the global environment, the solidarity of life, and the intermediation of all organic and inorganic beings.

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Lee Ufan, Relatum - Box Garden, 2019, Installation view, Lee Ufan: Open Dimension, Sep 27, 2019 – Sep 13, 2020, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Photo by Cathy Carver © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York,

Humanity is currently in a state of panic over the new coronavirus pandemic. Day after day, infections and deaths are reported all over the Internet, newspapers, and television, and people are terrified by the disease’s infectiousness, its rapid spread, and the growing death toll. Many countries have closed their borders, and with the imposition of social distancing and limits on public gatherings, cities have gone quiet. People are locked in their homes, in hospitals, and in their countries, forced into isolation and loneliness in order to maintain their distance. Ours is now a strange existence in which we limit our interactions as much as possible, refraining from handshakes, kisses, and even casual conversation. Where did it all go, all the hurrying around, the mad rush of work, the enthusiastic hugging, and the vigor of boisterous gatherings? None of it was an illusion, but it is nowhere to be seen anymore. Looking back on the anomaly of our former courage and enthusiasm, and discovering the pitiable vulnerability of humankind, a strange awareness of life’s uncertainty takes over.

In any case, while we cannot predict how long the virus’ ferocity will last, this experience is certain to bring about a major turning point in human consciousness. Having been brought to a standstill so abruptly and unexpectedly, people are in a state of enormous frustration, confusion, and anxiety. In my case, all my plans were put on hold and I find myself weighed down with worries about what I should do, or if I could have been infected with this disease. As people have gradually adjusted to this situation, they have withdrawn further and further into themselves without even realizing it. In the midst of this strange state of affairs, people have put up their guard, and disconcertingly, some countries have begun to exert control. Nations have a duty to protect the lives of their people in an emergency. But at this very moment some are taking advantage of this disaster to regulate people’s behavior through authority, technology, and the expansion of surveillance. In some countries, cellphones, surveillance cameras, and other devices are already on the verge of controlling not only personal information but the body and brain itself. On the one hand our societies self-isolate, yet on the other hand they exert tight control.

How long will this state of impasse last? How long will schools, museums, and cafes remain closed? What lies ahead for shops, factories, society, and the country, or rather, the minds of individual people? I heard that in Paris, a man was arrested by the police for jumping around and shouting alone in a street. Our perseverance and strength in solitude is being tested. If the new coronavirus continues unabated, tens of millions of people will suffer severe illness and there will be millions of deaths. The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, said in a speech that 70-80% of their population is predicted to be infected. In the meantime, it is not unthinkable that we will weather storms of vile misinformation, dubious occult thinking, and horrifying totalitarianism. Humanity is being subjected to an unprecedented trial.

Situations such as these are all too indicative of the crisis that humanity is in. Even now that some time has passed, I am still unable to foresee what lies ahead, and as this abnormality rapidly becomes the new normal my mind and senses are in paralysis. Let us hope that humanity recovers its resourcefulness. If we shift our perspective, we can discover a new way of seeing.

However, unlike in the past, the advent of the Internet and cellphone technology has connected the internal with the external, and our isolation is now synchronized with our solidarity. We must be wary of state control and its creation of oppressive systems that smother individual self- governance.

To be alive means to be constantly engaged with the external and the Other while we develop our responses to the situation and the moment.

Lee Ufan

Should we really devote our focus to human beings? There is no justification for the destruction that human civilization has wrought upon the ecosystem and the earth. Some have remarked that given the state of civilization, we were destined for this outbreak, and likewise global warming and nuclear contamination. The onslaught of this virus feels like a warning against the rapid evolution of civilization. It could also serve as a brake on the indiscriminate development of the earth, the excessive growth of the population, and our ever-increasing life expectancy. While this might be difficult for humanity to accept, from the perspective of the ecosystem this could be the natural order moving to regulate itself. In fact, if humanity quietens down the world may look different in no time at all.

