Floating cyborgs and a mutant octopus … the grotesque, gorgeous art of Lee Bul

Skye Sherwin, The Guardian, 28 May 2018, Visit external site
‘A mirrored maze where you encounter infinite reflections of yourself’ … Lee Bul at the Hayward Gallery, London. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Lee Bul’s earliest memories are defined by dust. In a military town outside Seoul, where she lived aged 11, many of the trees had been cut down for fuel, while, under the dictator Park Chung-Hee’s modernisation programme, new roads were begun and abandoned. The inhabitants of her neighbourhood’s cheap and fragile houses came and went: soldiers, farmers who worked the fields surrounding the haphazard development, and “wanderers”, such as Bul’s parents. They were leftwing activists whose home was routinely searched by the police for banned books and needed to live in a place where people weren’t too fussy about their neighbours.

While the world outside was dry, however, home was a Technicolor Oz. As political dissidents, her parents couldn’t attend group gatherings, even at work. Compelled to labour from home, sometimes with neighbours, her mother made handbags from glass beads. “There was another landscape inside our house,” she recalls. “One room with women working with beautiful colours.”

As origin stories go, it’s a setting worthy of the dystopian fiction Bul has long channelled in her art: sci-fi movie-spectacular sculptures and installations powered by utopian dreams and social critique. Her forthcoming mid-career survey at the Hayward Gallery in London will trace how, over the past three decades, she has established herself at the forefront of South Korean art.

When we meet at the gallery a few weeks before the opening, there are cyborg babes and multi-limbed monsters hanging from the ceiling. Mirrors wrapped in cellophane lean against walls, waiting to be assembled into luminous labyrinths. Technicians are tinkering inside a high-gloss black hunk of hollow mountain that looks like a panic room for Darth Vader, but is dedicated to the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Throughout it all, Bul examines our flawed pursuit of perfection, be it improving our bodies, or remaking society. There’s a striking push and pull between the gorgeous and grotesque. Get up close to the darkly glittering skin of a mutant octopus creation, and you see that its sequins are matted with plant life, like something washed up in a drain.

Bul thinks the strange contrasts of her formative years are central to her approach; they have clearly engendered a strong ironic streak in her work. She has a formative childhood memory of lovers riding a motorbike that crashed into a bakery, in a smash of blood and cake. “That was a beautiful accident,” she laughs throatily.

Her work is now highly crafted, with expensive production values. It’s a universe away from when she started out. This was 1980s Korea, where protesters faced torture, and she was working within a fledgling contemporary art scene with few international influences. “There were no role models. I had to create,” she says.

For Bul, her outsider status was crucial to her art: “Everything [about me] is in a minority. This is perfect for an artist.” There’s her unusual genderless name, which combined with her surname, sounds like the word blanket in Korean. She is also left-handed, something her teachers tried to suppress. “At school, they tied my hand,” she says. “At home, I was free to use it and I started drawing a lot.”

Her traditional art school was a disappointment, but discovering the postwar theatre of the absurd inspired Bul to break free. Her first notable work was in 1989; a performance called Abortion, a shocking mix of real and fake. Having distributed sweets to her audience, Bul hung upside down and nude, recounting her experiences of abortion, which was then illegal, while recreating something of its physical agony. Eventually, her onlookers took action and cut the ropes: “They never thought it was theatre. It was a real body and a real situation.”

The following year she took her unruly, boundary-breaking physicality to the street. Hanging from the Hayward’s rafters is a meaty, lobster-orange mutant fat suit, fingers and limbs sprouting from its fleshy folds. It’s huge – photographs can’t really convey what it must have taken the diminutive artist to don it, take a flight to Tokyo, and head downtown. “Of course, they didn’t want me on the plane,” she chuckles. “Finally, they said it’s too big and I would need two seats.” What impressed Bul, though, was how, in Tokyo, when prohibited from entering a temple because of the suit, a crowd had argued for her right to wear what she wanted: “They were thinking about human rights. It expanded my subject.”

