MON GRANDCIT: WEEP INTO STONES…, 2005, polyurethane, foamex, synthetic clay, stainless-steel, aluminum rods, acrylic panels, wood sheets, acrylic paint, varnish, electrical wire and lighting, 280 × 440 × 300 cm. Courtesy the artist.

MON GRANDCIT: BECAUSE EVERYTHING…, 2005, wood, paint, glass crystals, synthetic beads, aluminium, foam, polystyrene, fibreglass, epoxy resin and lights, 230 × 250 × 500 cm. Courtesy the artist and Kukje Gallery, Seoul.

Wayward Tangents

Lee Bul

Features from Nov/Dec 2007
Korea, South

Lee Bul’s disparate and complex works probe timeless human tendencies: our lurking fear of the natural world, out-sized ambition and the abuse of power. The artist’s sculptures embody gruesome and surreal forms while addressing a host of hot button topics including the role of women in society, the promise of technology and, recently, the legacy of modernism as embodied in architecture.

Lee’s practice, spanning more than 20 years, began in the mid-1980s with provocative performance-sculptures that quickly distinguished her from her peers. She explains that when she was a student at Seoul’s Hongik University, Korean art was divided between academic modernists painting abstract canvases and those making minjoong misool, “People’s Art.” Lee had to invent her own version of postmodernism, addressing issues like gender and sexuality in outlandish public performances that challenged a patriarchal society’s tolerance for vocal feminist views.

Her arrival on the international scene came with Majestic Splendor (1997), an installation of sequin-decorated fish—which quickly rotted-—presented at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1997, and then again in the Korean Pavilion at the 1999 Venice Biennale. Since then, Lee has crafted an oeuvre of diverse forms. In Hydra II (Monument) (1999), she pasted an imposing image of herself—provocatively dressed, legs splayed—onto the surface of a multi-story, inflatable pink monster. Comprised of futuristic pods for solitary, solipsistic karaoke parties, another interactive work, Live Forever (2001), became her calling card, touring the US extensively.

Lee’s best-known works are her “Cyborg” sculptures, sexualized and mutilated figures that fuse female forms and machine components. Beginning with the decapitated figures Cyborg Red (1997-98) and Cyborg Blue (1997-98), the series metamorphosed into pristine white figures whose truncated yet idealized bodies ironically recall Roman sculptures. These works were overshadowed by the more grotesque “Monster” series, like the imposing Amaryllis (1999), a sci-fi sculpture with a body like an ancient cephalopod-cum-spaceship whose organic limbs sprout smaller jointed stubs and vicious tentacles. Such works’ compression of both evolutionary and hi-tech design encapsulates Lee’s propensity to examine the past as a means of imagining the future.

In the past three years, however, Lee has embarked on a series of increasingly complicated dioramic assemblages that manifest the artist’s philosophical probing of 20th-century cultural history, dramatically altering the formal components of her work. In June 2005, she unveiled two new sculptures in locations on opposite sides of the globe. In an abrupt shift away from human scale, both multi-part, dystopian topographies incorporated fantastical, massive architectural models.

Mon grand récit: because everything… (2005), which premiered at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand, is a curving fiberglass form drenched in layers of cream-white epoxy and splashes of pink epoxy resin. Littered with scale models of legendary modern structures, including Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920), the sculpture supports a flashing LED sign atop a Gustave Eiffel-style armature, which reads: “Because everything / only really perhaps / yet so limitless,” rffing on a passage from Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky. Laced through these disparate components, arcing white bands resembling elevated freeways course over the landscape.

Its sibling, Mon grand récit: Weep into stones… (2005), was first shown at Art Unlimited at Art Basel 36 and later included in the 2006 Taipei Biennial, “Dirty Yoga,” and now the current Istanbul Biennial, “Not Only Possible But Also Necessary – Optimism in the age of global war.” The centerpiece of Weep is a towering white mountain that resembles the Olympian skyscrapers envisioned by Hugh Ferriss in his 1929 book The Metropolis of Tomorrow. Adjacent to the mountain, a flashing LED sign atop a transmission tower reads “weep into stones / fables like snow / our few evil days,” words excerpted from Sir Thomas Browne’s 1658 scientific meditation Hydriotaphia. Metal scaffolding surrounds the phallic protrusion, supporting several smaller structures: a bent-plywood highway that soars to the top of the mountain; a miniature model of Tatlin’s Monument positioned on a glacial landscape; the staircase from the modernist home of Steiner in Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita; a silver, upturned cross-section of the Hagia Sophia and a model of an anonymous Eastern-bloc building.

This last building served as headquarters for the Korean miners union in Seoul and was also where Lee had her studio, an autobiographical detail that illuminates the works’ French title, as Mon grand récit translates to English as “my great story.” Here, Lee’s own experiences living under the Korean military dictatorship and the visual oppression of Soviet-style architecture collide with the grand, supposedly impersonal historical trajectory narrated in this pair of sculptures.


