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A mid-career retrospective from South Korean artist Lee Bul explores ideas of utopia through personal and political histories. Ola Bednarczuk reports.
In the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi disaster, which propelled Japan into turmoil and uncertainty, an exhibition of work by Lee Bul at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum is both timely and poignant.
Since the late 1980s, Lee has been creating work that is at once monstrous and beautiful, exploring material, form, notions of the body and humanity’s constant quest for the ideal.
Her career as an artist is tied to South Korea’s history; as Lee has grown as an artist, so has her home country moved from military dictatorship to democratic governance, modernisation and economic development. Her hints at South Korea’s future no doubt strike a chord with audiences in neighbouring Japan.
Stories of Lee’s home country are intertwined with her own personal narratives as she creates sculptural works that represent humans’ pursuit of perfection – our ideas of the body as a perfect form, our ideas of what an ideal society should look like, our ever-changing and never attainable quest for utopia.
After Bruno Taut (Beware the sweetness of things) (detail) 2007
Apparition (detail), 2001
From Me, Belongs To You Only gathers 45 of Lee’s works – including some never-before-seen new pieces – in a thought-provoking journey through the first half of the artist’s career.
The exhibition begins with Lee’s early work, which saw her don monstrous fabric sculptures in outdoor performance pieces.
Her later ’Cyborg’ and ’Anagram’ series explore the desire for the ultimate body and eternal life through large-scale sculptures that sometimes resemble humans, sometimes cyborgs, and sometimes something else altogether.
Cyborg WI, 1998.
Amarylis, 1999 (detail)
In her Utopias and Dreamscapes period – culminating in the 2005 series ’Mon grand récit’, Lee imbues her work with early utopian theory, incorporating references to South Korea’s history in dreamy large-scale pieces reminiscent of architectural and urban planning models. Past meets future in a series that shows how we long for eternity and the perfect society.
Sternbau No 4, 2007; Heaven and Earth, 2007; Misremembered Lines, 2011
One of the most striking aspects of Lee’s work is her affinity for all manner of materials. Glass, beads and chains feature heavily and give a dazzling surreality to her pieces, but she is equally dextrous with wood, metal, wire, fabric, stuffing – as seen in the Studio component of the exhibition, which recreates the artist’s workspace, complete with dozens of maquettes of The Secret Sharer, an evocative dog form made especially for this exhibition.
The Secret Sharer, 2011
From Me, Belongs To You Only runs at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum until Sunday 27 May