Interview: with Lee Mok Yee
Lee Mok Yee: Since I've known you, you've used a lot of reclaimed, or second-hand, clothes as a material. Why did you start using these materials?
Laura Porter: When we first met I was collecting a lot of clothes on the street - between my house and the studio there were always clothes discarded along the road, or outside people's houses. At the time I was interested in painted surfaces, so I was embedding the clothes onto boards and then painting over them to create this kind of impasto surface. Over time I became more interested in the textures of the clothes themselves and moved away from the 2D into 3D. So, I suppose clothes have always been a cheap material that I can get hold of for free, and they’re really flexible - you can cut them up and attached them back together, and you can fill a lot of space. You can do what you want with them really, and they've got all these tactile qualities.
Recently I've been thinking a lot about the histories that are embedded in clothing, and what these traces mean. I've been considering the manufacturing of clothing, and how it's manufactured by hand. And the fact that we wear it on our bodies, maybe lots of different bodies, and then the clothes travel around with us, on us, creating a relationship between bodies and place. Then within with my practice, the clothes come full circle: The garments are more often than not constructed by hand. I then collect these second-hand clothes that can't be sold or donated, so have come to the end of their functional life, and because my practice is so labour-intensive, there’s this new relationship between my hand and the clothes – informing this whole new life that the material becomes part of.
LMY: I can see that you're concerned with changing the form and function of the clothes, something soft that you're transforming into a fixed form, and deconstructing it, similar to the way I work with cork. For me, you're creating a new material similar to clay, but out of clothes.
LP: It's definitely similar to your use of cork, because in making this new material I decide what properties to maintain, what's important to the truth of the material. I keep the colour, pattern and textures (because when I make it solid I retain some of that original texture). Then I decide what I want to let go of, which the looseness of fabric, the way it drapes and conforms to whatever object it's sitting on. And I alter the scale, although some of this is retained because I work with the garments as a whole. Similarly, you decide what elements of the cork are important to you - this is how it seems to me - and what informs the truth of that material, and then you decide what elements of the materials you are getting rid of. Is that right?
LMY: Yes, but there is a difference because I deconstruct something that's an industrial material – where the form isn’t as fixed, you make it into any shape you need. When it comes to your choice of material being clothes, it has a certain meaning, it’s designed for the shape of body. But now you're deconstructing it and it becomes something else entirely. And this is the slight difference between our work. To me, it seems like you're trying to remove the meaning of the clothes, or the form of the body, when you take the materials apart. What does this process mean for your sculptures, when you break it down?
LP: The idea of getting rid of the body is something I think about when I’m performing these acts; that there might be a time when humans aren't inhabiting space and material like we do now. So I’m thinking about what will happen when we're no longer here, or our bodies don't exist in the same way. I suppose it is this constant absence and presence of the body, because clothing was made by humans for humans.
In consumer society, so much is produced and so much is thrown away, and I'm proposing the material takes on its own, new form, and its own life, that's separate from the body. Maybe the fact that it does have this intimate relationship with the figure, I wonder what we transfer into the material, and what is absorbed by it. Almost like it takes on this conscious energy, and the fabric will shift and develop independently from human intervention.
A lot of the site-responsive elements of my work is thinking about how a material might respond to a site, and absorb the energy of a place. Or perhaps how our built spaces and our man-made materials then form a relationship together, absent of humans. I'm always projecting this idea that we won't be here, or we're not always going to be in control of a material, and what that might look like.
LMY: I like the idea that something is absent, and maybe the new way that you treat this material, it's not that the body is not there, it's about how we consume materials and it can become a different form. It doesn't have to be the form that we deal with and know.
LP: Yes, and I keep the garment together so there are always these hints of the body, and it's still got a relationship to the size of the body in some way. But it doesn't look like the body as we think it. It’s this constant push and pull. I suppose a lot of it comes down to function as well - the functionality of material.