THAW (TAKAKI MASAO), 2007, fiberglass, acrylic paint, black crystal and glass beads on nickel-chrome wire, sculpture: 93 × 212 × 113 cm, trail of beads: 250–500 cm long. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg/Paris. 

Installation view of AUTOPOIESIS (2006) and STERNBAU NO. 2 (2007) at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, 2007.

With a spate of important shows over the past year, Lee has taken her interests in architecture, modernism and their human relations even further. In April, at Seoul’s PKM Gallery, Lee showed several new untitled sculptures, tabletop-sized works that combine a jumble of textured fragments—vaguely discernible as bits of skyscrapers—held together by amorphous molten patches of dull bronze or reflective aluminum, all balancing precariously on spindly legs. Shown on a mirror-topped pedestal, one cast aluminum work resembles Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao in miniature. Though their diminutive scale points to the possibility that these are ideas in gestation, the sculptures connect the disjointed forms of contemporary architecture with Cubist sculpture.

And a solo exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Salzburg this September featured earlier sculpture from the “Anagrams” series—white, polyurethane hybrids of machine and organic forms—mixed with newer works that Lee says, “evoke the spirit of Bruno Taut.” Taut, best known for his glass-domed pavilion at the 1914 Cologne Werkbund Exhibition and a horseshoe-shaped housing development in Berlin, envisioned a utopian “alpine architecture” whose crystalline forms echo the shapes of the landscape. Lee finds rich inspiration in his work, but inverts turn-of-the-century positivism through millenary, post-apocalyptic hindsight—a view of history that acknowledges the world’s end as a foregone conclusion.

In Ropac’s galleries, Autopoiesis (2006), a shimmering network of spindly forms, dangled from the ceilings alongside a pair of bejeweled chandeliers, Sternbau No. 2 and Sternbau No. 3  (both 2007), while a separate room contained a large new floor sculpture resembling a washed-up jellyfish, Thaw (Takaki Masao) (2007). Thaw has two components: a rough-hewn, jewel-like body that glimmers with pink hues, and a snaking train of black beads that covers the floor like tentacles. True to form, the work’s title gives the visual cues a new dimension, as “Takaki Masao” is in fact the Japanese name adopted by Park Chung-hee, the Republic of Korea’s autocratic president during the 1960s and 1970s, when he went to Japan’s imperial stronghold Manchukuo for military training at the onset of World War II. The craggy but translucent surface of Thaw’s body forms a pair of peaks that simultaneously resemble mountain summits and unpolished gems.

This resurrection of Taut’s designs anticipates a massive solo exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, opening November 16, where Lee is turning the gallery space into an immersive sculptural environment that will respond to French architect Jean Nouvel’s glass-clad design for the Cartier building. Once again invoking a complex stylistic and historical palimpsest, Lee notes that Taut’s “architectural fantasies of glass and crystal stand as unlikely proto-modernist precursors to structures like Nouvel’s, but are also fascinating to me as wayward tangents in the narrative of modernity.”

The Cartier installation promises sheer delirium; in Lee’s words, it will contain “a black, grotto-like bunker and excavated ruins with crystal formations, a ziggurat of light towers flashing cryptic messages, a dark lake of ink in an oversized bathtub fringed with snowy mountains—works encompassing far-flung coordinates in terms of visuals and ideas but ultimately converging in the concept of utopia, whether deferred, inverted or self-extinguishing.” Works from Ropac such as Thaw will reappear here as the garish exclamation points in a continuum of idealism turned ideology. The “lake of ink” that Lee refers to, a standalone piece entitledHeaven and Earth (2007), supports a representation of Baekdu Mountain, the traditional birthplace of the Korean people that lies on the border between China and North Korea and has been the source of territorial disputes for centuries. (A distinguishing feature of Baekdu Mountain is that it has one of the world’s highest crater lakes, Heaven Lake.)

Richly layered conceptual models, Lee’s works of the past three years—of which her installation at the Fondation Cartier is the grandest—ambitiously use art to approach a new understanding of the past century. And her use of forms drawn from contemporary architecture clarifies an important point: after years of flippant appropriation and a wholesale rejection of its core values by artists and architects alike, modernism’s legacy is regaining status as a topic of crucial contention. Despite the undercurrent of criticism in her work, the politically-minded artist professes a stunningly pessimistic belief in progress. She told ArtAsiaPacific: “I hold a Borgesian view of history and civilization as patterns and repetitions. Any change we might perceive in the five minutes that we occupy, metaphorically speaking, in the aeonic expanse of history is illusory.” Lee’s grandiose perspective has never mitigated the urgency motivating her work. Instead, her inquisitive artwork illuminates the deep-seated human drive toward vainglorious ambition and the repercussions of inevitable failure.