Lee Bul has been having a busy year. A solo show in New York in May / June; two new large-scale installations at MMCA Seoul from the end of September; and at the same time a travelling show in Europe which stopped off at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, with a parallel site-specific commission in the Korean Cultural Centre, London.
One of the works included in the Ikon exhibition will remain in the Midlands. The work that greets you as you enter the exhibition, After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift), is a commission by Ikon and the Birmingham Museums Trust.
The work, to a child of the 60s, recalls the organically shaped floating fantasy worlds of Roger Dean, But Lee’s work is inspired by a designer who came before the psychedelia of Dean: Bruno Taut (1880-1938), the forward-looking German architect and urban planner who reputedly wanted to make a whole building out of glass, and dreamed of building a city in the Alps. Technology of the time was not up to the task, but Lee Bul’s model of a self-contained city realises that vision: a mountainous landscape with buildings of crystal, glass and acrylic beads.
The work is a particularly appropriate commission from Birmingham, a victim of visionary but disastrous urban planning after the war, and a city which is now having to rebuild itself to make itself livable.
Birmingham is also known for being the home of the Spaghetti Junction – the complicated intersection of the M6 motorway with, among other roads, the A38(M) Aston expressway – in the Gravelly Hill area of the city. So it was appropriate that the next work to catch the eye as you walked through the gallery was a tangled looping mess of roadways hanging from the ceiling.
And this was not the only work which referenced roadways. The work that dominated this second room was Mon grand récit Weep into stones…, which for someone of a certain age will immediately recall the suspended racetracks down which one used to race toy cars. Lee Bul’s strange roadways, which seem to lead nowhere, emerge unannounced from a vertigo-inspiring mountain to whose sides cling a chaotic construction of buildings which look as if they are tumbling to the rather gloopy-looking clay at the foot of the mountain. And to the side, the inverted interior of the Hagia Sophia mosque, a delicate celadon green on the outside but mirrored tesserae on the outside.
Similar descending curves could be found in the roadways suspended over a surreal landscape in Excavation (2007), installed at the other end of the same room. The roads ended in archways opened in a sheer cliff face, and the whole work was surmounted by a pile of tangled hair, some of which hung down in lank strands over the sculpture – a strange mix of technology, engineering and a rather unsavoury organic.
Anticipating what we were to find on the second floor of the gallery were two installations which forced audience engagement. Both the black Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (2007) and the untitled silver-coloured fragmented corridor which led to the exit door were intended to be experienced from inside, where broken mirrors reflected your image back at you in unexpected angles. According to the exhibition guide, the title of Bunker (M. Bakhtin) refers to
Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). His theories on the evolving, social nature of language – with its emphasis on polyphony, multiple and often competing voices – takes us to the conclusion that all we can hope for are complex, fragmented narratives and meanings.
Upstairs was probably the highlight of the show for those who had been drawn in by the publicity photo which looked like skyscrapers constructed of electric lightbulbs. The work, Via Negativa, looks unprepossessing from the outside, resembling a collection of noticeboards. On the boards have been pasted pages from a book, psychologist Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), which espouse ideas that suggest that “divine nature is beyond the understanding of the rational human mind and can only be comprehended by defining what it is not – ‘the negative way’ – rather than what it is.”
The arrangement of these noticeboards forms in fact a mirrored labyrinth. As you enter, it is difficult to see which way to proceeds as every way you look your own face seems to be reflected back. You continue your journey through mirrored corridors until you get to the heart of the mysterious installation, where suddenly you lose your reflection and instead gaze into a darkened infinity: panels constructed out of two-way mirrors reflect for ever the light bulbs placed around their peripheries. It is a space of beauty as well as of unsettling emptiness.
Once you emerged from the perturbing work, you had time to enjoy some of Lee Bul’s drawings and sketches. This exhibition did not pretend to be a retrospective, and so it was interesting to see studies for some of her earlier works – her cyborg body parts and the monster body-suits which formed an essential part of her performance practice in the 1980s. These drawings lined to walls of two galleries which also included her Diluvium (2012) – an uneven angled plywood floor constructed on a metal frame – which again unsettled the viewer.
For her solo show at the Korean Cultural Centre which ran in parallel with the Ikon exhibition Lee Bul literally extended her ideas in Diluvium to fill the multi-purpose and remaining exhibition spaces. The starting point for the work was the original irregular surfaces of plywood laid on a steel frame (and a model of the original unadorned conception was included in the space at the far end of the KCC). These surfaces were covered with a reflective metal foil, and mirrored tape stretched between the angled boards and the walls in a way designed to accentuate the randomness of the angles at which the surfaces were laid.
The whole installation had a magical feel to it, like a fairy grotto, as you were encouraged to step through and around the tapes and clamber up on to the raised surfaces. It was a shame that such a wonderland was only temporary, demolished to return the KCC to normal for future exhibitions and film screenings.
Gallery of the Ikon exhibition (all images provided by Ikon):
Gallery of the KCCUK installation (all images by LKL)
- The exhibition page on the Ikon gallery website, which has additional installation images.