The South Korean artist Lee Bul finished her studies in sculpture in Seoul in 1987, a time when, following a period of dictatorship and military rule, democratic reforms began opening up the economically emergent country, and visions of the future were painted both in the most glowing and the most sombre colours. As a performance artist, Lee Bul flew in the face of the artistic conventions of her native land, at first conceiving strongly physical or even guerilla-like actions – for example, appearing unexpectedly in public wearing monstrous soft-fabric forms sprouting tentacular appendages – as she searched for a way to express not just her own states of mind, but those of society as well.
Extending the body – as represented in the works of Lee Bul by the organic growths of fabric in Monster: Black or Monster: Pink and by the technoid additions of the Cyborgs – constitutes an old dream, or nightmare, of humanity that was to make the theme of utopia and dystopia a central motif in Lee Bul’s work. The artist draws her formal and thematic inspiration from a wide diversity of sources, ranging from cinema to literary and architectural history, from European intellectual history to the political and cultural history of her own country.
After the Cyborgs (1997–2011) and Anagrams series, Lee Bul turned to making complex, model-like landscapes, whose reference to utopia lies mostly in their details: in reproductions of utopian architectures, in concrete reference to the German architect Bruno Taut and his idea of Sternenbau (star structures), or in pointing to post-modern scepticism about the metanarrative based on a unitary speech and the idea of universality (Mon grand récit series, 2005–). The utopia of placeless infinity (Untitled, “Infinity wall”, 2008) or the reminiscence of a former socialist utopist turned dictator (Thaw (Takaki Masao), 2007) explore this theme, as do the most recent large-scale sculptures, which, like pieces of architecture, allow the viewer to access interior worlds and provide him/her with an intense spatial experience (Via Negativa, 2012). In Diluvium (2012), a floor installation covering a large part of Mudam’s Grand Hall and from which the sculptures hanging down from above are to be viewed only with caution, it becomes clearly tangible how the observer’s footing is made uncertain by the utopias that have settled to form the sediment of history.
In the downstairs Studio section, Lee Bul gives insights into the process of the proliferation of her artistic creativity. This reconstruction of her studio, containing a wealth of drawings, models and materials, enhances understanding of Lee Bul’s work, shown here in very different stages of development. This incursion into the artist’s working place shows completely the personal dimension of Lee Bul’s technically perfect work.
Lee Bul was born in 1964 in Yeongju, South Korea. She lives and works in Seoul.
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