I didn’t interview Cheon Pyo Lee. He wasn’t available. Fortunately, his replacement was.
I walked into his studio as he walked out. Some not-my-subject artiste in sunglasses was inside. Cheon said he would be back and closed the door. I introduced myself, the kid in the glasses introduced himself, but expressed surprise, saying we knew each other. He said his name was Cheon; he was a second year painting grad. I protested that I had just watched Cheon leave. His surrogate wouldn’t budge.
Q Wait who are you? When is the other Cheon coming back?
A I am the one Cheon, I have always been Cheon. I will answer your questions.
Q Look, I really want to interview Cheon. I’ll wait for him.
A I’m here to be interviewed.
Q How long are you gonna do this for?
A Do you want any coffee?
Q Fine. Yes. OK. Fine. Where did you grow up?
A I grew up in a lot of places; my dad is a businessman and we moved around a lot. I spent a lot of time in Paraguay, and also in Korea. I was born in Korea.
Q So are you Korean?
A I view myself as a hybrid. I relate to a lot of the Latino kids here. I speak Spanish, like they do, and Korean, and Tapieté (native Paraguayan) and Portuguese. I have Korean friends I just speak Korean with and American friends I just speak English with. I don’t have problems with any people. I just have problems with what happens.
Q When did you start making shit?
A I had an art professor who was very influential. I mean I’ve been drawing for a long time. But in high school, a bunch of teachers really encouraged me to be an artist. It might have been because my parents were kind of patrons, but the teachers let me get away with a lot of stuff. I got out of a lot of things to do special art projects and go on trips. I once went on a trip around South America with a professor of mine to see art.
Q What the hell kind of supportive school was this?
A Well, Paraguay is a really international, European place. I went to a school that was fairly progressive. I mean, they’d also already processed my four older brothers. But it was a different place. I had a biology teacher who made us each kill a cow so we understood what that was like. Removed that comfortable layer of abstraction.
Q Were your brothers also encouraged to be artists?
A No, they are all now involved in different types of enterprises. Like my parents. They still call me all the time and ask me when I’m gonna get a real job. But the best business is art. It’s like under-advanced capitalism. My parents have made peace with it though.
Q Growing up with four older Korean brothers, in Paraguay? Sounds like a lot of competitive, machismo stuff.
A My brothers beat me up a lot. They all had their own torture games. I think it was really good for us; we are open and direct with each other now. I actually get great ideas now from them. I can call them up and bounce ideas off of them. The Korean might play off the Latin American machismo. I think it makes me hard to read.
Q Does thinking about business get into your work?
A Business is always there. It’s hard not to think about the economics. It’s how I grew up. I think it’s an advantage; art is a means to deal with the big fish of large corporations. I mean a lot of what we call business is just sleight of hand on a large scale. I also think the way companies are organized has a sort of beautiful formal structure, and it is art. I view myself as the director of a small company. A lot of my work is collaborative, within and without the discipline.
Q So are you a businessman artist?
A Yes. Perhaps a failed businessman. But as a second year, I’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out how to end things. It’s the last semester. A lot of time shut in my apartment. I think the business side advantage is preparing yourself to be packaged, to make an identity that can be desirable for hire. I am working on compacting and presenting. Ha.
Q You said your parents are kind of patrons. Did that make it a conflict to embrace revolutionary shit?
A I have struggled with trying to figure which side I’m on. I think I straddle a lot of different ideas and identities. I don’t think it’s something you have to decide.
Q How did you get from Paraguay to Yale?
A I was in Chicago for a while. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago. I also spent some time in New York. I had sort of a continuing collaboration with friends of mine from Chicago. I was in LA for a bit. Now I’m here.
Q How do you feel about New York?
A It was really hard in New York. It was more fun in Chicago. I was still in school, I had my own room; it was less of a struggle. I have happier memories from Chicago.
Q Why the painting program at Yale?
A Well I applied to a bunch of different places in different disciplines. Yale was willing to have me. I haven’t painted in a while though. I mean, you don’t see a lot of paintings in my studio. That one (points to one above some framed photographs,) is back from Chicago. In Paraguay, I did some 8 mm film. As an undergrad, I did performance art. Now I just make things. And take them apart.
Q Your ‘painting’ studio looks convincingly like a tool shed.
A Yeah, I’ve collected a lot of materials and stuff and I need to constantly organize it so I have room. And I still don’t have a lot of room. The location in the corner is great though. My studio is a stopping place before people head to their studios. In that way it is very central.
