Exhibition View: Crashing. Lee Bul, Hayward Gallery (2018)
If Afrofuturism were to have a companion genre within Asian artists, would it be called Asian futurism and what kind of works would be envisioned?
Crashing, the title of Lee Bul’s solo retrospective at the Hayward Gallery (South Bank, London – on show from 30 May to 19 Aug, 2018), is a wondrous romp through fantastical, multi-faceted and thought-provoking cyborg forms and utopian landscapes, showcasing her career-long focus on issues of gender, performativity, architecture, science, political and ethical concerns. “Crashness” itself is a term Lee Bul coined to indicate the collision of concepts, of beauty with trauma (following a tragic accident she witnessed), of the pursuit of utopian idealism with the flawed models of social experimentation. The exhibition spans three decades of her work, and is, I’m told, the first major solo for an Asian female artist at the Hayward.
Born in 1964, Lee Bul’s contribution to the Korean art world is significant and almost historic within the context of the women’s art movements emerging in South Korea. Influenced also by the political tenor of the Minjung Undong (mass people’s movement) from the 1980s (although in interviews, she has sought to distance herself from what she sees as the romantic idealism of Minjung social realism), Lee Bul’s works, sitting astride women artists from the 1980s as well as a younger group of women artists from the 1990s, benefit particularly from her involvement with women art collectives with a distinctive aesthetic and ethos such as Museum. Thus, her works are controversial and challenged social gender norms in decidedly more frank and transgressive ways. Notably, her early performance works, such as Abortion(1989), Cravings (1989), and Sorry for Suffering—You think I’m a puppy on a picnic? (1990) (Fig. 1), questioned social taboos against abortion, against women’s weight issues and gender constructions of power in Korea. For example, in Sorry for Suffering, Lee Bul fashioned a grotesque-bodied costume with multiple dangling protrusions and tentacles, then flew from Seoul to Tokyo and walked the streets in a live performance, eliciting mixed feelings of perverse curiosity (read Laura Mulvey’s voyeuristic pleasure at looking) coupled with distaste for the uncanny, the surreal, the uncategorisable.
Lee Bul, Sorry for Suffering — You think I’m a puppy on a picnic? (1990). Video Still.
The Hayward’s exhibition paid tribute to Lee Bul’s past works through video portals that gave filmic evidence to these previous live performances of Lee Bul wearing her grotesque body costumes (more below on her past works). Grotesque, amorphous-shaped bodies, dangle from the beautiful monochrome-striped ceilings of the Hayward (see above – exhibition view), evoking a reaction of horrific awe. Works, entitled Monster: Black, Monster: Pink (Fig. 2), Cyborgs (Fig. 3), and Untitled (Cravings Red) (Fig. 4) extend Lee Bul’s monstrous-feminine exploration to what exhibition curator, Dr. Stephanie Rosenthal, described as “utopian modernism.” Indeed, strolling through the fragmented body sculptures and installations, one begins to understand that Lee Bul intends architectural topographies and bodies to infuse each other, to reflect, to exchange and negotiate space and surfaces.
Civitas Solis II (Fig. 6), a constructed landscape where these cyborgian forms hover, offers up mirrored surfaces and a trail of lights that take on an otherworldly, interplanetary aspect, allowing the audience to walk through. Rosenthal sees it as the influence on Lee Bul of literary writer J.G. Ballard’s concept of the “cosmonaut of inner space”.Caspar David Friedrich and Hieronymus Bosch are two other visual artists that Lee Bul have referenced in her works, where surreal landscapes reflect an inner world. Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Hayward Gallery, described in his Foreword to the exhibition catalogue, that Lee Bul’s multi-layered exploration is about ‘technological hubris and the wreckage of utopian modernism’, and that she draws upon a vast array of disciplines and references, from science fiction to literature to critical theory, folklore, social and art history. The works, thus, contain a layered complexity and interdisciplinary erudition that are not immediately accessible, although their sheer technical beauty beguiles the eye.
Fig. 5 Civitas Solis II (2014). Installation view. Polycarbonate sheet, acrylic mirror, LED lights, electrical wiring. 330x3325x1850 as installed.