LMY: Talking of functionality, I feel that a lot of your sculptures are related to architectural forms. When we talk about architectural forms, the size is always related to the body in some way, and so it crafting, when you’re working on sculptures with your hands. How do you decide on the shape and size of the sculptures?
LP: I suppose it does always relate to the body, and our built environments are designed to hold a body, so there's always this feeling that the scale relates to me in a way. I really like working in a site-responsive way because, I suppose, I don’t really feel that sculpture always makes sense if it doesn't respond to its environment. Some of my work this year was related to the studio building that I was working in, using windows and corridors as prompts that I would then reimagine as more organic forms. Again, thinking about how a material might take on its own consciousness, I was thinking about how these materials might learn from our built environments and become animate forms that move and grow. I really like the idea of in-between spaces, like corridors or doorways; places where there's a constant movement, and there's this relationship to the body but it’s not a permanent one. I like the idea of these interactions as fleeting, or temporary. Temporality is important, in relation to material and space.
As sculptors we're always thinking about how people will experience the work, and I do like to work on a scale that is that in-between big and small, because it physically appeals to the figure. And I like to interrupt the flow of movement through a space in some way, whether that’s the flow of air or the ways we navigate a space. When I was making the Air Vent series, which are the small grids based on actual air vents that I measured up around the building, I wanted to think about how air moves through our bodies and buildings as an invisible, living entity. And the breathability of a building, how they take on these bodily functions, and how the man-made and the organic come together.
LMY: I think when we make sculptures, we always use our space as a measurement, or use our body, or even something like a window as a starting point. To me, it's interesting to see that there's a lot of possibilities in your work, not just in the connections between architecture and the body, but also furniture, as if it can be something you sit on, and climb on. Your sculptures have these connections to the bodies, as if you can do something with it, like an action. How much of your process is planned, and how much is intuitive? Do you ever use drawing when you’re planning for your work?
LP: Yes, for the first time ever I've started using drawing a lot. When thinking about form, I like it to still relate to the clothes in some way, and maybe even relate to the construction of the garments; whether it’s the seams or the threads, or the warp and the weft of the weave. So I’ve been drawing these forms that relate to space/body/clothes, and I’ve found it a really useful process. I have started using a lot of metal and welding, I think that's the bit that I have the most freedom with, or that I play around with the most. I bend the metal a lot, and I can work quite instinctively with it, and play with the material to push it out of its structured space. I suppose it’s similar to when you tear the cork wood, which is a free-form way of changing the shape. I don't really calculate the forms - I like it where they're wobbly, or slightly unbalanced. I don't like it when things are symmetrical. Once I’ve cut and bent the metal, I weld it and see how it fits, and then maybe bend it around some more, or maybe even cut it up some more. Once I have something that feels structurally sound, but has a life of its own, that's when I add the fabric and shift it out of being this metal object into this bodily object. It's been interesting to me to see how the clothes and the metal relate, and the dialogue between the two.
LMY: The metal you choose, you can handle it without tools, I can see how that gives you more freedom and an organic way to create form. I like to work like that, as well. With my process, I can work with the wood without thinking, but then bringing it together to form the shape is a different process.
LP: Yes, I've been using a lot of thin steel rods or just armature wires that are long and thin, and I like to think of them as thread - a hard, structured thread - that I can then make soft in some way. Again, that's how there's an interesting relationship to the fabrics, because it’s still threading it together in some way. Again, thinking about materials absorbing energies, I think about how the act of bending the metal enriches the material in some way, or perhaps how you tear apart cork wood, some of that energy gets transferred from your hands to the material. I think these actions are really exciting - cutting fabric, bending metal or tearing wood - especially when we're doing it again, and again, and again. It's repetitive and becomes engrained in the materials, and in our bodies, as well. That's special.
LMY: Yes, that's true. Do you use a machine to break down the fabric?