Q What is that wooden thing with reels attached at the base?
A It’s part of a tank. It’s a collaboration I did with some friends of mine in New York. It involved a rocket that sort of misfired. That happens with a bunch of my work. It’s designed to fail, or fall apart, or destroy itself as the action is enacted.
Q Is this big ass wooden thing the body?
A No that’s something else. It was part of something called the Platypus Race. We had it so there were racers and this sportscaster with an auctioneer voice, but it ended up getting cancelled. It was actually more like an obstacle course. Now I use it to hold speakers.
Q I heard you say once that you like shaking buildings?
A I’m interested in how sound, this invisible, ephemeral thing which is really vibrations in the air, can have visible, permanent effects, like making metal bend or putting cracks in concrete. Breaking a building apart with sound would be rad.
Q Not to be a dick, but why don’t you paint?
A Direct answer would be, I do paint occasionally. I have not painted during my MFA program because I decided to use the limited time in dialogues that are more fruitful when they are not attached to a specific medium.
Q What does hell look like?
A A place where people don’t do anything ever. And it is all on a grid. Everything is mapped out.
Q What is your ideal day?
A Having my friends over my apartment, making them Korean food and hanging.
Q Your ideal day doesn’t involve making work?
A Maybe making work. Collecting is a form of making work. Taking things apart is a form of making work. Being in conversation about work, bouncing ideas around is a kind of work.
Q What are those framed papers that look like newspapers? With the kids that look like refugees?
A They are one-off publications called “Comunicados.” They are rendered in the same format because they are the context of my operational projects that are a report-expose of problems. It’s a documentary approach to globalization. The refugees are friends of mine as refugees in a tent I set up at a New Haven Latino Pride party. I screen-printed those boxes inside to look like the ones the U.S. government dropped. They were these boxes apparently full of supplies delivered to South America
by air and South East Asia by sea at different points that turned out to be empty. So I wanted to show the movement of those boxes. The name of that company is real. The one next to it is mine though. It’s a money-laundering company.
[Pictures of Money on top of a Washing Machine. Many Blank Boxes in the Newspaper where Text Should Be.]
Q Have you successfully laundered money?
A For obvious reasons, I can’t talk about that. I am a successful person though.
Q When did you come up with your first fake company?
A I did use fake identities and companies/business from a very early age, but that was for a different goal. It wasn’t about exposing problems. I did register and start a ‘real’ company in July 2008, hence becoming a CEO artist.
Q Fakery in general is interesting to you?
A Well in China it is cheaper to make fake eggs. There are actually people that take out the real parts of eggs and fill them with fake egg. It just disintegrates when you cook it.
Q That seems really technical and labor intensive. Where is the profit?
A It’s there. I looked into how to do it and I explain it in the third “Comunicado.” I also looked into growing an entire meal inside an egg. I talked to some scientists I know about how this would be possible. Then I developed these omelet eggs. The packaging says they come with all the ingredients for an omelet already inside.
[Passes me plastic egg carton with bright, Asian, hopeful and excited cartoon packaging.]
Q Wow this shit is heavy!
A Yeah. That’s cause they are made of wood.
Q Anna Betbeze told me you have some custom, super-illegal phone with six sim cards. Can you tell me about that?
A Yeah. In South America we didn’t stop at the MP3 player. Every time there was a new function it would be added to the number at the end, it wasn’t just a file type. By the time I designed mine, there were so many functions, like TV and satellite radio, that I decided to make the MPX. I worked through one of my “companies.” I contacted these technicians and worked with them to develop this phone. It can hold a bunch of sim cards — they all run simultaneously — and has a super-long antenna.
Q So the people you were working with thought you were a real exec at a real business that wanted to develop this phone?
A I mean yeah. There is no way to know. And I don’t think it would have flown working with a South American company for someone who identified themselves as a Yale Art Student.
Q You seem pretty tongue-in-cheek when dealing with serious issues. Is that cause you play with blocks?
A Those aren’t just blocks. I borrowed them from a friend of mine. They are 3-D models for organizing ideas, or idea systems. They each have sticky notes on them and they can be stacked, reordered, and laid out to reconsider how ideas relate to each other and in which way they might best be presented.
Q Where are you going?
A I’m not sure yet. I’m applying to a bunch of fellowships and programs. I definitely want to continue my collaborations. I have to keep my businesses operative.
Q Are you going to be successful?
A Yes. I will be successful at whatever I do. Actually, I will probably fail. I will be suspended somewhere between success and failure but will be working and doing fine.