Hye Rim Lee

Hye Rim Lee stands apart from her contemporary artist peers. Not only for her dedication to digital art, but also for her commitment to exploring the interface between art, technology, and new forms of visual expression.

Featured Artwork

Hye Rim Lee

Black Rose


Hye Rim Lee

Hye Rim Lee has been working with 3d animation since 2002, but her creative outputs have included other forms of computer-generated imagery as well as digitally formatted photographs and 3d prints. Over the past twenty years she has produced many bodies of work arising from her TOKI/Cyborg Project testifying to her unquestioned ability to produce complex works that are conceptually based, content rich and with a distinctive aesthetic. They include: Black Rose (2021), Rose series (2021), Elements (2014-2021), Black Rose v1 (2016), Lucid Dream, Black Rose, GlassBox (2014), Pink, Lucid Dream (2013), Strawberry Garden Lucid Dream (2013), Strawberry Garden (2011), Crystal Candy High Gloss Dolls (2010), Crystal City Spun (2008), Crystal City (2007-2008),Crystal Beauty Electro Doll (2005-2008), Obsession/ Love Forever (2007),Candyland (2006); Prince G (2006), Lash (2005), PowderRoom (2005), Super Toy (2005), BOOM BOOM: super heroine superbeauty (2004), TOKILAND (2003); The Birth of TOKI: hundreds and thousands (2003), TOKI/Cyborg (2002), Bunny Cubed (2001), and HelloTOKI ;) (2001). Lee’s work has been exhibited with more than 300 exhibitions worldwide in the major solo and group exhibitions at: Kukje Gallery Seoul, Waterfall Mansion & Gallery New York, Max Lang Gallery New York, Freight+Volume New York, Gallerie Volker Diehl Berlin, Monte Clark Gallery Vancouver, Starkwhite Auckland, Gow Langsford Auckland, Gallery Simon Seoul, MoCA Shanghai, Today Art Museum Beijing, MOCA Taipei, Taiwan, MoCA Shanghai, Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai, China, Trondheim Kunstmuseum, Trondheim, Norway, Fundacio Joan Miro Barcelona, Wereld Museum, Rotterdam, San Jose Museum of Art, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Korea, SeMA (Seoul Museum of Art), Seoul, SOMA, Seoul, KMCA, Seoul, The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei, Taiwan, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery New Plymouth, Adam Art Gallery Wellington, The Gus Fisher Gallery Auckland, Te Papa Wellington, The Dowse, Wellington, numerous collateral exhibitions in the 59th, 58th, the 54th and the 53rd Venice Biennale, participation at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale 2021, the Incheon Women’s Art Biennale in Incheon, Animamix Biennale in China 2011, Samsung Media Exhibition in Daegu 2011, The World Expo 2010 Shanghai, ISEA 2019, and art fairs including Art Basel, FIAC, Frieze, The Armory Show, Art Basel Miami, Art HK.Shanghai Contemporary, Art Paris, KIAF Seoul, ARCO Madrid. She won the artist residency: Ssamzie Space Seoul and ISCP New York. She was awarded numerous funding from Creative New Zealand, NZ Film Commission, and Asia New Zealand Foundation, and Asia Fund (CNZ). Her works become part of major art collection: SeMA (Seoul Museum of Art) Seoul, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery New Plymouth, Adam Art Gallery Wellington, Te Papa (The National Museum of New Zealand) Wellington, The University of Auckland, Ernst & Young, Saatchi&Saatchi NZ, Hara Museum Japan, MMCA (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) Korea, Byron Aceman Collection (BAC), Canada, The Wallace Arts Trust Auckland, C-Collection, Principality of Liechtenstein and major private collections worldwide. Samsung New Zealand and Hyundai New Zealand have sponsored Hye Rim Lee. A 45-minute documentary about her work and life between New Zealand and New York, saw a film crew shoot her across Berlin, Sydney and Wellington and Auckland New Zealand. The documentary, TOKI Does New York premiered as a part of DOCNZ in 4 cities from February to April 2008. Lee has BFA from Elam School of Fine Arts from The University of Auckland, majoring in Intermedia and Time Based Arts and a BM from Ewha Womans University, majoring in Voice in Seoul. She was a Visiting Fellow at AUT and a lecturer at Whitecliffe, Auckland. Today she is represented by major commercial galleries in the USA and New Zealand, and was chosen as the inaugural launch artist for Fountain.art internationally.


Hye Rim Lee

A Short Biography


The birth of TOKI

Hye Rim Lee’s TOKI is a twenty-first century creation. TOKI was conceived in 2001 and revealed in 2002 in Hello TOKI ;) at the Moving Image Centre in Auckland. Her debut form, in Lee’s final year of art school, was in a video installation as a computer-manipulated character of a human actor costumed in a bunny-eared headdress.

