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Through The Looking Glass: Lee Bul's After Bruno Taut


Through The Looking Glass: Lee Bul's After Bruno Taut
After Bruno Taut installation view. Image courtesy of Galerie Thaddeus Ropac.

Entering the newly opened Dover Street offshoot of Galerie Thaddeus Ropac on a grey midweek London afternoon, one is instantly struck with a sense of apocalyptic grandeur. It is a strangely fitting backdrop to be visiting the gallery to see South Korean artist Lee Bul’s After Bruno Taut exhibition, which stars the show’s namesake piece After Bruno Taut (Beware the Sweetness of Things), and the more recent State of Reflection. Ascending the gallery's marble spiral staircase, the first thing that encounters one’s eye-level is a pattern of shimmering geometric lights on the wooden floors of the hallway leading to Lee's show. Raising one’s eyes, one realises that the dazzling light does not in fact come from a natural light source - it is a grey day and there are no windows in the hallway - but from fractured reflections of the gallery’s artificial lighting in a pair of distorted mirrors made out of acrylic mirror shards from Lee’s Civitas Solis series.  

"Civitas Solis" (2015) by Lee Bul. Image courtesy of Galerie Thaddeus Ropac. 

Distortion has long been a hallmark of Lee’s work. Although she graduated the prestigious Hongik University in Seoul with a degree in sculpture, Lee’s early works were in performance art, which she incorporated with sculptural elements, as in the Monster soft sculptures made of fabric that she wore during performances in the early 1990s. Donning these costume-sculptures, Lee would then go on to wander the streets of Seoul and Tokyo, distorting long-standing dichotomies and blurring disciplinary boundaries between traditionalism and avant-garde, sculpture and performance, artist and art-object, human and non-human, nature and culture.

In this vein, to date Lee is perhaps best known for her Cyborg series: part woman, part machine anthropomorphic cast silicone sculptures which take inspiration from the often-sexualised portrayals of female characters in science-fiction anime, such as Ghost in a Shell. However, unlike the heroines of science-fiction anime, Lee’s cyborgs, while clad in suits of armour, tend to be missing an arm or an leg, thus distorting the human form. Yet their feminine form - exaggerated breasts and curves, remain intact - a direct attack by Lee on the continued sexualisation of women in science and technology, despite the advances being made in those fields. Lee’s early 2000s Live Forever series, which were immersive installations of space pod-like vehicles which served as individual karaoke pods, continues her interest in entanglements between the organic and the inorganic. However the vehicular bodies of the cyborgian space pods indicate a shift in the trajectory of Lee’s oeuvre, progressing from distortions of anthropomorphic forms, to hybridisations between human and machine, and now, to miniature models of mechanic mountain-cities in After Bruno Taut, inspired by the German architect’s post-World War I utopian visions of an ‘Alpine Architecture’ made only with glass.

"Cravings" (1989) by Lee Bul. Image courtesy of Studio Lee Bul.

While aesthetically a departure from her previous works, Lee retains the same conceptual and social fascinations in After Bruno Taut. This show arrives at an interesting moment in Lee's career, foreshadowing a major mid-career survey of her work at the Hayward Gallery in Spring 2018. The use of glass, crystal, and acrylic beads in After Bruno Taut as a whole resemble ornate chandeliers suspended from ceilings, and individually, resemble delicately dangling earrings. This use of ornamentation and materials commonly associated with women and domestication is not new for Lee - most infamously, Lee sewed coloured beads and sequins onto dead fish in Majestic Splendour, a work which emitted an odour so pungent that it was taken down by MoMA in Lee’s 1997 show at the New York institution. It is interesting to note the conflicting qualities of bedazzlement and lifelessness in both Majestic Splendour and After Bruno Taut - the literal lifelessness of the dead fish in the former, and the lifelessness of an architectural model in the latter. 

Suspended from ceiling to floor with strings of acrylic beads dangling and pouring off the edges of an artificial city, After Bruno Taut (Beware the Sweetness of Things) is a majestic and exquisite study in excess, its overflow reminiscent of Lee’s earlier Monster soft sculptures with their many tendrils snaking out of barely-visible bodies. Under the surface of Lee’s microcosm of a city, a dense network of silver metal chains unfurls, resembling at once underground train tracks and looping necklace chains packed tightly together in a crowded jewellery display. Conversely, above ‘ground’, more metal chains wind up what look like mountains - perhaps, with Taut in mind, the Alps? - resembling, again, train tracks and motorways. Hints of mesh and wire amid the metal chains evoke images of scaffolding and construction, another nod to the constructed nature of nature itself. Hanging higher and diagonally adjacent, State of Reflection sits in contemplative dialogue next to After Bruno Taut (Beware the Sweetness of Things), feeling rather like a neighbouring lifeworld in a frozen intergalactic cosmos in Lee’s world. Elevated above eye-level, one has to glance up from underneath State of Reflection to get a good look. The stance simultaneously evokes a discomforting similarity to that of looking up a woman’s skirt, yet at the same time provides the viewer with a rare opportunity to discover the underbelly underground of an urban landscape, demonstrating yet again Lee’s unique ability to blur, distort and meld distinctions, such as that between the biomorphic and the architectural. 

Detail of "After Bruno Taut (Beware the Sweetness of Things)" (2007) by Lee Bul. Image courtesy of the author. 

From under "State of Reflection" (2016) by Lee Bul. Image courtesy of the author. 

"Untitled (sculpture M1)" (2013) by Lee Bul. Image courtesy of the author. 

"Untitled (sculpture M3)" (2013) by Lee Bul. Image courtesy of the author. 

The futuristic metallic sheen of Lee’s works are at once in harmony and at odds with the gallery’s white walls, which still retain the mansion’s old Georgian trimmings. Situated in a space steeped deeply in time and history, architectural models of utopian glass cities should seem out of place, but Lee has always had a flair for blurring the boundary between natural and unnatural, destroying the long-held dichotomy between the organic and the technological. Along the gallery’s walls two more sculptures are hung - Untitled (sculpture M3) and Untitled (sculpture M1). Although untitled, their names evoke names of highways, and as do the image of the sculptures themselves: unlike the hanging sculptures, no sparkling glass and crystal, just nondescript monochromatic steel winding in loops, resembling train tracks and motorways, casting sharp shadows against the walls.

On the last wall, one comes full circle and encounters another distorted glass mirror: Civitas Solis 119. Hanging unobtrusively in a corner, it is easy to miss this piece on first glance. However glancing into the mirror one cannot help but do a double-take at the most magnificently convoluted image reflected within. Within the frame of the mirror the entire show has been condensed into fragments. A full picture, sucked into a frame, yet not a full picture at all, only distortions. It presents a fitting end to Lee’s exhibition, as the artist has been quoted to say: ‘We can only gather knowledge of ourselves by reflection, so we cannot see ourselves directly.’

'After Bruno Taut' reflected in "Civitas Solis III9" (2015) by Lee Bul. Image courtesy of the author.

After Bruno Taut is on view at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac in London until 10 February 2018. Wayward Wander will be on view at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, from 30 May to 19 August 2018. 



Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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