Bul’s body politics and her insistence on her presence as a woman seem especially remarkable in a society as notoriously patriarchal as Korea’s: until 2005, men were legally heads of households. However, she says that her own experiences were not so bad, for one particular reason. “People were scared of me and thought I was a crazy woman. Of course, if I didn’t use this character, then it would probably have been very difficult.” She adds, “I know so many great women artists in Korea because, when women want to be an artist they have to sacrifice everything. It’s art alone for them, so they are very, very strong.”

Her rise was not without bumps. In 1997, her first big break in the US, a show in the project space at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had to be closed early. Bul had commissioned a custom-made refrigeration system to display her 1993 sculpture Majestic Splendor, composed of ornately decorated decaying fish, but it failed, allowing the work’s noxious pong to leak into the Willem de Kooning retrospective upstairs. “I understand they couldn’t accept that this young Asian woman artist filled the whole museum with a fishy smell.” She laughs, then turns serious. “The problem is they didn’t tell me [before the installation was shut down]. They had minimum respect. I’m also an artist who they invited.”
It was after Majestic Splendor that Bul began to think about the cyborgs that would really establish her as an international star. In the 1990s they were a hot topic for writers such as William Gibson and a strong presence in manga, as cartoonishly sexualised women. Bul was one of the first to pull these creatures of sci-fi subculture into contemporary art, in a way that pointed to their age-old cultural roots. Bul’s floating marble-white cyborgs have the elevated position and missing limbs of classical sculptures, a nod to our shifting ideals of beauty and imperfection.

What really fascinated her, though, was what cyborgs implied about our efforts to self-improve, in this case with technology. Thinking back to Frankenstein’s monster, she says: “We try to pursue perfection, fail, get scared and call it a monster. And still we try, because that’s our human destiny.” Bul refers to her many-tendrilled Anagram sculptures, a mash-up of insect, plant and sea-life resembling a genetic experiment gone badly wrong, as her voluptuous cyborg’s “doppelgangers”.

As a child in the military town, from her house with a paper-thin door, Bul would dream about a bunker-like hideout on a mountainside. In recent years, her focus has shifted from the body to the built environment – another kind of protective skin. This includes fashioning glittering chandelier-like sculptures inspired by the modernist architect Bruno Taut’s fantasy mountaintop glass buildings and coffin-like, one-person karaoke pods that recall the 1960s architecture collective Archigram’s Living Pod.

These failed or unrealised architectural dreams are a not-so distant echo of the rapid urban development South Korea was subjected to under the dictatorship, Bul says, with “fast-built cement structures and clean surfaces, but which were likely to collapse”. Disaster is never far away in her work, such as a new installation that refers to the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry, in which hundreds died. Yet Bul says she doesn’t want to criticise the impulse to dream big. “This is all about human desire, and desire is our destiny. I don’t want to judge it, but I want to see it more clearly if possible.”

Bul’s work knowingly embraces the human urge to attempt impossible tasks. First, there’s the relentless drive to perfect the world, even as history teaches us such ambitions are doomed. Then there’s the challenge of understanding why we do it. One particularly telling work, Via Negative II, is inspired by psychologist Julian Jaynes, who proposed that early man misinterpreted thoughts from the right side of the brain as voices from the gods. It’s a mirrored maze where you encounter infinite reflections of yourself.

“I’m trying to question the modern human with a modern mind, and I can’t find the answer,” Bul says. “My labyrinth is in two halves. In one, it’s hard to exit. The other is always open. You can escape any time. That’s my dream.”


Willing to Be Vulnerable, at the 20th Sydney Biennale, 2016. Photograph: Algirdas Bakas/Courtesy Studio Lee Bul

Transhuman? Cyborg W1-W4, 1998, by Lee Bul. Photograph: Yoon Hyung-moon/Studio Lee Bul