Lee Bul in her studio. Photo by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific.

Where I Work: Lee Bul

Korea, South
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The ascent to Lee Bul’s home and studio by car requires a series of perilous hairpin turns, up narrow streets lined with vine-covered walls and imposing portals, into the hills of northern Seoul.

At the end of one almost impassibly tight alley is a metal gate, behind which is the compound where the artist and her husband have lived for more than a decade. Once inside, a panoramic vista opens up, looking back in the direction of the city. On that September evening, gray clouds hung low over the hills and a gentle mist was falling. Seoul’s buildings floated in the sky. Within the hour, a few city lights would already be visible.

There are three buildings in the Lees’ compound. Their home is a modernist structure of heavy cantilevered concrete slabs, its brutalism also its appeal. Lee’s husband James explains that it was built many decades earlier by a pioneering arts patron who decided not to reside there. To the side of the property is a narrow, gray, double-height structure with a corrugated roof and a concrete floor, which is the primary fabrication studio, where Lee and her half-dozen or so studio assistants keep regular business hours, five days a week. At the back, it adjoins a smaller space, her original studio, from which a series of stone steps lead to a third structure, above the house, used for the storage of materials and old models.

The main working studio was nearly empty that day. Many of Lee’s employees had already gone home, and most of the studio’s contents were back down the hill at the Artsonje Center, in Jongno-gu, where she was showing once more, having held her breakout solo exhibition there 14 years earlier. Taking over one floor of the gallery, she had transformed it into a dramatized version of her own studio, with sloping, angular, plywood platforms that formed a mountainous topography, from which one could peer down onto maquettes of Lee’s architectural sculptures sitting atop mirror plinths. Hundreds of framed drawings from all periods of her career—from cyborgs and monsters to dreamlike, futuristic urbanscapes—lined the walls, and fiberglass prototypes dangled in the air.

There were still a few things underway in the studio, however. Two of Lee’s glimmering Sternbau sculptures were suspended from specially constructed frames that allow studio assistants to connect metal chains and strands threaded with thousands of mirrored shards and crystal beads to the gyrating central armature. It is painstaking labor; each sculpture takes three months to construct. Lee’s employees learn what she calls her “rules” by first doing, and then by observing as she comes to correct their work. New Sternbau sculptures are destined for Hong Kong where they will be on view at Lehmann Maupin when the gallery opens there in March. High above, hanging in the rafters, were several re-creations of the bulbous, monstrous-looking costumes from Lee’s late 1980s and early 1990s public performances that had been produced for her midcareer retrospective at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, held in early 2012.

Lee’s living and working spaces inflect many of the utopic motifs in her work, from the austere modernist architecture and the winding route leading up to the house in the hills, to the views of city buildings and mountains seen from the distance. Yet its melancholic tenor seems to come from a deeper interior place, so it was fitting to learn that Lee does much of her thinking in a small, book-filled room on the ground floor of the main house, where she can hide herself when she wants to be alone and where she makes the drawings that will become the bases of her installations. She concedes that there are many days when she does not leave the compound to descend into the city. Nonetheless, life (along with her team of employees) still finds its way up the hill. As we were leaving, she stopped to point out a lone pink flower that had bloomed far out of season and to wonder what has caused this small thing to behave so unnaturally.