The following year she reappeared in a series of nine digital prints for The Birth of TOKI: hundreds and thousands at Auckland’s Starkwhite. A riff on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the nine head-shot portraits of TOKI are perhaps her real debut as a fully digital entity. In Lee’s words, the portraits suggest ‘9 traits of personality, or 9 stages of the conception of birth. Through the process of rendering 9 times, she reveals herself with 9 different faces. She is multi-dimensional and able to shift from being cute to feminine, sexual, angelic or evil.’1 Formally and conceptually, she is a reproducible, hybridised, and shifting vehicle reflecting aspects of ‘sexuality, fantasy, female desire and femininity in relation to media and contemporary pop culture, cyber culture, computer games and Korean animamix mixed with Western ideals of beauty and body image’ inextricably entangled with the heterosexual male gaze.2

TOKI’s name is Korean for rabbit, which connects her to the playboy bunny and the sexual connotations of rabbits as representative of instinctive and uninhibited sexuality while also being docile. In Korea, the rabbit is also associated with the moon and thus the menstrual cycle and feminine energy associated with the lunar cycle.

TOKI’s identity is founded on characteristics of the hyper-idealised and hyper-sexualised figure and what she is seen to represent as she toes the blurry line between objectified and empowered. These aspects set the conceptual background of TOKI’s character narrative which continues to develop now, some 20 years on.

Who is TOKI? / Who TOKI is

There is far more to TOKI than the well documented hyper-sexy bunny-girl. She is more knowing than she appears to be on the surface. TOKI is never still; she lurks on the threshold of becoming an ideal receptacle of male desire, engaged in a process of self- fashioning that seems finally indifferent to the wishes of the spectator’. TOKI is a figure of transformation with a dual existence in the narratives of identity that she embodies in her storylines and the technology that enables her rendering as more complex and sophisticated.

As TOKI has developed since 2001, so has her complexity as a being. In keeping with her lunar connection, there are hints at hidden depths and subtleties, yet many have remained as uninterpreted signals from a subconscious glimpsed in attitudes like her apparent indifference to viewers. However, TOKI is also a creator who manifested other entities – she produced Prince G (2006) from her tear drop and gave Dragon Yong (2007) her eyes.

Coming from her psyche the secretions are indicative of a deeper interior life, one at which her surface appearance only hints. To consider who and what TOKI is, is also to consider her as an entity that Lee created.

After 20 years, Lee’s body of work with TOKI constitutes a long relationship, developing an expressive animated being as a means of exploration and reflection intertwined with Lee’s own identity. When asked, Lee has always been clear that TOKI is not her, that she is not TOKI. Instead, TOKI is a ‘vehicle for fantasy, reality and identity’ made within societal conditions and expectations that Lee observes and experiences.5

It is not surprising then that Lee has performed aspects of TOKI live, merging herself and TOKI as performative representations. At times, Lee has been so deeply connected as creator and some time live performer alongside her work, that she has felt subsumed into TOKI. During her time in New York between 2008 and 2013, Lee was fully committed to making a breakthrough with her work in that major centre of contemporary art. Starting with a solo exhibition at Max Lang Gallery was already a huge achievement and for that she went big, performing herself a satirist and TOKI as artist’s creation. Lee’s presence at art events would have been significantly amplified by the fact that she was also being filmed for the documentary TOKI does New York.6

Following the exhibition, between 2008 and 2012 works from Crystal City were exhibited in Germany, Spain, Japan, Korea, and Italy and she participated in many art fairs including the Armory Show between 2007 and 2013 with Kukje Gallery. There have also been major shows of Crystal City in Seoul from 2016 onwards.

However, the 2007–2008 global financial crisis stymied further possibilities for Lee to expand on her profile making the hardness of the hustle required to maintain a profile and a place to live in New York even more difficult. On top of this, Lee’s sister passed away in 2008 which had a profound and painful impact on her and she re-evaluated her life and home and decided to return to Aotearoa in 2013.

From Crystal City to Black Rose In February 2021 Lee opened a solo exhibition at Auckland’s Northart, featuring work from Crystal City, Black Rose, and the Elements series across three distinct spaces. The exhibition drew together work made over 16 years. The time between Crystal City and this exhibition of Black Rose is bridged by new works under the title Elements series from Black Rose. Elements is a series Lee began in 2014 as a collection of images taken from previous animation projects that she uses to ‘reset the project [of TOKI] by reconstructing the images, then rewriting new meaning’ into them effecting a transformation.7

On a pragmatic level, given the time and financial investment in making 3D animation (the Black Rose Queen first appeared in 2014) the Elements series is an important aspect of Lee’s practice. Conceptually and in reality, the series is significant in its value as a process of revisioning. Exhibiting these three groups of work together tells a story of transformation for TOKI and Lee in the time between Crystal City and Black Rose, and signals future aspirations through Elements. In the works that make up Black Rose Lee is connecting herself with TOKI far more directly than before. For Lee, TOKI is ‘depicting a personal narrative, and a story of my never-ending and shifting identity’.8

The suite of works includes the 3D animation Black Rose; Black Rose Series, a group of framed circular still images from the animation; Rose Series made up of four framed large-scale prints of roses; and six framed prints in Elements Series from Black Rose. Reflecting the journey it represents, the Black Rose animation is densely layered and symbolically complex, and it is only possible to touch on some aspects in this text. The overarching narrative of death and love is set in a ‘diamond dreamscape’ creating a ‘never-ending, ever-moving infinite dream’ of transformation.

