Lee Bul: Crashing is a thought-provoking exhibition showcasing Lee Bul’s work from the past three decades. Her career similar to the exhibition is extensive and overwhelming; from large-scale installations to drawings, and models, each work of art is marked with an extra placard that draws on diverse sources that include science fiction, philosophy, and personal experience. An expansive site-specific installation where Southbank’s Hayward Galley act as her collaborator, the exhibition is categorized over five rooms. Lee Bul: Crashing presents 16 new works of art, including a series of silk paintings, three new works from the artist’s ongoing Anagram series, and an elaborate sculptural work referencing the Sewol Ferry Disaster of 2014 titled Scale of Tongue (2017-18).
Conveying messages of conceptuality and materiality, Crashing is an exhibition that provides insights into a master performance artist and mixed media savant. Much of the works embrace political connotations, and over the course of the exhibition Lee Bul (born in 1964 in Seoul, South Korea) combines elements of organic forms and architectural structures that reference utopian visions and bodily artifice. Simulation is at the core of Lee Bul: Crashing. Lee Bul transforms Hayward Gallery into a vast textured landscape, with the exterior walls of the building cloaked in a curtain of glass beads and Swarovski crystals. A juggernaut retrospective that induces a sensory overload, Crashing is an ambitious exhibition by one of Asia’s most formidable contemporary artists, who happens to be a master craftsman.
Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery 2018 © Lee Bul 2018
Lee’s mastery of experimentation with materials and genres are on display instantly as the exhibition opens up with sculptural works from the artist’s Untitled (Cravings), Cyborg, Monster, and Anagram series. Conveyed through soft forms sprouting limbs, sculptures referencing Japanese anime, and winged amalgamations of plants and insects, each series touches on Lee Bul’s fascination with hybridity and the vulnerability of physical experiences. Beneath a few hovering sculptures Lee Bul transforms a section of the room with mirrored surfaces and flickering lights in Civitas Solis II (2014). Civitas Solis II (2014) is inspired by the utopian novel of the same time The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella, a philosopher of the Italian Renaissance. Lee Bul has created a structure with mirrors that resemble tectonic plates made of ice. Establishing a sense of calmness with its refracted light, the work Civitas Solis II (2014) uses space to convey a silent, almost dystopian fear.
The exhibition continues to highlight Lee Bul’s upbringing and fascination with architectural utopianism and dystopian futures. Born in 1964 in Yeongju, South Korea under the harsh political regime of dictator Park Chung-hee. Lee Bul’s upbringing is marked by a tumultuous period in South Korean history. Shaped by the transitional period of military dictatorship to democracy, the artist emphasizes political trauma, globalization, and progress in her works. In 1984 she enrolled at Hongik University majoring in sculpture with a growing interest in theatre. She held her first public performance in 1988 addressing it as a spontaneous mixing of life and art. Lee Bul then recognized the limitations of sculpture, and her works have since become more ephemeral.
Installation view of Lee Bul Mon grand récit (Weep into stones) © Lee Bul 2018
In the next room playing on six screens are films and stills of Lee Bul’s performances between 1989 and 1996. A majority of her performances coincide with her earlier works where the artist reflects on the status of women in Korean society. This concept is seen in Sorry for suffering – You think I’m a puppy on a picnic? (1990), where Lee Bul walked the streets of Tokyo dressed in one of her soft sculptures, interacting with a few passersby. Installed throughout the exhibition hall are two timelines explaining the political landscape that shaped much of Lee’s practice, the timelines appropriately address the marginalization of women in South Korea from 1960 – 2000 and historical guidance of the North and South Korean division.
The retrospective also features pivotal works including Live Forever III (2001), an interactive futuristic karaoke pod, and Mon grand recit: Weep into stones (2005), a ongoing series exploring the pursuit of perfection with a sprawling landscape of real and imagined architecture, including the artist’s studio in Seoul, a skyscraper visualized by American architect Hugh Ferriss from his 1929 book The Metropolis of Tomorrow, and Turkey’s Hagia Sophia. In the upper galleries, Crashing culminates with a number of the artist’s works that use mirrored surfaces. Mirror-like surfaces are used frequently in Lee’s work due to its natural ability to disturb our sense of space. For example, in her works Via Negativa II (2014) and Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015–16), both works suggest fragmentation and destruction.
In Via Negativa II (2014), visitors are greeted with a mirrored labyrinth, and in Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015–16), a 17-meter long sculpture that mimics a historical replica of a Zeppelin, is suspended above a reflective floor in the Hayward Gallery. Lee Bul: Crashing is a fine art plateau of experimentation. Gathering clever juxtapositions, intellectual wit, and an impactful presentation, Crashing questions our ability to become familiar with the unfamiliar. Lee Bul’s inventive environments challenge our capacity of perception and transport visitors to otherworldly realms. The work featured in Lee Bul: Crashing is a gentle reminder that all things good and bad come to an end.
Installation view of Lee Bul Via Negativa II 2014 at Hayward Gallery 2018 (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018 Photo by Mark Blower
Lee Bul: Crashing is curated by Stephanie Rosenthal, formerly Chief Curator at Hayward Gallery and now Director of Gropius Bau, Berlin. The exhibition opened ahead of the Hayward Gallery’s 50th anniversary on Wednesday 11 July 2018. Lee Bul: Crashing is accompanied by a catalogue that surveys 30 years of Lee Bul’s work and features an interview with the artist, essays by Michaël Amy, Yeon Shim Chung, Laura Colombino and Stephanie Rosenthal, as well as supplementary texts that detail Korea’s divided history and the development of post-war women’s movements in South Korea.
Lee Bul: Crashing is at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 19 August.
The exhibition at Hayward Gallery is generously supported by The Korea Foundation, Swarovski, and The Henry Moore Foundation. It will tour internationally to Gropius Bau, Berlin 29 September 2018 to 13 January 2019.
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