A Necessary Luxury: Khan Lee Cutting Through Perfection.
“A diamond is forever” is a marketing slogan first used in 1947 by the South African diamond company de Beers, which in the late 30s began an advertising campaign that jointly wielded love and diamonds into a pure union. The promotion began in response to a flood in the diamond market with the discovery of large African deposits. It targeted American markets before going global, attempting to up demand by bringing diamonds into every home to be perched on every truly loved “until death do we part” female finger. This exclusive gem quickly became a collective symbol of love with the bigger the diamond indubitably equaling the deepest of love.
The campaign succeeded in creating a vast worldwide market for diamonds, but it also transposed its selling point, which is contingent on the diamond’s rarity by making them middle class and commonplace. It is this incongruent divide in the diamond’s status as an extraordinary raw gem verses its ubiquitous distribution and accessibility that Khan Lee’s performance video hearts and arrows (2012) teeters between. Lee is a romantic and a formalist, but finds solace in the methodical. The hypnotic video captures the action of the artist carving into a block of ice. He is positioned slightly off center in the foreground of a seascape with the shoreline hidden but for passersby and a distant view of industry. The frame is static but tracks the light of the rising sun from near darkness to direct blinding light. As the sun rises toward the solid cube of ice, Lee cuts into it slowly and diligently, carving a diamond.
The ‘round brilliant’ cut is what most of us will describe when imagining a diamond. Since the early 20th century, it has been the most common cut. It was designed by Marcel Tolkowsky who was an engineer from a diamond cutter family to optimize the gems shine and maximize the usage of the raw stone; with this design two cuts could be taken from one octahedron shape. In somewhat technical terms the round brilliant has a crown with a flat tabletop from which eight short pointed and sloped facets cut into another eight shorter facets. The top section sits above the pavilion separated by a narrow undulating girdle. The lower half is comprised of an equal number of elongated facets that are carved into a steeper sloped peak ordinarily ending in a small flat plane called the cutlet. This complex yet economical design contributed to the pervasiveness of the diamond and its emergent popularity as the gift of choice for those in love. It is also called ‘ideal cut’. Yet each diamond is hand carved and each is unique, achieving different luster depending on the precision of the cut and the form of the original raw stone. Its very material defies mass manufacturing keeping it within the realm of handcrafted — again emphasizing its rarity, but also leaving a large margin for error.
The cut Lee makes as we watch is based on the round brilliant, but the work’s title references its ideal form. ‘Hearts and arrows’ is a precision round brilliant cut with perfect symmetry and polish, a process of optimizing luminosity with angles. It takes much longer to cut and only 5 percent of all raw diamonds can become ‘hearts and arrows.’ He attempts to extract this perfect shape from a cubic square of ice. Although the cube isn’t the ideal shape to begin with, since a somewhat thick rectangle would have been more efficient. Lee used this cube to symbolize his investment in sculpture. He is known to compulsively transform one shape into another using subtle means, stacking a receding scale of off-white round plates to form an oval egg or stitching together discarded rectangular material such as cassette tapes or disposable lighters to form a line. But here he starts with a pure form devoid of symbolic meaning in order to distill an overwrought emblematic shape, using classic sculptural techniques of cutting and subtraction as a method of representation extracted from a referential Minimalist cube. In the darkness where the video starts Lee lets the cube linger in the frame alone to garner attention in its reduced state. It is just a block until he acts upon it. Its properties are only revealed once hacked into.
Making the ice was an arduous process. It seems simple enough, but it took Lee months to get it stable and clear without bubbles, to best emulate the property of the diamond it is becoming. But even as the form is taking shape it is also dissolving. Its ephemerality, the fact that the very sun that enhances its properties also destroys it is truly the work’s climax. Watching Lee define the diamond’s form is captivating enough, but as the sun hits its surface – as it is being undone under the rising sun, the image transfixes, emerging as somewhat sad while also elating. It is when the ice most resembles the diamond it represents.
We know diamonds as ice. They are cool even when blasted with heat, remaining cold to the touch. It is only the clearest most translucently ice-like of diamonds that are pure. Diamonds with traces of colour even the slightest blue or pink mean other elements infected their structure. Lee’s diamond is far from perfect. His cuts are unmeasured and his tools makeshift. Creating ‘hearts and arrows’ from a block of ice that is constantly melting as it is being worked on in such a limited duration is an ideal objective and an impossible reality. But Lee’s desire is sincere and his aim true. He is working through something personal. His understanding of his subjectivity tested, redefined and multiplied — roughly cut and divided into an unsure and lonely state. He himself became detached, experiencing a loss of the way things were, but not through a rejection of those ways. This description may seem unclear, but at its base he became something to be work on. He was no longer simply experiencing. In his words, “the fact that I was aiming for an ideal explains ‘arrows’ and what I was emotionally going through was ‘hearts’. Having a notion of the ideal made it possible to create meaning from an imperfect situation.”
While Lee’s material goal is unattainable, the video and the artist’s performance are grounded in the realness of production. The volatility of the material and the distracting location disrupt his intentions. Lee at one point drops his tools and is at times preoccupied by actions happening outside the scene he set. His head is often cut from the frame. The landscape is more constructed than ideal. The lights from industrial activity across the water infect the darkness; joggers disrupt the possibility of a meditative calm; sounds of passing traffic seem incongruous with the somewhat remote setting. These chance sounds draw our attention away from his performance. Even the natural light tests the limits of the camera as the video starts out uncomfortably dark and ends virtually washed out. Everything that is happening in the frame works to remind him and us of the impossibility of his intentions. Everything surrounding him undermines his goal. It thematizes his work as unattainable. We can see this in his recent photographic work Millennium Line(2012), in which he rendered the entire routine of a Vancouver Skytrain line as a continuous photograph, representing a distance as singular. He managed to make the whole view from the routevisible as one thing, but its scale – the magnitude of its length made it impossible to view as a single image. Even in this work he knew the futile result before he had achieved his material goal, but he pursued it regardless, trying to materialize the incomprehensible.
Lee is working through the unknowable, carving it into material form. But he isn’t so foolish as to think it’s attainable. Like the contradictions of deBeer’ssuccessful forever campaign which brought the rarified diamond into every household, Lee’s intent to produce the ideal is countered with its implausibility. Both start with false claims: deBeer’s by even suggesting that diamonds are rare when they know they are plentiful and Lee for setting up an unachievable project in the first place. Yet they are success stories. De Beer has global control of the diamond market and Lee makes sense of his subjective position which he can understand as commonplace and fallible, and most effectively as influenced by everything around him. His actions take place in time, marked by the rising sun at a point in the day that most of us don’t witness.It is important that the video begins in darkness. We may languish as the sun is setting, but to watch the sunrise is a rarity typically greeted unconsciously. The video captures in real time the natural change from darkness into light, metaphorically moving from the unconsciousness into the real as the sun rises above the horizon. In the end the diamond is obliterated by light and all Lee’s work washed out by the sun’s rays. Maybe the shift from darkness into light is the unknown and thus even more painful than the darkness we were previously attempting to navigate, control and subdue.