The central motifs of Black Rose are a rose and a diamond and one or other of them is a constant presence in the background. The narrative arc begins with TOKI in black emerging from the pink rose set in a starry black background. She is spinning on her axis (as she is often shown), her arms raised above her head and her wrists crossed, conveying a feeling of being bound or captive. As the narrative unfolds, the rose in the background gradually blackens. Eventually, TOKI dives into the centre of the rose remerging against the background of the diamond as the Black Rose Queen covered in thorns. The surface rendering changes from dense reflective black of death to transparent glass inflected by the black background. This is the turning point of the work; the transparent TOKI sheds her crown and dives into the diamond. Remaining transparent, the narrative sequence plays in reverse, the rose reappearing and turning from black back to pink. The faceted diamond—its light bringing ‘restoration and hope’—remains present in the background.10

The dreamy and melancholic mood is set by the beautifully poised pacing of the animation and heightened by the audio made with Jiyeon Won aka Ladyfish. The diamond is significant for its physical and symbolic properties. Diamonds are formed deep in the earth’s mantle under great heat and pressure over billions of years. Symbolically they represent creation, eternity, and inner strength. As the narrative reverses in Black Rose the diamond appears creating ‘eternal light’ through which Lee expresses ideas of ‘creation, life and eternity’.11

The facets of the diamond reflect and refract light which Lee associates with the ‘enlightened soul that is able to refract its light from the inside out and serve as a beacon to the outerworld’.12 TOKI’s and Lee’s journey out and back is transformative; it is soulful, spiritual, and powerful. The works in the Rose Series and Elements from Black Rose are the beginning of the next phase of Lee’s TOKI project. Distinct from Black Rose, they have a lighter colour palette with pastels or saturated colours with many symbolic associations. The rose colours in the Rose Series come from the Black Rose animation and represent love and royalty. In particular, the pale pink rose, which is in the animation and the Rose Series, connects to Lee’s identity and spirituality. The South Korean national flower is a pale pink one called mugunghwa which comes from the word mugung meaning immortal or everlasting. The same flower is also known as the Rose of Sharon and is actually a pale pink flower from the Hibiscus genus. As the Rose of Sharon it appears in the Song of Songs, a series of lyrical poems in the Bible. While many interpretations and meanings have been found in the Song of Songs, all of them have love and intimacy at the heart. For Lee, the narrative is a spiritual journey of intimacy in which ‘the bride desires to be touched by the Word of God because she knows that His love is far better than all the pleasures of the world’.13

Where the darkened room showing Black Rose is about lost love, the white room of Rose Series is about found love. Elements from Black Rose continues with the resetting process with characters and motifs from past work brought into the present poising TOKI for the future. The signs that can be read are that Dragon Yong is still present wearing a crown and sitting on the diamond. TOKI’s appearance is subtly transformed by clothing: she wears a white mushroom gown in one image and sits on a rabbit fully clothed in a fitting bodysuit in another. TOKI is no longer naked and exposed to view as an object available to be consumed.

1, Hye Rim Lee, quoted in Rudolph Hudsucker, ‘Fantasy and Confrontation, in the work of Hye Rim Lee’, White Fungus, no. 5, 2005,pp. 22–27.2. Hye Rim Lee artist notes. 3. See Virginia Were, ‘Artist in Wonderland’, Art News New Zealand,Winter 2013, pp. 86–89, Ron Hanson, ‘Super Bunny, Super Beauty: Hye Rim Lee,’ NewZealand Listener, May 21–27 2005, vol. 198, no. 3393, viewable online athttp://www.ada.net.nz/library/super- bunny-super-beauty. 4. Barry King, ‘Orientalizing Sexism: Hye Rim Lee’s TOKI,’ Afterimage,vol. 33, no. 4, 2006, pp. 25–29.5. Lee, op. cit.6. TOKI does New York: A Documentary about Hye Rim Lee, directed by DanSalmon, Octopus Pictures Ltd., commissioned by TVNZ, 2008. 7. Lee, op. cit. 8. Hye Rim Lee, in an artist profile in Animation Practice, Process, andProduction (Journal), Intellect, Bristol, forthcoming issue, 2021.9. Lee, in ibid.10. Lee, artist notes op. cit. 11. Ibid.12. Lee, in artist profile, op. cit.13. Mike Bickle, Studies in the Song of Solomon, http://mikebickle.org/series/Studies-in-the-Song-of-Solomon, accessed 19 April 2021. First published in Art New Zealand, 2021. Reproduced with permission. All text © Art New Zealand.