LP: I was cutting it all with scissors, by hand, and I still do that a lot. But I found this miniature grinder – a prototype from factory – and I thought I’d try it. it's all analogue, so it just works on a crank and it's got the blades inside, and I sit it in a vice on my desk. So I started cutting the fabric into strips, putting it through the grinder, and then I usually cut it smaller again. It's important to me that all the energy coms from me and my body - as my own renewable energy source. Whether it’s using the grinder or the scissors, I see it as the same process. And they're both very simple metal objects, which is interesting then that metal plays a part in the form of the sculptures, as well.
LMY: When you don't need electricity, you can do everything with your body. When I use a lot of electronic tools I can't always keep the flow when I’m working. So when you handle everything and work with your hands, you can just do it and repeat it, and it's an exciting process.
LP: I think there's freedom in that. Everything in modern life relies on technology, so to be able to do something that you can do in a space with nothing else, it feels like freedom.
LMY: It's true. It's interesting to see how fabric consumes metal, and in your sculptures there are a lot of grids structures. Is there a reason you have been drawn to these kinds of shapes?
LP: I really like working with the grids. Because I've seen so many repeated grids in architecture and I've started noticing them more and more, like the air vents, or even rebar in the construction of new buildings, there are always these grid formats. It feels like it's a formal language on which we can build and understand a sense of progression. A grid can keep expanding and it feels never ending, and it’s simple in its appearance. Even when you think about computers and circuit boards, everything is gridded, and that's how we categorise everything in society. I think it's nice to then find the soft, blurred spaces between all these different things.
I’ll take these grid forms and bend them, and make them wobbly, testing how they can become something else. I think about when you've got all the formal rebar in the foundations of a building or when they’re building multi-storey buildings, and then when they’re knocked down all the rebar is twisted and warped. They become like trees and branches, or roots - the way that the natural world evolves, is in a much more free, loose way. Humans feel like everything has to be structured, and that's how we make sense of the world. I'm trying to bring the two together, I suppose. I think a lot of my work pushes back against this notion of progression and development, and critiques digitalisation and automation. I place value in human labour. And part of being human is the errors - so I’m taking these grid-like forms that I notice in everyday life and twist them into something that feels more true to real life. But also the grids reference weaving and woven fabrics. Even clothes that are soft and flexible even have this grid-like structure at the core of them, which is interesting.
LMY: I like the grid system because, like you mentioned, it's something that's constantly growing, and so the sculptures feel as though they’re extending in the space. I can see there are different kinds of spaces within the work too - the outer space, the material that’s growing, and every square and every box is a space, as well. And I really like these spaces in your work. Sometimes it looks like a line in space, and sometimes it looks like a 2D line, like drawing. And sometimes it looks like there are lots of different spaces in the sculptures. It's interesting that you can see through the sculptures, so it's more connected to place, unlike a sculpture that’s self-contained, where it's not connected or related to the space.
LP: Because I like working in a site-specific way, the space that I'm working with is really important. The more history there is in a space, the more it feels enriched. I really like thinking about the bodies that existed there beforehand and the people that moved around the building, as well as the hands that built it. My most recent exhibition at Dilston Grove, I visited there a couple of times, taking photos and drawing. It was built as a church, so there's a lot of emotion that existed there, a lot of contemplation. I always think about place as a site of action, which has absorbed the energy of its past activities. When I make work in response to somewhere I try and think about how these things all come together.
LMY: The clothes you work with all have a certain shape, like a shirt or a t-shirt, and in creating shapes and space, you extend the material from the clothes. When you dispose of the clothing, you dispose of the space that was supposed to have been created by that material, creating a new space. How do you define the space created in your sculptures?
LP: When I break down a t-shirt, for example, and turn it into a linear shape, then I’m extending the space that the t-shirt could fulfil; like a potential space, which can be disruptive. Then when people interact with it they're confronted - confronted by a different version of what they're used to. Clothes navigate the gallery in the form of the clothes that we're wearing on our bodies, so there’s a relationship between the clothes in the sculptures and the clothes interacting with them. Some of the sculptures do appeal to the sense of wanting to be surrounded in some way - some of them you can imagine the body being placed inside. Placing somebody within the sculptures appeals to the materiality of the object, in relationship the absence/presence of the body, and how we exist within this material world. Maybe there's more opportunity there - I'll have to think about it.
