Our Vulnerable Ideals: Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery

Installation view of Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon, 2015-2016 at Hayward Gallery, 2018 © Lee Bul 2018 Photo_ Linda Nylind.jpg
Installation view of Lee Bul, Crashing at Hayward Gallery, 2018 © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind.
Installation view of Lee Bul, Civitas Solis II, 2014 at Hayward Gallery 2018 © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind.
Installation view of Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon, 2015-2016 at Hayward Gallery, 2018 © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind.
Installation view of Lee Bul, Via Negativa II, 2014 at Hayward Gallery, 2018 (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind.
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ART021 Shanghai 2018

In a show that oscillates wildly between optimism and pessimism about humanity’s future, it is the latter that appears to win out.

TEXTS: Christie Lee
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Hayward Gallery

 

Installation view of Lee Bul, Crashing at Hayward Gallery, 2018 © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind.

 

If the cyborg is our ontology, as Donna Harraway famously pronounces, then one shouldn’t feel quite so disoriented stepping into Lee Bul’s ‘Crashing’ at London’s Hayward Gallery. But still, one does. For as long as we are human, we are already aspiring towards the ideal. In ‘Crashing’, billed as the artist’s mid-career retrospective and comprising some 100 pieces from the 1980s to present it is these very ideals that come crashing down.

Upon entering the exhibition hall, the massive Civitas Solis sets the tone for the exhibition.

Gleaming mirrored surfaces appear to melt into walls, or extend their fluid edges outwards. Strands of blinking light bulbs spell out the title of the work. Said to be inspired Tommaso Campanella’s Civitas Solis, in which he presents his vision of ideal society, Civias Solis appears to be Lee’s attempt to construct an ideal of sorts. Yet, it is also undercut by a sense of vulnerability, as the mirror pieces are perched on flimsy plastic cups.

 

Installation view of Lee Bul, Civitas Solis II, 2014 at Hayward Gallery 2018 © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind.

 

Figures from the artist’s Cyborg series hangs above the work. Painted in white, the cyborgs, with one missing a head, another missing a limb, reminds more of ancient Roman statues than your typical robot. Across the hall, cyborg parts are painted in a shiny coat of light green and encased in glass cabinets, reminding of displays one would find in a history museum. Are the cyborgs our future, or do they commemorate a bygone era? Do they promise new beginnings, or forebode eradication? We aren’t sure. And indeed, it is this wild oscillation between promise and hopelessness that makes ‘Crashing’ an enticing show.

Born to political dissidents in 1964, Lee first broke into the Korean art scene with a series of performance art pieces in the late 80s and early 90s. Crashings shows the artist, decked in a soft sculpture of a monstrous body, scouring the streets, while I Need You (Monument) shows a room of audience inflating a sculpture that bears an image of Lee in a collective effort, There is an exuberant sense of joy, with the body being used a vehicle to decimate that fine line between mind and body, between the artist and the public. While these earlier works are evidenced by the pleasure in the confusion of boundaries, a darker, more malevolent register appears to underlie the artist’s more recent years.

Inspired by Bruno Taut, After Bruno Taut, a gigantic mess of glass beads and mosaic glass. In Alpine Architecture, published in 1917, the German architect and pacificist proposed building an utopian city in the alps, where all buildings made of glass, a material he associated with promises of a new life. Yet in Lee’s sculpture, glass isn’t a material that promises fluidity, rather, it’s one that cuts and burdens. I strain to find myself in the reflection, but only manages to catch glimpses of individual facial features. When placed next to Mon grand recit: Weep into stones, a sprawling landscape which sees buildings jutting out at bizarre angles of jagged mountain ranges, a rollercoaster, it becomes a tale of mankind’s fervent quest to build – but at what cost?

 

Installation view of Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon, 2015-2016 at Hayward Gallery, 2018 © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind.

 

The theme of doomed ideals continues in Excavation, where a mound of hair is piled forlornly atop what appears to be a construction site. Likely the most political work on display, Heaven and Earth consists of a pool of black ink placed inside a tiled bathtub, its edges ringed by snowy mountains. It’s a bleak reference to Park Jong-chul, a student protestor who was tortured to death in a bathtub in 1987. The danger of ballooning hope also manifests in Willing To be Vulnerable – Metallised Balloon, a massive inflated spaceship that looks as if it’s about to burst into flames (ironically, another piece, Majestic Splendour, did the very thing on the first day) any second.

The idea of the cyborg – that half-human, half-machine creature – comes full circle in the last room, Via Negativa II, where the series of glass panels, slotted in such a way that makes it challenging to see one’s image clearly in the mirror, speak to the sense of fractured identity in contemporary society.

 

Installation view of Lee Bul, Via Negativa II, 2014 at Hayward Gallery, 2018 (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind.

 

Pushing through the doors to the balcony, one looks up to see that the Hayward’s concrete brutalist and form has been wrapped in hundreds of thousands of crystals that are said to be embedded in military-grade netting. A final but ultimately ill-fated attempt to realise the German architect’s vision of utopia.

 

Lee Bul: Crashing
Now – August 19
Hayward Gallery, London

 

 


 

Christie Lee is an arts journalist. Her articles have been published in Frieze, Artsy Editorial, Yishu, Randian, Artomity and The Peak magazine. A graduate of McGill University, she lives in London and Hong Kong.
 

 

 
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