Art | Lee Bul: Ikonoclast

After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift), 2013
Mixed media

Photo Jeon Byung-cheol

Lee Bul
Ikon Gallery
Birmingham | UK
Until 9th November 2014


Lee Bul
Korean Cultural Centre (KCC)
London | UK
Until 1st November 2014

Lee Bul, 2013
Photo Kim Jae-won

As I write, artist Lee Bul’s own website, showing only a detail of her Diluvium, 2012, is, rather aptly as it turns out, under renovation. Diluvium – dictionary definition: geology term for superficial deposits formed by flood-like operations of water – a giant floor installation, is entirely constructed of shaped plywood sheeting, stepped and ramped to create an uneven and disconcerting surface – a landscape over which it might prove difficult to trace a safe path. It could also be suggestive of a carefully-designed ruined building, or ruined building site. However, it has the allure of something more polished; a working model for a civil engineering project by architect Zaha Hadid, perhaps. Contemporary architecture (and architectural history) is just one of a diverse range of sources, including but not limited to, cinema, literary and European history, as well as the political and cultural history of her own country, that Bul draws on for inspiration for pieces that have earned her an international reputation as an artist.

In the late 1980s, when South Korean, Bul, was graduating from Hongik University, where she had attended a course in academic sculpture, the country was emerging from a period of dictatorship and military rule. With an economy yet to be put on track and democratic reforms in their infancy – the future was neither bright, nor bleak, but vague, unformed. Bul, born 1964, and having grown up in a patriarchal society wanted to get things moving, and to stake an uncompromising claim for women to have an equal share in the country’s fate. Flying in the face of the artistic conventions of her native land, for some of her first guerilla-like, performance-based pieces, she paraded in public dressed in provocative full-body soft sculptures, that were alluring and at the same time – sprouting tentacles – grotesque. A commentary on the impermanence of beauty and the powerlessness of women, Majestic Splendor (1997), rotting fish in a sequinned skin, caused a stink and the resulting furore only served to affirm her global reputation as an intrepid emerging artist, when she installed it at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Representing South Korea in the 1999 Venice Biennale, Bul, who lives and works in Seoul, has been at the forefront of the push to elevate Asian contemporary art to critical acclaim.

Maquette for Mon grand récit, 2005
Plaster, steel mesh, wood, silicone,
paint, crystal and synthetic
beads, aluminum rods, stainless steel
wire, foamex
Private collection, Seoul
Photo Rhee Jae-yong*

Via Negativa (interior detail), 2012
Installation view, Lee Bul exhibition,
Mudam Luxembourg, 2013-14
Photo © Remi Villaggi

Diluvium, 2012
View of ‘The Studio’ section,
Lee Bul exhibition, Artsonje Center, Seoul

Plywood on steel frame
Seoul, 2012
Photo Jeon Byung-cheol

More recent works in which utopia and dystopia, totalitarianism and capitalism are central motifs, played off one against another, are executed with dazzling élan. After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift), a new commission for Lee Bul at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, references the German expressionist architect Bruno Taut (1880–1938). Alluding to the exponential growth and unsustainability of the modern world, dripping with a mass of crystalline shapes, this beautifully-executed, suspended sculpture, might easily be mistaken for a somewhat damaged Swarovski chandelier.

Ikon is also showing a selection of early drawings, studies, installations and other sculptural pieces that includes Mon grand récit: Weep into stones… (2005), a highly complex piece constructed from diverse materials, including polyurethane, Foamex board, synthetic clay, stainless- steel and aluminium rods, acrylic panels, wood sheets, acrylic paint, varnish, electrical wiring, and lighting. The piece features what might be a towering white skyscraper, from near the top of which a looping highway, descends to hover over a representation of a slab of mountainous landscape, supported by a spindly scaffolding structure. The piece also incorporates a tower continually flashing out an LED message: ‘weep into stones / fables like snow / our few evil days’, a tiny Tatlin’s Tower (Monument to the Third International), a modernist staircase that featured in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and an upturned cross-section of the Hagia Sofia.

Exhibited widely since 1987, represented by numerous well-known galleries, her work can be found in many important collections, throughout the world.

All images, courtesy Studio Lee Bul, Seoul, and Ikon, except *courtesy PKM Gallery, Bartleby Bickle & Meursault, Seoul

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