LMY: It's interesting when you say you deconstruct a t-shirt and then this is how long the t-shirt could be. It even sounds a little bit creepy. It's like you try to squeeze the body into a line - like a physical body - these lines and the spaces are connected with the body. When you mentioned absence/presence, it’s as if something has happened, maybe someone was there before, like someone was standing there, and someone has left and is no longer there, and you create this physical space but also imaginative space, as well. You somehow create quietness. It's like, if you have a table and chairs, when no one is there they become a filler.
LP: That's really interesting. I haven't thought of the use of 'quiet' in the work but I feel it's apt.
LMY: Yes, quiet but, at the same time, when you show in different environments with different people, the sculpture has a dialogue with the space and the people around it. And when no one is there they have a different feel - they can become very quiet.
LP: I really like the idea that the body activates the sculpture in some way, and that's where it's true to the material; because the body activates clothing in some way, or the body activates an architectural space. So I think it's nice for the body to activate the sculpture. I think of clothing, or even chairs and other items of furniture, as a placeholder for the body, when the body's not there. The dimension of a chair or clothes completely revolve around the dimensions of the body, so when you take away the body, it's almost like it's standing in for it in some way. So like you say, there’s a quietness of an object without the body, and then it becomes alive.
LMY: Yes, I think it's very interesting. Do you calculate, like, how many t-shirts or items you need to use for the sculptures?
LP: Sometimes I try. I do everything by weight (mixing the fabric with the different natural ingredients that I use to make it solid). So, I can weigh the clothing and measure it out, but it's a bit like a liquid - how liquids all weigh different things. Then there's a lot of shrinkage. It very much works like clay because when I make the fabric wet and mix the natural ingredients with it, I can manipulate it a lot like clay, I can roll it into a ball or work with it by my hand. It then air dries, and like clay there's shrinkage, but every different clothing item has a different shrinkage rate, depending on what the mix of the clothing is, because obviously all clothes are a hybrid material, so much like working out how many garments I'd need to cover one object, I'd have to work out the different weights of the fabrics according to the different make-up of the material. If I sat down and did a lot of calculations I could put a formula to it, but I suppose I deliberately haven't because I like the element of chance in the work. I want to give the material some control over the process and let it do its thing. I really like this idea of relinquishing control in making, because I do see sculpture as a collaboration between artist and material, and I don't think artists should ever try and have total control.
LMY: (laughter) I calculate a lot because I need to know how much material I need. I might have ten meters of material, and I’ll need to calculate how to get what you need from it. Maybe this could also be some sort of collaboration.
LP: That becomes an important part of your process then, right?
LMY: Yes, that's true. If I don’t calculate, I don’t feel safe. I don't like it when I'm in the middle of doing something and I run out, Industrial materials are quite fixed, in the sizes you can source, but it can become varied as well, like the quality.
LP: Working with industrial materials you have to adhere to those industrious ways of thinking about material, as well. Planning, being cost effective, and getting as much you can out of a set size, this is all part of construction and building.
LMY: Yes, and I enjoy that process. It's part of the process of building something.
LP: Yes, it is the process as a whole.
LMY: You've always talked about eco-consciousness. When I was working in France, everyone was so ecological in their thinking, and I can see that you are using a surplus material - there's a huge amount of waste in the clothing industry.
LP: I started cutting the items up into tiny fragments because I was storing up all the fabric scraps from previous projects, that existed as a kind of by-product of previous processes, and I didn’t want to create any waste in my practice. I began thinking about how I could break it down and re-form it in some way – mixing it with water like plaster or cement, or paper – and I started developing this new material. Now I've worked out that I can sustain it further and continue to re-use the material, by breaking up old artworks and re-hydrating it. So it's constantly taking this object that's not needed or wanted anymore, and then re-working it, renewing it.
