A Meaningless Attitude Towards Diligence

A Diligent Attitude Towards a Meaningless Thing, Oil on Canvas, 162.2 ×130.3cm, 2017


Thousands of fine ivory strokes repeatedly fill the surface of a canvas. These free curves, drawn both with confidence and insincerity look less like brushstrokes and more like the signatures on credit card receipts. They fill the calm surface of the canvas quickly and aggressively. Multiple, nearly indistinguishable canvases of this kind appear on the gallery wall. On another wall, a video clip explains these works of art. The video is of such poor quality that it appears to have been made by a middle school student. According to the clip, Lee Wan “contacted a job placement agency in December 2016 to find people who would draw.” He was introduced to “ten day workers,” between ages twenty and sixty, from Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Korea. The broker’s fee was of 10,000 won (approximately USD $10) per person, and the wage for each worker was 8,000 won (approximately USD $8) per hour. They were asked to “paint the preselected colors on the canvases as indicated”. The condition for the employment was “sincerity.”[1] This was the totality of Lee Wan’s work A Diligent Attitude Towards a Meaningless Thing (2017).


Although the artist might contest this view, the visual qualities of this work are reminiscent of Dansaekhwa. Dansaekhwa is a type of monochrome or minimalist painting that represented Korean modernism in the 1970s. Although the term has multiple layers of meaning that can be understood through postcolonial discourses, it seems clear that most Dansaekhwa artists stressed the Korean and Oriental spirit of their art. Dansaekhwa works are known for being in steady demand in the Korean art market as well as potential “blue chip” pieces in the global art market. Recently, thanks to the academic research of art historian Joan Kee, Dansaekhwa has gained even greater global attention. Lee’s paintings can be read as parodies of Dansaekhwa, especially of PARK Seo-Bo’s renowned Écriture series. Through the Écriture series, Park emphasized introspection by employing a unique method of scratching the canvas—a process not unlike the one of writing with a pencil. In this meditative process of écriture, brushstrokes that resemble, yet are not, written language ceaselessly suspends meaning and perhaps problematizes a circumstance that recalls the authoritarian government’s censorship of writing and reading during the 1970s in Korea.[2] In A Diligent Attitude Towards a Meaningless Thing, Lee literalizes the rhetoric of Écriture. More specifically, through the “mindless” repetitive actions of laborers, Lee’s work satirizes the way that the Dansaekhwa artist’s moving body, caught in a trance-like, meditative state, emptied his mind onto the canvas. The process of écriture, which reminds us of the disorder between censored and uncensored readings in the 1970s, is replaced by the artist’s signature, which guarantees the artwork’s commodity value. In this manner, “a diligent attitude toward a meaningless thing,” which is the title and the subject matter of the artwork, is reified.

In fact, the plain reification of meaninglessness represented in Lee’s artwork is familiar today, at least in Park’s case. If Park is setting up studios at multiple places, hiring artist’s assistants and creating artworks on consignment (pretending to be implicit), he is ultimately “manufacturing” Dansaekhwa paintings. In many important galleries and art fairs, the meaning of the monochrome could have been the process of self-discipline towards eventual self-effacement. In an interview with Park, critic Robert Morgan pointed to the gap between the artworks created by the artist’s assistants and the artist’s experience. Park gave a strange answer, “it is like water coming from different sources and gathering in a single place.” He added that he wanted his art “to be created regardless of particular intentions.” [3] This is typical in the contemporary art world. Due to postmodern understandings of authorship and the deconstruction of originality, creating art on consignment, as well as outsourcing, has become a common method, even a convention, of art production.

Factory-like art studios, along with widespread postmodern discourses on reproduction, have created controversies. In Korea, there was the famous case of renowned singer and non-mainstream ‘pop artist’ JO Young-nam who hired a ‘ghost painter’ named Song Ki-chang, to create more than 200 pieces in 2016. Jo just added his signature to these works, paying Song only 100,000 won (approximately USD 100) per piece without any written contract. This was a clear case of exploitation and an evasion of the law. Would the situation have been less unethical if Jo had paid Song an appropriate sum? Aside from being legally problematic, this cased presented thorny aesthetic and ethical questions. It is clear that capitalism, which is today’s dominant economic system, would answer ‘yes’ to this question. I believe this is where we can see the failure of postmodernism’s strategies of resistance, strategies based in difference and repetition. I think this case presents a situation that is no different than what happens in the factory-like studios of contemporary art. The problem is that Lee seems to easily or seriously accept this regression. Lee blatantly turns himself into an employer and extracts the performers’ labor as detailed in a contract. This process is not only evinced by the canvases themselves, but also shows its influence in the reality. Though the artist explained that his art “mimicked bad capitalists,” the employer-artist in this piece is both honest and non-discriminating (people of different races, nationalities, and ages are employed). [4] In this way, Lee Wan respected minimum wage laws, followed the contract with sincerity, and rigorously pursued racial and generational diversity.

By identifying with capitalism rather than critiquing it, Lee’s art embodies reality in a cynical yet precise manner that neither celebrates nor condemns it. The work contrasts the minimum-wage laborers to the artist, who is able to fetch high prices for his “art” (Lee sold the work to a collector) and, in this manner, reflects the inequities of today’s job market. Lee shows through the blatant contract-performance of ‘a meaningless attitude’ that there is no dilemma in such inequality. In other words, if fair compensation is provided, the great spirit of modernism and even the attitudes of postmodernism can all be bought and sold. This is the naked face of the rule of reality.

The artist’s strategy of overly identifying with the capitalist system reveals the cynicism and hypocrisy, which is hidden or often aestheticized by capitalism and its illusions. An alternative method of critique can be found, not by subverting the system, but by detecting and penetrating cracks in it and by adopting a form of extreme cynicism. In this manner, one could better understand the evolution of capitalism as our society transitioned from modernity to postmodernity. For example, discourse on pop art, which merely reproduced commodities and eventually lost all aesthetic radicalism, can be explained.

This strategy could also be the violent face of capitalism itself. When over-identification with capitalism becomes an acceptable ‘cultural expression,’ one can become nothing more than a great spectacle-commodity. This is an outcome of the ‘biter bitten,’ and this ‘culture’ only becomes another golden ornament claimed by ‘radical’ capitalism. Perhaps this text functions as another dimension of this system of constancy. However, criticism is a situational practice. Let’s think about the consequences later.


[1] Excerpted from the narration of Lee Wan, A Meaningless Attitude Towards Sincerity, 2017, Single-channel video, 3min 35sec.

[2] Joan Kee, “Reading Park Seobo’s Ecriture in Authoritarian Korea”, Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2013), p. 231.

[3] Robert C. Morgan, “Seo-Bo Park with Robert Morgan,” Brooklyn Rail, July 10th, 2006, Accessed: March 23rd, 2017, (http://brooklynrail.org/2006/7/art/seo-bo-park).

[4] Kim Youn-soo, ‘Issue Exhibition – Lee Wan’s Solo Show: When Meaningless Labour Power Becomes an Artwork’, CNB Journal (17th Feb, 2017), Accessed: 23th Mar, 2017, (http://weekly.cnbnews.com /news /article.html?no=121385&sec_no=127).


Published in Counterbalance: The Stone and the Mountain, Korean Pavilion Venice Art Biennale 2017 


translator Susie Cho


커뮤니티 스페이스 리트머스 큐레이터

Daewoong Ahn

Curator, Community Space LITMUS

스펙타큘러버나큘러 (2부)
리안 노먼
Commissioned Artwork - 박주애
고생하며 여행한다는 것