LEE BULWilling to be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon, 2015–16, Metalized film, transparent film and air blower, 300 × 1,700 × 300 cm. Installation view of “Crashing” at Hayward Gallery, London, 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy the artist and Southbank Centre, London. 


Lee Bul

Also available in:  Chinese

A work catching fire and forcing the cancellation of a preview would seem an inauspicious start to any exhibition. The ignition of Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendor (1991–2018), caused by the volatile potassium-permanganate agent meant to preserve the installation’s sequin-covered fish, however, gave the artist’s midcareer survey at the Hayward Gallery a mythic quality. The mishap was a reminder that exhibitions are not static displays, but living, breathing parts of culture, prone to accidents, riots and mysteries. This dynamism was embodied throughout “Crashing”—a culture in itself, curated with an idiosyncratic geography in mind. 

The exhibition was arranged over several levels, the lowest of which was taken up by the installation Civitas Solis II (2014). Mirrors were spread across the floor and walls, while a series of light bulbs spelled the work’s title—shared with a 16th-century utopian text by Italian writer Tommaso Campanella—in both English and Korean. The light was reflected from the mirrors and dispersed throughout the space, recalling the dappled light you might find in an underground cave, and at once created an immersive environment for visitors to explore and a home for many of the artist’s creatures. Complexes of limbs, mechanical parts and the nervous systems of cast silicone figures from the 1998 “Cyborg” series exploded into reaching tendrils from the ceiling. On the ground were two reconstructions from the “Monster” series (1998), comprising mounds of fabric limbs that are as unnervingly in-between fleshy and vegetal as the cyborgs are both creature-like and mechanical. In addition to the difference between the organic and the inert, the contrast between fabric and silicone and their respective associations with traditionalism and futurism, constitutes a point at which Lee reaches into the space between past and future, cleaves the two apart, and fills the void with her own peculiar vision. 

There was a further parallel to be drawn with another old Italian text: Dante’s Divine Comedy. The mirrors and monsters recall the ice and demons of the lowest circle of Dante’s hell, and the stratification of the rest of the exhibition reflected the poet’s journey from inferno to paradise. However, whereas Dante’s text is concerned with morality and the soul’s advancement, “Crashing” appeared for the most part amoral, and the contradiction this implies when paired with the path visitors must tread from cave-like beginnings to the light, ethereal upper levels, presents a subtle critique of the concept of progress. In Heaven and Earth (2007), on the next level up, an oversized bathtub filled with black ink, with sculpted white peaks around its edge, at once references the crater lake of Baekdu Mountain, on the border of North Korea and China, which symbolizes reunification and other national Korean aspirations, and the use of bathtubs in the torturing of participants in South Korea’s Democracy Movement in the ’70s and ’80s. Elsewhere, Mon grand récit: Weep into stones . . . (2005), a sprawling maquette of a futuristic city replete with scaffolds and an upside-down model of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum, refers in its title to philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s ideas regarding the impossibility of representing history, the problems of narrativizing past and future, and of trusting in linear notions of societal progress. As visitors reached the upperfloor, a notable sense of airiness abounded in works such as Willing to Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015–16), an enormous silver zeppelin resembling the Hindenburg airship that disastrously exploded in 1937. Yet, the lightness here is purely aesthetic; the work itself is designed to highlight the dangers of entrusting ourselves to concepts of modernity, technology and, again, progress. 

In the show’s final room was the large-scale installation Via Negativa II (2014), a hall of mirrors whose outer walls are lined with fragments of text, and the inside of which leads to an immersive mise en abyme. While light, writing and reflection might signify the end of a path to truth for Dante, for Lee, it is the splintering of image and text engendered in the work, the recognition of “endless fictional paths” and reflection of a “general experience,” in her words, that mark the point at which she now stands in her prolific artistic inquiry.

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