Lee Bul’s early performance works, however, are more overt and confrontational: they directly grapple with feminist critical thought on gender, sexuality, embodiment and the theory of the abject (as propounded by French critical thinker Julia Kristeva) and the monstrous feminine (as conceptualised by Barbara Creed). In brief, Kristeva’s ‘abjection’ encapsulates a continual process of repulsion and rejection of the vile from the body, as a way to differentiate the ‘I’ from the ‘not I’. Creed’s ‘monstrous-feminine’ outlines the ineffable part of femininity that is ‘shocking, terrifying, horrific and abject’.Because the female monster horrifies the audience in ways quite different from that of a male monster, the construction of gender within social responses is inescapable, and to Creed, quite simply, what’s horrific is femininity itself. Creed argues that the concept of the monstrous-feminine, within a patriarchal and phallocentric ideological structure, is constructed and given currency through the notion of sexual difference and castration.(Creed, 5-7) It is always characterised by a ‘lack’, and distinctly tied to feminine reproductive capacities as the key indicia of difference. (Creed, 7; Kristeva, 13) The expulsion of the abject necessitates the rejection of the polluting and contamination element of female sexuality. Kristeva argues that the function of ritual purification, initially prescribed in religion, is taken over by art in the secular world. One might begin to see how a rejection of the abject infiltrates classical art in Jane Ussher’s treatise on Managing the Monstrous –Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body(Routledge, 2006). She says, “The female nude, icon of idealised feminine sexuality, most clearly transforms the base nature of woman’s nakedness into culture, into ‘art’, all abhorrent reminders of her fecund corporeality removed – secretions, pubic hair, genitals, and disfiguring veins or blemishes all left out of the frame.” (Ussher,2-3).
Women artists challenge such depictions by returning to the forefront the repulsive, the rejected, the contaminated, the horrible. It is also one of Lee Bul’s thematic preoccupations: the inversion of the hidden, flushing it out in the open. One of Lee Bul’s works, Abortion, is a performance work where she spent two hours in a string halter, suspended naked and upside-down from the rafters while listening to a recitation of poetry or songs from the pop charts. It highlights abortion, though available, as social taboo in Korea; it also highlights the performativity of gender. Another, Artoilet II (1990), again spotlights the female body as a site of conflict and tension: the physical vis-a-vis the abstract notions of gender, the private vis-à-vis the public, the conscious vis-à-vis the subconscious. Here, Lee Bul wore a wedding dress and a gas mask while wiping her buttocks with a dirty newspaper.In Sunday Seoul (1990), the title of a tabloid that capitalized on sex scandals with lurid photos and reportage, Lee Bul appropriated the title to expose the gender taboos towards abortion in Korean society by showing an abdomen with a foetus visible inside the womb.
Odours, as an element of the grotesque, has featured prominently in Lee Bul’s past works. In her series Majestic Splendour (1991-2018), decaying fish are embellished in rainbow-coloured sparkly sequins. When shown as part of her 1997 exhibition at MOMA New York, the stink caused the audience and security guards extreme discomfort and the works to be removed. For this show at the Hayward, to prevent the same problem, the fish sculptures were steeped in potassium permanganate to reduce the stench; potassium permanganate, however, is also a chemical frequently used as a firestarter and lo, it caused a fire which delayed the opening.
In the 1990s, Lee Bul’s focus shifted from performance works back towards 3-d sculptural works (she has a B.F.A in sculpture from Hongik University). They also turn towards architectural landscapes and an exploration of the tension between perfection/utopianism and imperfection/wreckage. Several of these works reference political events: the naked figure of General Park Chung-hee (dictatorship from 1963 to 1979) even dangles from the ceiling (Fig. 6) reflecting itself in one of the works, After Bruno Taut: Devotion to Drift.
Fig. 6. Thaw (Takaki Masao) II (2007/17). FRP, fibreglass, leather, acrylic paint. Exact dimensions not given for this version.
