Arts / Culture

Vicki Lee shares why ‘Brain. Turn Left’ is her most personal show yet

In her latest exhibition, 'Brain. Turn Left', artist Vicki Lee embarks on her most personal exploration yet. This isn't just a collection of paintings; it's a window into a unique way of experiencing the world.

Lee describes a lifelong connection to a multi-sensory reality. Colours have sounds and scents, existing beyond the physical realm most take for granted. Her artistic journey isn't a recent development; it's a lifelong exploration of a reality. Imagine a world where colours have distinct scents and resonate with specific sounds – a multi-sensory masterpiece. For Lee, this isn't imagination, it's the very fabric of her experience. To see the world through a kaleidoscope of perspectives. Lee's work displays where the boundaries between the physical and the perceptual dissolve, creating her most personal and evocative show yet.

Below, we speak with Vicki Lee as she delves into her artistic process and stories behind her latest artwork Brain. Turn Left.


This series of work conveys a personal experience you have had your whole life. Can you explain?

When I was a child, I would collect little bits of string, twigs and any form of novelty junk and make sculptures that inevitably fell apart, wall paper that I would get busted for super gluing leaves and tissues I had found in the park on the kitchen wall thinking I had really contributed to the homes interior style. My mother somehow unstuck the perfectly composed “rubbish” off the walls, through my tears at her ruining my masterpiece.

There was one artwork I started when I was three or so. No one ever really mentioned it. I didn’t get in trouble for it, so I kept working on this little project before and after school. I now realise I need to do this, make things, to feel alive. I would trace my hand on the wall in different colours and over the years, my 'mural' had escalated in height as I grew taller and crescendoed in boldness as I developed my own voice. It was a four-year project and very textured by the time we left that home.

Everyone’s experience of reality is subjective. I never questioned that these colours I drew, the pressure I used to trace my hand had a sound and a scent to them. Neither of which come through my ears or nose. The experience is different each time, all embracing and fucking amazing. It was and still is my reality.

I am proud of coming from a fiercely strict Korean family, where going to Medical School or Law school was non negotiable if you got the marks. But I spent all of my years at University, then the College of Law and then also including the one year I had practicing as a commercial litigator listening to music (in silence) while I drew in my lecture pads, and note books with colours. I made my own fun.

In 2013, I went to the doctor explaining to her this strange sense of nostalgia I was experiencing. Like I was remembering a love affair, the most romantic passion of my life. The only issue was the memory was not mine. The feeling is amazing, a truly euphoric and passing affair. She sent me as fast as she could to get a scan downstairs and after this scan, while driving home, I got an emergency call to turn around and get back asap.

Before I had an MRI three days later, I was told I had a brain tumour. An easy operation to scoop it out and glue back my scull. Hair grows back. Easy as pie. The reality was that I have always had a cavernous angioma in my left temporal lobe. It is small enough not to cause any disfunction in my life. I still get an MRI every few years and deny surgery each time. I have renamed it my Beauty Spot. I have been making art since I was a child.

When I am bored, I make songs in my head looking at the surrounding colours and shapes. I had been painting for years before 2013, but after this moment, my career upward spiralled. Not because I felt any different but because I was adamant that this Beauty Spot was not a problem to be solved but my reality to be experienced. And so, I do. Every sunrise I take far too seriously and scream out to my kids to eat the day as they run off into the school gates completely embarrassed.

How does this manifest in the work?

It was the project I worked on for Chanel, celebrating their 100 Years of the iconic No. 5 perfume that first exposed my experience of colours, sounds and scents. By this stage I had been working as a practicing artist for 15 years. In an interview for Chanel about my process with this artwork, I incautiously relayed how I had deconstructed No 5. Into all of its separate notes.

