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What Doesn't Kill You ... Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery

By Roma Piotrowska

While I was walking through vast corridors of the recently reopened Hayward Gallery in central London, I wondered if Crashing, the title of Lee Bul’s new, major exhibition, may be prophetic. Is this long-anticipated show going to be a triumph or a defeat? Not all exhibitions start with the breaking news of a fire leading to the cancellation of the usual private view. And yet, this is what happened to this show. One of the artist's major works Majestic Splendor, consisting of dead and decaying fish, decorated with sequins and beads, caught fire due to the presence of flammable chemicals used for preservation. The infelicitous work was removed and the exhibition reopened, but the feeling of the apocalypse was still felt in the air. Perhaps this is because of Bul’s preoccupation with gloomy and dystopian topics, present throughout the works in this show.

Installation view of Lee Bul, Monster Black, 2011 and Civitas Solis II, 2014 at Hayward Gallery, 2018, Lee Bul. Photo: Mark Blower

The galleries of Hayward are large but Lee Bul filled them in without trouble. She is one of Korea’s most important artists and has begun her career over 30 years ago. Bul is very prolific and makes work ranging from performance to drawing, video, sculpture, and installation. She is preoccupied with politics, history, popular culture, visions of the future, science-fiction, and architecture. This judicious survey showcases her most important works, including Thaw (2007), an installation involving the figure of the South-Korean president and dictator Park Chung-hee, lying dead in the block of ice. During his rule, Park commissioned architecture in the vain of European Brutalism, coincidentally also the style of Hayward Gallery. For Lee Bul the building looks like ‘a concrete bunker’, maybe that’s why she’s decided to tame it with a site-specific Weep into stones (2017–18), decorating the whole building with a curtain of fine steel net of crystals and glass. Fascination with beauty and contrasting ugliness, monstrosity, and horror is quite prevalent in Bul’s practice.

Installation view of Lee Bul, Crashing at Hayward Gallery, 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

There are a lot of references to utopian architectural ideas of the early twentieth century and images of totalitarianism in Bul’s works. Installation Mon grand récit: Weep into stones… (2005), with its allusions to The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929) by Hugh Ferriss, Tatlin’s Tower and looping highways is an excellent example of the artist’s interest in historic visions of the future and architectural utopias. Large scale, traditionally masculine, architectural installations contrast with After Bruno Taut (2013), dripping in glass beads and silver chains, suspended installation resembling a city on the verge of collapse. Almost all large scale installations and sculptures presented in the exhibition are also represented as smaller scale preparatory models and 2D drawings, giving a good insight into Bul’s working processes.

It seems like just a few decades ago being a woman artist in Korea was no easy task. In spite of that, or maybe because of that, Bul started to create radical works, occupied with gender politics performances. Documentation of some of them is on Hayward’s display, including Abortion (1989), a two-hour event in which the artist, suspended upside down, described her experience of the procedure (still illegal in Korea). Another documentation presents the 20 years old artist, daring to wear a soft costume resembling an octopus, mixed with a monster to perform in the middle of a busy crossroad in Tokyo. A similar costume, is hanging ominously from the high ceilings of Hayward, welcoming visitors to the exhibition.

Her interest in performance is present in large scale, interactive sculptures. In one of the last galleries I was invited to enter Via Negativa II (2014), a mirrored labyrinth that disorientated my senses. I followed the route to finally reach the epicenter with infinite mirrors, the Instagramers’ paradise. I too have taken some snaps and left the maze to see the final room, housing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015–16), a giant and visually compelling zeppelin, referencing 1937 Hindenburg disaster. This last work is a nice summary of the exhibition — fascinated with technological progress and at the same time concerned by it.

Installation view of Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon, 2015-2016. Hayward Gallery, 2018, Lee Bul, 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul, Via Negativa II, 2014 at Hayward Gallery, 2018 (interior detail). Lee Bul, 2018. Photo: Mark Blower

This beautiful and intellectually engaging show felt very familiar, as I saw a similar size exhibition of her works at Ikon, Birmingham, only four years ago. Many of the works on display were exactly the same, so I experienced a sort of deja vu, taking me back in time and space, (which ties in Bul’s interest in science fiction). Hayward, with its vast spaces and irregular architecture, may be a challenge to exhibit and at times the show felt a bit too scattered, without obvious connections between works. But the show turned out to be a wonderful victory for Lee Bul. She has gone through numerous obstacles in her life and career, which definitely made her a stronger artist and I suspect a stronger person.


Lee Bul, Crashing was on view at the Hayward Gallery, London, from June 1st to August 19th, 2018.

All photographs are courtesy of the Hayward Gallery.

Roma also video-ed her walkthrough of the exhibition.

#london #europe

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