By forcing humanity to reduce its activities, this pandemic has changed the environment in little over a month. Photographs taken from space show how the planet’s air has cleared, and the destruction of the ozone layer has almost stopped. The waters of Venice, a symbol of environmental pollution, are now clean enough to see fish swimming in them. In India, views of Mount Everest that were long obscured by smog have serenely reappeared. Cities all over the world are filled with fresh air and landscapes feel vibrant. Indeed, it is all too apparent how civilization has destroyed the earth with its creation of holes in the ozone layer and its pollution of the atmosphere, mountains, rivers, and cities. But I am relieved to see that nature remains resilient. Once again, I am moved by nature’s splendor and inner strength. At the same time, I am appalled by civilization’s capacity to spoil nature and ruin the earth. Even though civilization is on the verge of meeting its end, it is terrifying to behold the intense speed that it has reached and how it destroys nature in the process.

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Lee Ufan, Relatum - play of primitive, 2015, steel and stone, 62" × 52" × 28-1/2" (157.5 cm × 132.1 cm × 72.4 cm), overall installation © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The conflict between nature and civilization is not the only thing exposed by the ferocity of this virus. For better or worse, our political and economic cultures, which ought to be expanding with globalism, are now in decline. Some countries have reverted to self-isolating nationalism and are devolving into hysterical societies where people indulge in indiscriminate, self-centered feuding and disobedience. Disruption has occurred at the very moment that the modern world was becoming global and we might finally have a chance to know and acknowledge the external and the Other. Globalized networking is in shreds and the world is adrift on a sea of confusion. The connections that bind the international community are being ignored, and the reckless assertions and arbitrary behavior of some countries and individuals are steadily fomenting a mood of impasse and disorder. Newspaper, television, and other media tend to report events from an inward-looking perspective. The pervasive exchange of information via the Internet and cellphones enhances mutual understanding and solidarity, but sometimes channels falsehoods and distortions that foster distrust and hatred. This situation is clearly a phase of rupture, but such tendencies are conspicuous during disasters. In a sense, globalism was not the link between different regions and nations that we thought it was. One could say the schism we are witnessing between globalism, national isolationism, and the excess of the self is a natural outcome. In other words, the true nature of the globalism that rapidly engulfed the world has been exposed as nothing more than the controlled dissemination of ideology, the vast internal expansion of a civilization that had no relationship with the external.

When times are turbulent and cracks appear in the order of things, a division emerges in humanity’s interior. Modern human beings have, in a sense, built their existence on division from the very beginning. The condition of a civilization founded on discrimination against nature will narrate the outcome of humanity. With civilization on the verge of collapse, people are reassessing their position through the lens of this catastrophic virus. It feels like the fundamentals of the relationship between nature and humanity have been clarified once more. Human beings are, of course, not in relationship with nature but part of nature. Of course, humankind has arrived where it is today through an agelong process of development that reinterprets nature.

Humanity turned its back on nature and walked its own path. That path is filled with human glory and tragedy. Now that humankind has finally reached the end of the road, it is forced to face up to nature on the way home. Is this not reminiscent of the return of the Prodigal Son?

Incidentally, perhaps what people are searching for is neither devotion to nature nor the defiant reassertion of civilization, but an ambivalent awareness of existence that spans both.

With the arrival of the virus, people feel threatened by the external and have turned inward. Yet, nature instantly began to recover and heal from the mutilation and destruction that civilization wrought upon it. The fact that nature has such restorative power probably means that humankind, which was originally a part of it, also harbors such potential. The joy we experience in everything we see comes from the vitality of nature—it is the very source of ourselves.