In Thaw (Takaki Masao) (Fig. 7), the name Takaki Masao was adopted by Park Chung-hee during his training stint with the Manchukuo Imperial Army; in this work, Lee Bul had him encased as an effigy complete with his signature Ray-Ban sunglasses in a translucent fiberglass ‘block of ice’. Trails of black beads flow from this block, symbolising a river of evil, and black blood, referring not just to the brutalities of his regime, but also, in Lee Bul’s words, his legacy continues to “exert a kind of dark, nostalgic pull on many Koreas’. (Interview with Lee Bul in Lee Bul: On Every New Shadow, exh. Cat. )Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art Contemporain, 2007, p. 67).
Fig. 7. Thaw (Takaki Masao) (2007). Fibreglass, acrylic paint, black crystal, glass beads on nickel-chrome wire. 93x212x113, with a trail of crystal beads 200-400 long.
Bunker (M. Bahktin) (Fig. 8) is a cave-like bunker made of black fiberglass with installed headphones that allows for audience participation through sound-making, e.g. the clapping of one’s hands, which are then altered and reverberated back, producing an unsettling soundscape. The ambient sounds within the bunker though relate the life of Yi Gu (1931-2005), the last descendant of the Yi royal family, whose sojourns through Japan, America and Korea, symbolizes Korea’s history under imperialism and colonialism. But the work also refers to Bahktin, a Russian philosopher who formulated theories about social language, fragmented narratives and polyphony (ironic given the curtailment of dissent during the military dictatorship in Korea in the ‘60s). It also draws upon Lee Bul’s personal memories of constantly moving during her childhood (as her mother was a political activist), then ending up in a military village (and the ensuing atmosphere of surveillance) and more traumatically, her mother being jailed, and Lee Bul having to take care of her siblings. Artistic endeavours fueled by personal pain, such as Bunker, graft on ironic, double-edged meanings (home/sanctuary vs. fear/surveillance/militarism complex), and is consistent with Lee Bul’s background in theatre and literature studies after she became disenchanted with art school and the limitations of sculpture.
Another political work in this exhibition is Heaven and Earth (Fig. 9), comprised of a massive bathtub filled with dark water, encircled by a pristine-white ridge of snow-capped mountains, referring to Park Jong-chul, a student protestor who was killed in 1987 in a bathtub. Again, showcasing Lee Bul’s multi-layered inclinations, its title refers to Mount Baekdu, the mythical birthplace of Korea, drawing upon the dichotomy between myth and ideology (and fragmented narratives) that birth and raise a nation, and the disparity between collective and individual costs.
We really see the panoply of Lee Bul’s technological prowess in works like Via Negativa II (Fig. 10) — a massive architectural maze-like structure one can wander through, composed of fractured mirrors, lights and reflective pathways while the outside is papered over with the reversed pages from American psychologist Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), once again rafting to the surface the inner world of the subconscious and its interplay with the physical. Mirrors, of course, in contemporary artistic vernacular, redound with layered meanings of reflexivity, fractured narratives, and ideas of perception and image; in architecture however, mirrors, glass and metal register an urban reality and contemporaneity that reflect, reverse and complexify Lee Bul’s unearthing of a hidden consciousness. As Laura Colombino writes in the exh. cat., Lee Bul’s message here aligns with J.G. Ballard’s view of landscapes as a kind of ‘architectural portrait of individuals’.
Fig. 10. Via Negativa II (2014). Polycarbonate sheet, aluminium frame, acrylic and polycarbonate mirrors, steel, stainless-steel, mirror, two-way mirror, LED lighting, silkscreen ink. 275x500x700 (approx.)
Live Forever III (Fig. 11) is a futuristic karaoke-pod, its curvy shape suggestive of the human form. Fashioned out of fibreglass, cushioned with acoustic foam and leather upholstery, the audience is ensconsced in a personal shape built for solitary use while viewing three videos made by Lee Bul, with scrolling lyrics.Again, in Willing to be Vulnerable (Fig. 12), a silver Zeppelin-like airship floats in the exhibition space, powered by an air blower, while nearby, Scale of Tongue, features a draped sculpture composed of varied materials – neoprene, silk, linen, aluminium coated fabric. Lee Bul’s engagement with materiality is more than just an exploitation of its inherent properties; as she explains, she’s also interested in their internal stories, i.e. she uses mother-of-pearl in her collage paintings because shellfish disgorges it to heal its wounds. She uses velvet, which is made of silk which in turn is made from the discharge of silkworms, because it is something that comes from the inside.