As artists we make and produce, and so thinking about a world where we over-produce, and our currently capitalist model of consumption, we have to think about our role, as artists. We are making stuff to sell, display, or exist in the world somehow. For me, I don't want to just make new things that will just take up more space. By using recycled materials, or materials that I can reuse (like the metal), I’m creating a cyclical, renewable system. It's something I think about all the time, the ethics of material and having a sustainable practice, both for myself financially, but also for the world in which we exist. I make sure I question myself at every stage of that decision-making.
I think it also comes down to the way we value objects, as well. Material is under constant scrutiny; we're always shifting our idea of what material is good and what material is bad. I'm hoping to contribute to a world that places value in sustainable practices. Clothes are toxic, as well, because they have a lot of plastic in them. I have to be very mindful of that. I wear a mask when I cut the fabric up.
LMY: Yes, there's a lot of dust, right? When you're breaking it down.
LP: Yeah, exactly. It's all part of the material.
LMY: Yes. The ecological, it’s something I’m aware of a little bit, but you saw my studio, there's a lot of waste.
LP: There has been more of a cultural shift towards that way of thinking in England, and I suppose Malaysia is affected by climate change and the production of palm oil.
LMY: Of course. It's difficult because that's our main economic source - we can't just stop palm oil, but they can moderate it. But it's getting better, people are becoming more aware of this. When you talk about sustainability, in Malaysia people are starting to become more aware of this, but it's very difficult to do it in practice. When you buy eco-friendly options in the supermarket, it's more expensive and not everyone can afford it. It will take a lot of time to change in Malaysia.
LP: That is a problem, because environmentally-friendly options aren't affordable for a lot of people. More people are living in poverty in England, and you can't expect people to make ethical decisions when it's a case of trying to survive. But being environmentally friendly can be the cheap option. I only started using recycled materials because I couldn't afford other materials. It's finding those ways to be cost-effective and environmentally sound.
LMY: Yes, you spend less money and you're using something that would otherwise contribute to a lot of waste. This is something I'd like to address - buy less, try to reuse materials, and fix the broken stuff.
LP: You use a lot of industrious materials, and in construction there's a huge amount of waste, as well. I wonder if there's a way to reclaim some of that waste.
LMY: Yes, but all the wood is processed, and when you cut it there's harmful dust. It’s not healthy.
LP: Since I've been wearing a mask when to cut up fabric, I've been thinking about how materials can become these invisible, harmful objects that move through the air.
LMY: At least I'm not making bronze or fiberglass sculptures, and then you can easily reproduce, and create hundreds of pieces to sell. Some artists over produce, just to sell, and that can also be very harmful. As you say, when we produce work it takes up space, for me this is something that I'm always aware of.
LP: Yes, we have to find the balance.
Lee Mok Yee is a Malaysian visual artist born in Klang. A graduate of the Dasein Academy of Art and later from the Fine Art programme at the Middlesex University, Mok Yee is an artist whose work is primarily concerned with the entanglement between the conceptual and the material.
His work is process-focused and often interrogative of the aspect of ‘materials’ in art-making, choosing to work with ready-made or store-bought objects. Mok Yee re-arranges these materials as an act of interrogation against uniformity; pushing against the boundaries of function in mass-production, and in this re-arranging he questions the idea of moving within structures as an exploration of change and its futilities.
As long-term collaborators, Laura Porter and Lee Mok Yee have visited one another’s countries to take part in studio visits, and partake in a continuous long-distance dialogue about their practices. In 2021, they were awarded funding from the British Council as part of their Connections Through Culture grant programme. This resulted in a three-month long virtual residency; developing a research blog with contributions from other UK- and Malaysia-based artists.
Work by Lee Mok Yee 2022