Lee Bul’s fabulous show at the Hayward Gallery closes this weekend. If you haven’t seen it yet, here are eight more reasons why you should.
1. Park Chung-hee naked
OK, a rather sensationalist opener, and not something I ever expected to find myself writing, but yes: suspended from the ceiling are two naked effigies of the President of the Republic from 1963 to 1979. Very undignified. Looking down on the futuristic and failed landscape that is Mon Grand Recit: Weep into Stones, or small and insignificant, dangling among the cyborg body parts or grotesque tentacled suits in the first room you enter. And there’s also another effigy of him, wearing his trademark Ray-bans, encased in a block of ice. You can’t quite tell through his frozen prison walls whether this effigy is also naked, but you rather suspect it is. Extruding from the ice block is a rather sinister trail of blackened beads, like clotted blood. This is one cryogenically frozen individual whom you feel you would not want to be resuscitated.
2. The gallery space itself is also the star
At the opening performance event at which Ralf Rugoff was in conversation with the artist, he said that this was the only exhibition he could recall where no artificial walls had been created for the exhibition. Lee Bul took the renovated gallery space as a collaborator in the exhibition, taking advantage of the interesting sight lines that open up as you move from one room to the next, or ascend or descend the stairs. Allied to this is the meticulous care with which the large objects have been hung from the ceiling using wires, pulleys and winches. And of course, in the upper gallery, her Willing to be Vulnerable installation complements the newly exposed skylights perfectly.
3. The cutest, smallest noraebang ever
Is it a concept car without wheels? A prototype escape capsule? No, it’s a personalised karaoke pod, with luxurious baby blue padded seating, video screen and headphones for the backing track.
4. The acoustic fragments from places associated with Yi Gu
Lee Bul associates bunkers with places of safety; for her, they are almost home-like. This particular bunker, which from the outside looks like a black, craggy mountain straight out of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, has the walls inside its cave-like entrance covered with fragments of mirrored glass, reflecting both the light from outside and the darkness from its inner recesses. A less visible feature of this installation is the amount of historical research that has gone into it: if you put on the headphones provided, and either clap your hands or stamp your feet while in the bunker, what you will hear is a very strange echo of the noise you have made. This work is in part a tribute to Yi Gu, the grandson of King Gojong. Born in Japan, he studied in America and worked as an architect in New York before moving to Korea in 1963 where he resided in the Nakseonjae in the Changdeokgung and worked as a university lecturer. He died, childless, in Japan in 2005, having spent the last two decades of his life between the two countries, never seemingly at home or at peace. Blended with the echo of your hand clap are sound samples selected from field recordings Lee Bul made at various sites associated with Yi.
According to the artist in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, the installation “incorporates various references symbolizing Yi Gu’s life in a sculptural form. Inside the sculpture is a sonic reconfiguration installation where the viewers can hear their sounds in different aural dimensions, immaterial spaces and landscapes connected to Yi Gu’s biography – via acoustic sampling and computer modeling. They might be placed at the intersection of the past and the present.”
5. Bags of Bling
In a special commission supported by the jewellers Swarowski, Lee has covered the outside of the gallery with strings of glass crystals which catch the sun and glitter back at you.
There’s plenty of bling in the exhibition itself. Many of the works incorporate mass-produced beads and sequins – a reference to the piece-work at which the artist’s mother and thousands of Korean women laboured, making glittery bags and other accessories for the consumer market. Sadly, one installation involving bags of bling, plus rotting fish, could not be displayed. The potassium permanganate designed to prevent too much odour escaping from the work reacted unfavourably with the fish, causing a small fire, and a consequent delay to the show’s opening.
But the more eye-catching installations are show-stoppers: Civitas Solis dominates the first room you enter – a huge piece involving mirrors and assorted light bulbs; while Via Negativa, in the second room upstairs, is a mirrored maze at the centre of which is a spectacular light display. You don’t have to understand the theology behind it or be familiar with the works of American psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose 1976 text from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is etched to the outside: just enjoy.
6. Marvel at the paintings
You think of Lee as a performance artist or a creator of sculpture or installations. But the two-dimensional abstract paintings in the second room of the exhibition are stunning. One of them is made with velvet and the artist’s own hair.
7. Practice some self restraint
The child in you will soooo much wish you had brought your toy racing car or a couple of marbles to set rolling down the curving roadways in Lee Bul’s grotesque futuristic landscapes. The roads twist and turn, hovering over a ground whose features have melted away. They emanate from nowhere or from a collapsing building (a reference to construction failures such as the Sampoong Department Store?) or overhung by piles of thick black hair (once a major export for Korea), And they go nowhere.
8. And, for the scholars, this is a piece of art history
This exhibition is a detailed mid-career retrospective of Lee’s work. You’ll find videos of her early performances including Abortion (1989) (in which she suspended herself naked from the ceiling of a public space) and Sorry for Suffering – You think I’m a puppy on a picnic? (1990) (in which she walked through the streets of Tokyo and Seoul wearing the gross, flabby tentacled costumes that hand from the roof in the first room), as well as representative works from throughout her career. Make sure you buy the catalogue to make the most of your visit.