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Lee Ufan, Dialogue, 2019, charcoal on canvas, 36-1/4" × 28-3/4" (92.1 cm × 73 cm) © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Humanity’s dynamism derives not from human power but from the wild power wielded by nature. Thus, human beings could mend civilization by engaging in a dialogue with the roots of existence. As we can see from humankind’s temporary self-restraint, it is possible to control civilization to some extent. What we need is to regulate unlimited desire and excessive competition and establish a gentle collaboration between humans and nature. Humankind is being tested to see whether it cares to do it. In any case, although the virus has caused humanity a great deal of suffering and sacrifice, on the other hand there is great significance in how it has resuscitated nature and caused human beings to recognize their ambivalence.

Presently I am secluded at home, absorbed in thought and gazing at the outdoors. While I abhor the new coronavirus, I am digesting the message it brought. The virus is artistic in that the fear and confusion caused by its incomprehensible nature makes the world look new. It is indeed biologically philosophical in that it forces us to look at the elusive origins of the cycle of life and death. And it is truly apocalyptic in how it wields itself: one cannot know who has already been infected or who will be infected. It is teaching us the extent to which human activities, unlike the programmed harmony of artificial intelligence, are affected by uncertainty and the unknown. It implies that the human world is not built solely by one’s own imagination but has always been based on a correspondence with the external. The new coronavirus is not the only thing that exists but is difficult to discern, or that moves but cannot be seen. The fixed verifiability of everything that appears certain in civilization is being called into question.

Even while the air clears and nature replenishes itself during this period of reduced human activity, people feel the darkness of fear. It is because death has drifted into our homes, our towns, our countries, and the world. The virus is invisible, but so too is death. Even more invisible is the obsession with the risk of infection leading to death. Yet, rarely in the contemporary age have we balked in the face of phenomena that are defined yet invisible and elusive. Reality constituted only the things that are clear enough to be entered into a computer, and anything doubtful or uncertain was treated as nonexistent. To that extent, life in the contemporary age had to be backed by certainty. The reason why contemporary people have difficulty coping with death is that they do not understand it—death is conceived as the discontinuation of life. It was formerly accepted that death, while not being understood, is paired with life, and that life is a journey that leads to death. Death is in the continuity of life; it fulfils the constant renewal and promotion of life. In that sense, even though death brought anxiety it was not the object of fear. In the contemporary age, we have developed medical science in order to prolong life and make it absolute, which has shifted death toward the notion that it represents a denial of life. The excessive amplification of life and the desire to grow and expand has created a space of artificial life and has severed humanity from its identification with nature. This is how we reached an existence in which we shut ourselves in and fear the external. Therein lies the reason why humans lost their wildness and became ghouls akin to AI. I think the fight against this virus is an opportunity to recover humankind’s externality and reconsider the opaqueness of death.

The calamity of the new coronavirus has forced humanity to face a new horizon. Today, the world has laid bare globalism’s homogeneity and national egoism, as well as the reckless danger of individual laissez-faire attitudes. If we examine the basis of this mindset, we will confront the modern determination to construct and expand a hermetic interior without concern for the external. The spread of the virus has put a stop to this progression. The virus’ threat is at the same time an appeal to humanity to destroy civilization. Therefore, this fight against a non- human virus is nothing other than a fight to sublate the inner “human.” If one reflects on all this with remorse, the virus has given humanity the opportunity to rethink civilization. With the pandemic putting limits on human labor and movement, the spotlight has rapidly turned toward efforts taking place online and in the fields of AI and robotics. The concern is whether or not this will lead to the workforce diverging from humanity. We can only hope that overconfidence in the power of computers will not result in the ruinous folly of aiming for the unlimited production of desires in a way that circumvents the human workforce. We must awaken to the interrelationships of the living world by transcending individual will and state control and cultivating a dialogue between humanity and nature. The horror and hope we are experiencing with the spread of this virus and our fight against it carries a message—let us see whether or not humanity takes heed of it.

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Lee Ufan in Kamakura, 2020, Photo by Lee Bona © Lee Ufan

Essays — Artists Respond: Lee Ufan, May 18, 2020