Fig. 11. Live Forever (2001). Fibreglass capsule with acoustic foam, leather upholstery, electronic equipment, video projections. 254×152.4×96.5.
Fig. 12. Willing to be Vulnerable — Metalised Balloon (2015-16). Metalised film, transparent film, blower.
In her Anagrams and Cyborgs series, Lee Bul, using a combination of hard and soft materials (metal, leather, silicone, polyurethane) to simulate a ‘second skin’, returns to sculptural bodies as tormented battlefields where vision and ideals collide with social realities and failed creations. The concept of skin dialogues with architectural forms as a ‘house’ for the internal spirit, and plays with hidden ironies and binaries between beauty and horror, perfection and flaws, whole and fragment. Specifically eschewing Japanese manga with its idealised depictions of feminity, Lee Bul moved away from colours in her earlier cyborg forms towards porcelain white, thereby wanted bringing to mind the sculpted perfection of Greek demigod torsos, but warped. As she says,
I wanted to talk about the visionary aspect of humanity and focus on the role and fate of technology. To keep their visions alive, humans label failed technologies ‘monsters’. Like in Frankenstein. His monster is a cyborg, an organism combined with technology that birthed a new life. But it is called a monster because it was a failure. For me, a cyborg and a monster are doppelgängers, anagrams of one another.
The mention of cyborgs at once invokes Donna Harraway’s The Cyborg Manifesto, a reference that Lee Bul does not shirk, and aims to deal with transhumans as a vehicle to examine notions of perfection, our desires, our cultural assumptions about the human form.
While her monstrous feminine forms were perhaps the most visually striking and the message immediately graspable, it was to her technologically complex works that I gravitated towards. None embodies more a mind-boggling technological conundrum (replete with layers of arcane references and meaning) and overturns the whole concept of utopia than Mon grand récit (Fig. 13), which means ‘the end of the grand narrative,” a reference to Jean Francois Lyotard. Rather than utopia, what we encounter here is dystopianism, especially with the neon-lit words ‘Weep into stones/Fables Like Stones/Our Few Evil Days’ and the upturned replica of Istanbul’s grand architectural palace, Hagia Sophia. The ‘few evil days’ is a reference to Thomas Browne’s melancholic text: “miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision of nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days.” (Exh. cat. 143) On top of a steel structure, an elevated highway curls and runs, entering a white waterfall tower. A number of miniature architectural icons are meant to trigger associations to Hugh Ferriss’ 1929 book “The Metropolis of Tomorrow”, among others. There’s simultaneously an invocation of the Latin phrase vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, and also of ‘majestic splendour’ (to borrow the title of one of her works). It’s the marriage of opposites (waterfall with barren landscape, ancient structural connotations with futuristic and fictitious topos) that renders this work, rather than a cold, dry technicality, simply seething with complex meta-narratives (Lyotard’s micro-narratives at play here) and a humanism on a quest of eternal questions: what are the flows governing nature, architecture, human? Where is the intersection of art and science (and it seems to Lee Bul, they are usually occurring on mountain shapes as a symbol of humanity’s quest for knowledge and artistic resplendence).
Fig. Mon grand récit: Weep into Stones…(2005). Polyurethane, foamex, synthetic clay, stainless steel and aluminium rods, acrylic panels, wood sheets, acrylic paint, varnish, electrical wiring, lighting.
Quite simply, the creations of Lee Bul’s mind and spirit evoke a universal response: Phwoar!
Note: Lee Bul at the Hayward South Bank is on show until August 19, 2018.
Texts referred to:
Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Routledge: London, New York, 1993, repr. 1994).
Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto
Julie Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982).
Jane Ussher, Managing the Monstrous-Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body (Routledge: London & New York, 2006).