An interview with Kwangho Lee

Written by Elaine YJ Lee / Photography by baechu for TOUT

“It’s German for ‘bathroom,’” he tells me with a shrug. He’s referring to KLO, which stands for “Kwangho Lee Office.” “I didn’t know that when I named it back then.” Kwangho is sitting across from me at his desk, surrounded by his kids’ drawings, each carefully framed and hung on the walls. “I drew these letters to look like poop floating in toilet water,” he says, now laughing, still talking about the unintended double meaning behind his studio name.

This childlike, playful sensibility has been key to the South Korean artist’s work since he first made waves in the art world almost 15 years ago. He uses a wide range of materials like PVC, marble, metal and felt in bright, primary colors and sometimes funny-looking shapes. In his natural habitat that is KLO, Kwangho is immersed in his own world, a bright and colorful one, and he invites us in.

This interview has been translated from Korean and edited for clarity.

Elaine YJ Lee: You’ve been busy preparing for your solo show “Antifragile” at Leeahn Daegu. What else have you been up to?

Kwangho Lee: I have three kids, so I just work from nine to six. When I’m really busy, I may work overnight, but other than that, I usually just take care of my children at home. All my hobbies and time are focused on the kids. I recently bought a new puppy, so I’m so busy raising her. It’s been like this for almost a month now, just hectic with the puppy. Her name is Dochi and my kids are Dohyeon, Doha and Doy. The youngest is 7 years old, and the eldest will enter middle school next year.

EL: You’ve always talked about your family influences in your work. Your grandfather was a farmer and he made a lot of things with wood. What kinds of things did he make?

KL: In the old days in the countryside, he had to make his own tools — baskets, keys and tools for breaking things. He raised cattle, chickens and a dog. He had to cut grass with a sickle to feed them.

He also made winnowing baskets. There’s a Korean tradition where when kids pee on their blanket, they have to put a winnowing basket on their heads and collect salt from their neighbors. I had to do that, too, when I was four or five. I remember this grandmother next door slapped me — that’s also part of the tradition, to slap you after they give you salt. She hit my cheek with a spatula. I still remember it vividly. My grandfather would either make these winnowing baskets by twisting straw, or buy what our neighbors made by hand. He fermented soybeans on them.

“There are a lot of people who are good at what they do. I have to constantly train myself, and be unafraid of new environments and experiences.”

EL: Did your grandfather have a workshop at home?

KL: No. Old Korean houses had a courtyard in the center. We would make tofu there, and everything else. We’ve demolished the place now but my uncle still lives there. He built a new house.

EL: I’m really jealous. A lot of Koreans in the city are so busy nowadays and yearn to live in the countryside like that.

KL: I used to hate going to the countryside — I’m sure it’s the same for all of us country folk when we were young. Back then, I was more curious about what Seoul was like. It wasn’t fun to go to the countryside, but I went there every weekend to farm and help my family out during harvest. We would get together to make tofu and eat it. After living in Seoul for a bit, I realized that was something special.

When I entered college, I could tell that I had a different experience from other students. I think I got a certain dexterity from my grandfather. When I came across any material in school, I would immediately start working with it like my grandfather would and make things quickly, and that surprised my classmates. Even now, when I talk to people around me, not everyone has had those experiences that I had in the countryside. At the time, living in the country seemed boring and uninteresting, but now I realize how precious it was.

I can still remember this smell: To feed cattle, you have to boil grass in a large pot, and it smells really good. I also miss the smell of grain. My grandmother would gather us together in the summer and tell old stories, and she would burn mugwort in a pot with charcoal to prevent mosquitoes from coming. Smoke and fire would come out of the pot like they’re coming out of a chimney. The smell of burning mugwort is very nice. I feel like I’m reminded of those things more vividly as I get older.

EL: You’ve said your grandmother’s knitting also inspired your knitted “Obsession” series. Can you talk more about that?

KL: I don’t like to use the word “inspiration,” but I think it was just something I was familiar with and used to. In the past, grandmothers wove things like clothes, vests and hats. When I see my grandmother in old photos, she’s wearing knit vests, knit everything. Back home, things like the TV and dining table were all covered with crochet. I was just used to those things, so I thought, “I’ll try that, too.”

When my “Obsession” series was first introduced after graduation, I got a lot of unexpected media attention from foreign countries. I think they liked this “inspiration story” about Korea’s past, whereas this old crocheting thing wasn’t as interesting to us Koreans.

EL: Did your grandparents get to see your work? What was their reaction?

KL: My grandfather passed away before I graduated, but my grandmother got to see me start my career. She was also on Japan’s NHK television, when they came over to film me in 2011. She loved it. My eldest son was born then, and I remember my mom, my wife and I all went to my grandmother’s house to film, and took her out to eat delicious food afterwards.

EL: One of the most distinctive elements about your work is your choice of color. But I was very surprised to learn that you have color vision deficiency.

KL: I am red-green colorblind. It’s not that I can’t see red and green, but my vision for them is weak. It’s hard for me to distinguish variations of red, like purple, burgundy and even black. It’s especially hard to tell the difference at night. When it’s dark, most of them look like the same color. The same goes for green. That’s why I like primary colors, because I can see them right away. If it’s red, it’s just red, and yellow is just yellow.

When I was young, I fell in love with movies a lot because of the colors. I would watch Pedro Almodóvar’s movies. Visually, they are so fancy — the wallpapers, props and costumes are like art themselves. I also liked Wong Kar-wai movies because his colors look so good. The same goes for directors like Park Chan-wook, Baz Luhrmann and Todd Haynes.

EL: When did you find out you were partially colorblind?

KL: It was in middle school or elementary school. I took a test where there were numbers in different colors, and I couldn’t see any of them. I could only see them as these dots. That’s when I was diagnosed as red-green colorblind.

EL: Is there anything particularly challenging for you because of this?

KL: I don’t think it’s anything special. You can’t compare who sees colors better, or who’s better at using colors. I’ve never competed like that before, and there’s no reason to do that. I’ve never felt insecure about my colorblindness.

“I’ve never felt insecure about my colorblindness.”

EL: Is there a piece that received the strongest response within your team or from the public in terms of color, like, “Oh, this is sensational?”

KL: When I first started working with PVC cords, I made chairs with them, and they got a lot of attention. They were yellow and wavy, and people would say they looked like ramen. There was a lot of reaction to this ramen chair. I was in a semi-basement studio back then in Hongdae. There was an elementary school next to me and kids would look through the window, tease me and say my work looked like ramen. There was a kid who came to the window every day. I used to invite him into the studio and he would just lay on my ramen chair and watch me. He must be a college student now because he was 11 years old back then, in 2008.

EL: Do you think he would remember you, or knows who you are?

KL: Who knows, maybe (laughs).

EL: Do you see yourself still wanting to be an artist, and continuing to experiment with materials 20, 30 years from now?

KL: There are a lot of people who are good at what they do. I have to constantly train myself, and be unafraid of new environments and experiences. I have to continue to challenge myself as long as I can — 20, 30 years from now, I want to at least be able to say, “Hey, I wasn’t that bad.” I definitely don’t want to get worse. I think the desire to move on and persist is fundamental. I want to do this for a long time.

Elaine YJ Lee is a writer and digital editor with a focus on fashion and Korean culture. She founded Hypebeast Korea and has written for i-D, SSENSE, MR PORTER, Document Journal, apartamento, and office.

This interview is an abridged version from Issue 01 of TOUT, a print magazine by Dims. launching fall 2021. Sign up to be notified when it’s available for purchase.

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