LEE BUL, “The Studio,” 2012, including preparatory studies for “Mon Grand Récit,” 2005–present, installed at Artsonje Center, Seoul, 2012. Courtesy the artist; Artsonje Center, Seoul; Bartleby Bickle & Meursault, Seoul. 

LEE BUL, “The Studio,” 2012, including preparatory studies for Cyborgs, 1997 (background) and The Secret Sharer, 2011 (foreground), installed at Artsonje Center, Seoul, 2012. Courtesy the artist; Artsonje Center, Seoul; Bartleby Bickle & Meursault, Seoul. 

Lee Bul

Artsonje Center
Korea, South

In the March/April issue of ArtAsiaPacific, editor-at-large HG Masters visits Korean artist Lee Bul at her Seoul studio. Read a review of Bul’s most recent retrospective at Artsonje Center in South Korea . . .

Lee Bul returned to Artsonje in September 2012, 14 years after her first solo exhibition, as an internationally respected artist. In the years in between, she had represented South Korea at the Venice Biennale and been nominated for the Hugo Boss Prize. Fresh from completing her retrospective “From Me, Belongs to You Only” at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Bul could excusably have recycled works to appease an eager and sympathetic Korean audience. Instead, she chose to produce new pieces, as well as restaging “The Studio” (2012)—a bold installation first shown in Tokyo that may well suggest a turn in her artistic practice.

Visitors entered the gallery through the installation Souterrain (2012), a low, narrow passage lined with hundreds of tilted mirrors. Though disoriented, viewers could focus their gaze on Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (2007/2012) at the end of the labyrinthine corridor, its form rising from the mirrored floor like an iceberg covered in shiny, black liquid. A gallery guide encouraged two visitors at a time to enter into this cave-like interior. But before venturing in, each visitor had to snuggle on a pair of protective headphones—any clapping, stomping or shouting was echoed back deafeningly amplified and with altered frequencies, as if the shape of the structure was itself shifting.  

On the next floor of the gallery, Bul presented “The Studio,” featuring around 220 drafts and models for some of her best-known works, including Cyborgs (1997) and the “Mon Grand Récit” (2005–present). At Mori, the installation felt safe and subdued, nothing more than an interesting investigation into Bul’s artistic process. At Artsonje, however, “The Studio” was a fully realized work of art. This was in part because of the accompanying installation, Diluvium (2012), a floor surface created specifically for Artsonje constructed out of plywood and steel set at irregular inclines. The work required viewers to spend as much time maneuvering around these angled surfaces as looking at the drawings and sculptures. In another corner of the gallery, over 25 maquettes of dogs—studies for The Secret Sharer (2011)—were hunched in the act of vomiting, in reference to Lee’s own recently deceased pet. Constructed with paper, cotton, yarn, tape, wood blocks and beads, the canines looked as if they were made of scraps salvaged from Bul’s studio floor and then loosely sculpted into these barely recognizable forms.

Compared to Lee’s “finished” works in the first part of the exhibition, which were crystalline perfection, “The Studio” was by nature crude. Lee has described the latter piece as hanging her underwear out in the open. The work’s unapologetic honesty testified to the artist’s willingness to expose her vulnerability and to assault an audience accustomed to her philosophically polished and exquisitely crafted works.

I returned back to the gallery on the last day of the exhibition and observed that the stark contrast between its two sections—the entrance, precise, and the next floor, gestural—had diminished with time. The mirrored, tile floors were scratched and smeared; the wooden floors on the second level were scuffed from the many pairs of shoes trudging through the gallery. Intended or not, her “finished” works took on the rougher quality of the “unfinished,” making the exhibition one of her most courageous yet. 

Jayoon Choi is ArtAsiaPacific’s South Korea desk editor and the founder of ICI, a Seoul-based firm dedicated to promoting Korean contemporary art.