Now showing: Artist Sandra Eula Lee‘s “Two Waters (Seeds in a Wild Garden)” exhibition at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Inspired by her research on urban plant landscapes, Lee’s new show explores the “defiant gardens” that emerge in rapidly industrializing areas through drawings, photographs, and installation.
Lee finds many of her materials in the neighborhoods she lives in and around. In “MountainMountain,” for example, the rocks are construction rubble that went to sea and washed ashore everyday in Xiamen, China, where she was an Artist-in-Residence for three months. According to Lee, “Chunks of asphalt, concrete and bricks with bits of tile and ceramic were weathered by the ocean and washed ashore as rounded stones. It was a beautiful process I couldn’t ignore.” And “Seeds in a wild garden” was made from rubble Lee collected from a local construction site, including broken rebar, bricks, work gloves, gnarled wire, and bent nails, painted to match the colors of the neighborhood gardens surrounding it.
We had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Lee about her new work and show.
In your own words, what was the inspiration for the show?
Two years ago, I traveled to Korea for a residency at IASK Goyang through the National Museum of Contemporary Art. What began as a search into Korea’s wartime history evolved into a wider interest in the landscape and how it has been reconstructed over time. Driving to see the country’s landscape, the mountains, and surrounding waters outside the cities left a great impression on me, as did the constant sight of construction.
During my time in China I was greatly affected by the gardens in the water towns of Suzhou, and later by the mountains and surrounding waters of Xiamen that related to the landscape I experienced in Korea. Over time I began to consider the garden’s relationship with the landscape~ how the garden is essentially an expression of people’s philosophy or attitude with their surroundings. Both gardens and landscape are constructions, and both are ephemeral, or cyclical, in nature. This thread shaped the travel and work I did this past year in Korea and China, considering a variety of garden structures and altered landscapes.
How did the BBG’s offerings shape the work in the exhibition?
At the BBG I started with Japanese garden traditions, spending time in the Garden and meeting with the curators of the Starr Bonsai Collection and the Japanese Hill and Pond Garden, who kindly offered their time. And with the librarian’s help, I’m mining the archives and reading books that approach the garden as a container for ideas and identity. This is my interest in bringing my artwork to the BBG audience, to highlight alternate forms of garden-making and question some of the cultural assumptions that are attached.
How much of the work was made pre- and post- your residency at BBG?
The BBG continues to shape the work in the exhibition~ by that I mean new works will be added to the show during the course of my residency, which continues until the exhibition closes on June 5.
Some of the works were created during my time in Asia, though they were re-shaped and re-contextualized for the BBG. Other works were made during my residency at BBG, which began over a month ago, and are an extension of my study with access to the resources there. The “Two Waters” project continues to grow and has taken a unique turn at BBG. Come May, I will add a new series of drawings to the exhibition. By keeping the show alive with new works, I think viewers can have greater participation with my process as Artist-in-Residence.
What does the phrase “Two Waters” reference exactly?
I can say there are many references for “Two waters” that fit the work. Because of that I chose the title and enjoyed how it connects thoughts on boundaries, reflection, and spaces of contemplation.
Describe your thoughts on the concept of defiant gardens in the midst of rapidly industrializing societies.
The term comes from a incredible book, “Defiant Gardens” by Kenneth Helphand that I read when I began my residency at BBG. In it, Helphand proposes that the power of a garden can be strongest when it exists in inhospitable conditions. This incongruity highlights the humanity that gardens can represent. Focusing mostly on gardens made during wartime, Helphand’s book really resonated with me and opened my eyes, creating further connections with the work I started with in Korea. Images in the exhibition include documentation of various gardens created amongst the construction sites and historical landscape in Korea and China. And “Seeds in a wild garden” is created from rubble I collected from a local construction site in Goyang, painted in colors of the neighborhood gardens. I think the idea of a defiant garden is something that we can really relate to when living in an urban center.
How do you see man-made gardens and landscapes in the grander scheme of nature? And spontaneous (non-man-made) gardens/landscapes?
I see they are a part of each other and exist with each other. Man-made gardens are an expression, ephemeral in nature and need care to survive. Spontaneous gardens on the other hand grow for survival and adapt to natural cycles for survival. I think there’s a lot of grey area in between with constant negotiation of territories.