I had these separate ingredients, The Aldehydes, Bergamot, Neroli, May Rose, Civet and so on, sent to me from Grasse. I had recorded sound bites as I smelt, inhaled and felt these incredible aromas. I still believe Chanel No. 5 to be one of the best symphonies I have ever heard and Ernest Beaux a genius. With these sound bites I had recorded, I made an artwork 3x2m on how the scent sounded to me, and therefore dictated without deviation how the artwork would look. This involves moving the scent to the sound then to how the colours moved and like my hand tracing ‘mural’, the pressure used by my hand to turn the volume right up.

This trichotomy, the scent, the sound and the colours are one for me. My paintings are songs. All clients I have had dialogue with know what I am talking about. You can create texture in the air with scent just as you can on a canvas. There is a beat, my works alternate between deep house at a rave at 4am to the classical tones of cello, violin and piano. All of my works are made in silence.


How has it shown itself in your previous works?

My first solo show was titled Sillage, which means the scent that lingers in the air, the trail left in water, the impression made in a space after something or someone has been and gone. Another show dedicated to my late mother, The Omma Series, had a sound healing bed set up for my guests to open up their bodies before they smelt the scent I had made with my perfumer, Clayton Ilolahia.

Music is not just heard though your ears, it moves through your entire body. Scent requires the olfactory neurons, however the experience of any smell requires the heart. These works were all white, paint, plaster and porcelain on linen canvas in white frames. To me, they are the loudest, most powerful of my works. The Sound Of Yellow. The title speaks for itself. I worked with Genelec Oy, the best speaker brand in the world, along with Apple to create a Cymatic Structure that fit 10 people lying down. I wanted to share the experience and literally jump on the same frequency and catch the wave together. I created a scent of my “Yellow”: Black Pepper, Pink Pepper, saffron, ambergris and golden syrup. The artworks were mainly yellow, very minimal and I hope in their muted tones, powerful. To me, yellow is not just happy, it is power.

Why have you never shared this before?

I had never felt like it was necessary to discuss. Nor would I assume anyone would care that much. I am a very private person. Disturbingly shy at times. Sharing artwork and my physical process is easy. This is a whole new realm of sharing. I still feel shy about it. I was happy for the work to speak for itself.

As time passes though, and I grow increasingly appreciative of the support of my work, and the genuine dialogue I have with my clients, it feels like a progressing friendship. The longer you know someone, the dirtier the details of their life you’re entitled to. I take most of my appointments myself to engage with the people who have supported my work for years. To explain to them what the work is about. Truth is, sometimes I just make the sounds and we have a laugh.


How do your feelings influence your body of work as an artist?

If I leave my studio after a session of painting feeling quite vulgar, disgusting, dirty, depleted and confused, I know I have done my job properly. I take a moment before I enter my home to allow it to permeate through me and out of me. Usually this is in my car but it is always done alone.

My purpose seems clear to me when I look back on life. I am here to express and hopefully share our human reality, the objective reality. We will all feel something at some stage in our lives. The excellent emotions and the dark, twisted, fucked up stuck ones. And that is a shared experience of being human. I think that is beautiful.

What is your favourite sound recollection?

Navy Blue. The paint I use is called Paynes Grey, which is essentially the best, richest, thickest, most regal and powerful Navy colour. Incidentally the most expensive of the paints as well. I made a painting recently only using this deep Navy and minimal black for contrast. I could sing to you what I hear but it is not a song, it is a sound. It does not come through my ears. I can only explain and express this through my paintings.

I cannot sing, I have no musical talent or ability. But I understand sound. And the closest composition I could connect to this painting would be Prélude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4 by Frédéric Chopin. I am working on a scent to accompany this painting because I want to share it all. It is a mere interpretation but a true one.


What is your favourite feeling?


You are about to take some time way, how do you expect this will enrich you as an artist?

I will collect trinkets and miscellaneous objects on our travels with my children and after sterilising them eight times, we will build sculptures that I now know how to keep together. I need to create like the most cliche, self indulgent artist that I am. So that is what we will do, all the way over there.

To enquire about Vicki Lee's new collection, head to her website.


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