Non-Sculpture (1960) is part of a series of works by Lee Seung-taek that directly challenges both the material and spatial categories that commonly denote “sculpture.” In this installation piece Lee Seung-taek used Godret stones, which are traditionally used in Korea as weights when tying knots and plaiting handcrafted mats. Here they merely affirm the space in which the work and the viewer coexist. By carving a groove into each stone as if it had been naturally formed as the result of hanging, Lee Seung-taek creates an illusion that brings into question the material properties of both the stones and the cords that bind them.
The decision to place Non-Sculpture on the ground floor also constitutes a tactical gesture by the artist to rebut the verticality of upright commemorative statues, the design and construction of which Lee Seung-taek had worked on since the 1940s. Whereas traditional sculpture is commonly regarded as an autonomous object, elevated apart from the everyday world by means of its position on a plinth, this work’s placement on the floor allows viewers to perceive the work according to their own scale and proximity. In fact, the title Non-Sculpture also invokes the object’s status as a work of art, yet denies it the rigid definition of sculpture as classified at the time by Korea’s official salon (the Kukchŏn): “discrete stone or metal objects mounted on stable pedestals which separate the artwork from the ground.”
A noted artist in sculpture, installation, environmental, and performance art, Lee Seung-taek fled to South Korea during the Korean War (1950–53). He began drawing portraits of American soldiers at this time and continued after the conflict. In the mid-1950s, he began working with nonmaterial substances such as smoke, wind, and fire after seeing a spindly figurative sculpture by Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) and a Saudi Arabian oil-burning furnace on television. Lee Seung-taek received an art degree from Hongik University, Seoul, in 1959. As a student he created his first works with Godret stones, traditionally used for tying off strands of weaving, suspended on cords from a horizontal bar. For his graduate exhibition in 1958 he showed Yeogsawa Sigan (History and Time), a plaster object wrapped in barbed wire and spattered with red and blue—the colors of both communism and democracy. Other early works include Glass (1969), a type of inoculation for a tree, and Jong-i Namu (Paper Tree; 1970), an installation of shredded paper hanging from branches. His works have addressed the human body, sexuality, and political strife. Early in his career he showed in the 1969 Paris Biennale and the 1970 Bienal de São Paulo.