I thought I had come across most of Lee Bul’s work before, either physically (at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, 2014 and various gallery visits in Seoul) or through articles and books. But one work in the Hayward Gallery’s solo show caught me by surprise.
Heaven and Earth (2007) is a larger-than-life reconstruction of the type of bath used by the anti-communist secret police in South Korea when water-torturing suspected leftist prisoners under the military dictatorship. It was the sort of bath which killed the student Park Yong-chul in January 1987.
The ceramic tiles around the side of the bath, which continue onto the floor, giving the inhospitable feeling of a public institution, are chipped and worn, some of them missing entirely. This public bath is not one where looks matter.
But around the edge of the bath, incongruously, is a model of a mountain range. And not any mountain range: this is the jagged rim of the peak of Mt Baekdu, the highest peak on the Korean peninsula, marking the border between current North Korea and China – a dormant volcano which last erupted in 946 CE and which is said to be at risk of eruption in the future. Within the crater is Cheonji, Heaven Lake.
Lee Bul’s version of Cheonji in the bath doesn’t consist of water. The bath is full of black ink, the medium used by literati throughout the generations to express their thoughts in painting and writing. Unless you’re very tall, because you’re not permitted to step on the ceramic tiles on the floor, you can’t see into the lake from the main gallery. It is only when you ascend the stairs to the gallery on the upper floor that you can see into the crater and see the mountain ridge reflected in the lake.
Mt Baekdu is a semi sacred mountain which many South Koreans yearn to visit, and can only do so from the Chinese side because of the division of the Korean peninsula. Lee Bul’s version of Mt Baekdu, in which the heavenly lake can be thought of as representing freedom of speech, is contained within a bath which the South Korean government used to suppress such freedom. One of the many collisions and contradictions in Lee Bul’s work which gave rise to the title of the exhibition, which is at the Hayward Gallery until 19 August.