The Vancouver Art Gallery’s Institute of Asian Art 2015 feature exhibition presents recent works by the acclaimed Korean artist.
Launched on 30 October 2015, the exhibition comprises some of Lee Bul’s best-known large-scale sculptures paired with early drawings, revealing the visually and conceptually elaborate practice of one of the most important artists of her generation.
“Lee Bul” runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Canada’s British Columbia until 10 January 2016 and marks the 2015 feature exhibition organised by the museum’s Institute of Asian Art, an initiative that advances scholarship and public appreciation of art from China, India, Japan and Korea. The exhibition consists of several of her large-scale sculptures with early drawings, revealing an oeuvre influenced and inspired by a variety of sources, including cinema, literature, architecture and feminism as well as the political and cultural histories of both Asia and Europe.
The show is based on a touring exhibition organised by Espai d’art contemporani de Castelló (EACC), Castellon, Spain, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain Saint-Étienne Métropole, France and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, with Coordinating Curator Daina Augaitis, Chief Curator / Associate Director of Vancouver Art Gallery.
The exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery is divided into three sections. “Early Drawings” comprises studies for her large-scale projects and sculptures, while “Architectural Sculptures” presents a collection of sculptural installations reflecting utopian structures. “Artist’s Studio” recreates Lee’s studio using makeshift tables and surfaces from the museum, complete with drawings, intermediary models and maquettes of major scultpures such as Via Negativa (2012) and materials tests of works such as The Secret Sharer (2011–12), portraying the artist’s late dog.
Early career: from provocation and performance to sculptural art
Lee Bul (b. 1964) was born and grew up during Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship of South Korea (1961-1979), and studied sculpture at Hongik University in Seoul during the late 1980s. The socio-political situation in which the artist was constrained heavily influenced her early cross-disciplinary practice, which provocatively expressed her feelings and delved into the ways that ideologies permeate society.
Soon after graduation, in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, Lee found best expression through performance art, breaking with the artistic conventions of Korean art at the time. This period saw the artist combine performance with sculpture, and was the start of her investigation into “ideali[sed] conceptions of the human form, delving into issues of beauty, corruption, decay and humanity’s desire to transcend physical, intellectual and spiritual boundaries”.
In her early Cravings (1989), Lee roamed the streets wearing a soft sculpture of a mutant, monstrous body. The performative work was a reflection of both her inner fears and anxiety and the uncertainty felt by society during tumultuous times. Talking about the uncanny aspect of her art, Lee said in an interview with Seungduk Kim on art presse in 2002:
The ‘monstrous’ aspect of my work is about exceeding the prescribed boundaries, touching upon our fear and fascination with the uncategorizable, the uncanny.’
Lee Bul evolved her practice from an internalised, body- and performance-based practice to one that utilised an externalised representation of the body to reflect an alternation of utopia and dystopia. From her performative works, Lee extracted her renowned “Cyborgs” series (1997-2011), which reflected South Korea’s über-rapid modernisation and urbanisation process of the second half of the 20th century, and the closely intertwined, complex relationships between man, technology and nature. Lee was also expressing the anxieties of humankind, its desire for perfection and its wish to transcend the limitations of the human body.
For her cyborgs, Lee drew inspiration from a variety of sources such as Japanese anime, mythology, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Donna Haraway’s essay on cybernetic revolution A Cyborg Manifesto (1985). Some of the drawings for her Cyborgs series are now in the exhibition’s “Early Drawings” section, while some of the sculptures like Cyborg W5 (1999) featured in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s group show “The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture” (2001).
Provocation, beauty and decay have been pivotal elements in Lee Bul’s practice, eventually transitioning into an exploration of the human capacity for destruction. In her early work Majestic Splendor (1997), of which some drawing studies are in the exhibition, featured real, decaying fish decorated with sequins, beads and gold flowers enclosed in vinyl bags shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The work won the 1998 Hugo Boss Prize and was included in Harald Szeemann’s Biennale de Lyon.
A dystopian future: utopian architecture
In the exhibition are studies for Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (2002–03), a set of 72 works on paper featured on masse. The title refers to the first world atlas published in 1570. When installed, the work consists of a number of individual, organically interconnected sculptures. The preparatory drawings represent the various stages in the development of this major work, as well as a significant precursor to the recent explorations of utopian architecture that Lee started at the beginning of the 21st century.
Drawing upon the political ideologies of the modern world and modernist architecture, Lee started portraying failed utopian ideals through complex sculptural installations. Creating “intense spatial and cerebral experiences”, Lee’s sculptures offered access to interior worlds where reality and dream interconnect.
Reflection, distortion, amplification and a sense of destabilisation are central elements in works shown in the “Architectural Sculptures” section of the exhibition, such as Souterrain (2012) and Via Negativa (2012), where labyrinths made of mirrored corridors confound the viewer, distorting visual perception of oneself and the surroundings.
These dystopian hyper-realities – imaginative constructions of utopian dreams – originated from her work Mon Grand Récit: Weep Into Stones… (2005), a fragile multi-layered installation that embodies “a sense of controlled chaos”. Lee took inspiration from Jean-François Lyotard’s definition of postmodernity as “the end of grand narratives” and 17th century English polymath Thomas Browne, whose text excerpt “Weep into stones…” is part of the installation as a blinking LED sign.
The composite structure includes a variety of elements supported on scaffolding, such as an elevated highway, a modernist staircase from Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita (1960), an upturned cross-section of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the artist’s first office and studio in Seoul.
According to Wenny Teo on Art Review Asia, the fragmented architectural assemblage is “based on Hugh Ferriss’s otherworldly 1930 description of a skyscraper of the future.”
A grotto-like sculpture entitled Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (2007/2012) invites visitors into a large mirrored cave to experience what Lee calls a “sonic simulacrum” of architectural spaces and landscapes. The soundscape is composed of field recordings relating to the story of Yi Gu (1931–2005), the last crown prince of the Korean royal family.
The work references Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895–1975) theories on the evolving, social nature of language, and as the museum writes, “generate[s] a fragmented composite of the past and future”, which reflects Lee Bul’s pessimistic belief in progress as she revealed to 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.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
Paris’ Palais de Tokyo is also featuring an intervention by Lee Bul entitled ‘Aubade III’ (2014) until 10 January 2016, inspired by modern architecture and utopias of the beginning of the 20th century. The metallic structure reflects the crisis between humankind and an ultra-technological society.
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