“I want to get across a sense of walking through time, through different periods. My works are a kind of journey to another place, another time. We travel, but the stories are in the landscape and you can see that it’s always the same place. It’s like a diorama: there is a journey, but it is always the same view. The same site.” — Lee Bul
Lee Bul is one of the most important Korean artists of her generation, having received significant international recognition for her formally inventive and intellectually provocative work. From 29 September 2018 to 13 January 2019, the Gropius Bau presents Crash, her first solo exhibition in Germany and an expression of Lee Bul’s extensive exploration of the nature of bodies and how they define our experience of the world by evoking sensations of their boundaries and borders. The exhibition is organised around the thematic focal points of her work; each section is arranged chronologically to lead the visitor through a developmental trajectory of her work. Crash presents documentation from the artist’s early performances, sculptural works from series such as Monster and Cyborg, key pieces from utopia-inspired sculptures, recent immersive installations, drawings and paintings as well as Lee Bul’s latest artwork Scale of Tongue.
The Gropius Bau: Location and Inspiration
The Gropius Bau serves not only as the location but also as a point of inspiration for the exhibition Crash. In the post-war era, the Berlin Wall was erected directly alongside the north facade of the building, situating the Gropius Bau in the vicinity of the border crossing and in the midst of political conflict. Embedded in the history of the building, the exhibition Crash highlights not only how Korea’s division and period of dictatorship impacted upon Lee Bul’s work, but also how emotional topographies are reflected in utopian architectural visions.
Many of Lee Bul’s works subtly allude to Korean history and politics. Her point of view is both deeply personal and outwardly oriented at the same time. Lee Bul seeks to give voice to the oppression, the physical pain, the numbness and the vulnerability that shaped the eras that she personally experienced. The exhibition also uncovers parallels between German and Korean history. From a historical point of view, both countries share similarities, in particular with regard to their division, the national trauma related to this, as well as the question of reunification.
Lee Bul’s Artistic Career
Born in South Korea in 1964, Lee Bul grew up as the daughter of two activists in a politically charged environment, amid turbulent social changes. South Korea in the 1980s and 1990s was a period of transition from military dictatorship to democracy, and of development in modernisation and economic strength. After graduating in sculpture from Hongik University, Seoul in 1987, Lee Bul shifted her artistic practice from the studio to public space performances. With these works, she called into question the perception of “female” beauty and crucially the role of women in society. For example, in Cravings (1989), she went against the typical artistic convention by donning a monstrous form made from soft fabric, that featured tentacle-like limbs. During the performance Abortion (1989), she hung naked and upside down for nearly two hours, tied to a corset, alluding to the suffering associated with having an abortion, which is still illegal in Korea.
When Lee Bul started her widely known series Cyborg (1997–2011) in the mid-1990s, she turned almost entirely away from performance to explore three-dimensional sculptural works and the pursuit of perfection by fusing humans and machines. The poses portrayed by these female cyborgs recall iconic, classical sculptures such as the Venus of Milo, while their buxom proportions are typical of depictions of Western women in sexually-charged Japanese comics and cartoons. Every figure in this series is, however, in some way incomplete. Their missing heads or limbs suggest that the notion of the “perfect” figure is still undergoing transformation. In Lee Bul’s later work, the cyborgs take on darker and more complex manifestations with references to surrealist archetypes. The artist calls these extravagant hybrids, both living organism and machine, “anagrammatic morphologies”. Her paintings and wall-mounted works made of silk, leather and mother of pearl such as Untitled (Silk Painting – Yellow), Untitled (Silk Painting – Black), Untitled (Mekamelencolia – Yellow Velvet # 1) and Untitled (Willing To Be Vulnerable – Velvet # 6 DDRG24OC) are shown in this exhibition for the first time and attest to the artist’s profound and long-standing interest in experimenting with organic materials.
Lee Bul’s examination of bodies led her to explore models of utopian urban landscapes. In 2005 she began creating models inspired by modernist architectural designs. These complex sculptures and accompanying works on paper and canvas form an imaginative topography of utopian aspiration and failure. The topographies seem to expose the inner workings of her earlier works and become a metaphor for the networked, subterranean root-like systems of our cities, and furthermore for societies and their utopian ideas. Lee Bul’s visions of an ideal society are inspired, among other things, by the architectural fantasies of German architect Bruno Taut, particularly by his Alpinen Architektur (1919), in which buildings recall enormous mountain ranges. It is Lee Bul’s interest in how perfection is pursued that links these visionary landscapes to her earlier work.
Lee Bul’s later works allude to various cultural and intellectual references, from critical theory to the dystopian dream worlds of speculative fiction and films. During the development of her oeuvre, Lee Bul’s work evolved from large-format compositions such as Mon grand récit: Weep into stones ... (2005), where she collides together two divergent utopian architectural visions, into immersive installations that alter our perception in particular through the use of mirrors. Her expansive landscapes can be described as mediators between architecture and the body, and assume a variety of forms and configurations: utopian urban landscapes and cartographies; textures and surface structures such as human skin; or forms bristling with the incessant search for an ideal place. Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (2007/2012), a black, rocky mountain with a cavernous interior that can be accessed through a large crevice, transports us into a disorienting soundscape, whereas the labyrinthine works Via Negativa (2012) and Via Negativa II (2014) interrupt and disturb our sense of space with highly reflective surfaces. The drawings presented in the exhibition provide insight into Lee Bul’s creative thought process, revealing the evolution of her three-dimensional works and how various themes flow intertwined across her entire body of work. Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-16) is a 17-meter-long sculpture evoking the Hindenburg Zeppelin and referencing its disaster in 1937. The work is both ambitious and optimistic, reflecting technical failure, fragmentation and destruction, and crucially the underlying tensions that are inherent to all attempts at utopian idealism. Lee Bul’s latest work, Scale of Tongue, was originally conceived as a form of portable architecture and recalls a boat’s hull, an improvised shelter, or a mountainous landscape, and subtly alludes to the Sewol ferry accident on 16 April 2014. The MV Sewol incident serves as an internal point of reference, only becoming evident at the sight of the boat, which slowly disintegrates into abstract forms and merges with the formations of the surrounding landscape.