The many lives of Lee Bul

Jaeseok Kim

Ahead of Art Basel Hong Kong, Art-in-Culture editor in chief Jaeseok Kim meets the artist who put contemporary Korean art on the map


It’s mid-March when I visit Lee Bul’s studio, located near Mount Bukhansan in north Seoul. The adventurous route to the studio involves traveling along steep tracks that zigzag toward the summit. When you look out from the main wooden gates of the studio, there is a spectacular view across to Namsan Tower – a popular tourist attraction and a symbol of Seoul – and a sea of villas decorated with brown bricks and gray apartment blocks all densely jammed together. Welcoming me in, Lee offers me a brown-colored drink in a bottle. She tells me it’s tea made from ginger, cinnamon, and Jerusalem artichoke. It’s aromatic and piquant. ‘For survival,’ she says, with a small smile. The artist is currently working on a new commission for the Venice Biennale, which opens in May, her first time participating in it since 1999, when Harald Szeemann curated the show, calling it dAPERTuttO.

The new piece includes wire fencing from an old guard post within the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that lies between North and South Korea. Her use of something that symbolizes the tragic situation of the two Koreas – the only divided nation in the world – has left her with a difficult task. ‘I normally put a lot of effort into selecting materials,’ she says. ‘I always hope I can appeal to the emotions of myself and audiences. The DMZ’s barbed wire can make it difficult to read the multilayered underlying context, because the meaning that the material itself has is so clear. I had to think about how to solve this problem strategically.’ She slowly smokes a long, thin cigarette, inspecting the mock-up at one side of her studio.

Lee’s accomplishments as an emerging artist in the 1990s created a historical moment in Korean art. She found herself at the center of the international artworld, which no Korean artist had achieved before, and became a role model for future generations. In the late 1980s, after studying sculpture at Hongik University, one of the most prestigious art schools in Korea, Lee and several co-conspirators created the group MUSEUM. They were referred to as enfants terribles and led a new generation of artists in Korea that were separate from the Minjung art and monochrome painting scenes that dominated at the time.

Lee’s early performances, in which she questioned the essence of art, are unforgettable. She shed light on Korean society’s violence and oppression toward women through pieces such as Abortion (1989), in which she suspended herself naked from the ceiling, licked a lollipop and spoke painfully about abortion; and Cravings (1989) and Sorry for suffering – You think I’m a puppy on a picnic? (1990), in which the artist variously crawled on a museum floor, across fields in Korea, and along pavements in Tokyo while wearing a grotesque, multi-limbed monster costume that served as her ‘armor.’

Since the early 1990s, Lee has been searching for the essential meaning of the body, or skin, as a cultural boundary that connects a subject to society, through her decorative and tactile works that involve colorful beads and sparkling sequins. One of her best-known artworks, Majestic Splendor (1991–2018), featured in her 1997 solo show at MoMA, New York, with its polythene bags containing raw fish decorated with beads and sequins displayed on the wall. The museum took the piece down without notice due to the pungent smell emanating from the fish as they started to rot, which led Lee to sue. The following year, she was named one of the finalists for the Hugo Boss Prize. Her most successful year was 1999: As mentioned, this was when she took part in the Venice Biennale, both with her Cyborg series and as one of the two artists selected to contribute to the Korean Pavilion, where she showcased her karaoke installation. The Biennale awarded her the Menzione d’Onore.

Through her participation in exhibitions held by major institutions and a series of events that highlighted her outsider spirit, Lee’s name has become indelibly imprinted on the international art scene. And, since the mid-2000s, she has attempted transformation again, with her ambitious architectural sculpture works that allude to epic stories. 

Lee’s large-scale retrospectives in 2018 ‘Crashing’ at Hayward Gallery in London and ‘Crash’ at the Gropius Bau in Berlin – were like fraternal twins. They showcased the essence of her 30-year career as an artist, from the records of her early performances to the Cyborg and Monster series and sculptures depicting a city inspired by the German architect Bruno Taut, as well as structures experimenting with the properties of reflective materials that create mirrors on an architectural scale, and paintings using diverse materials such as hair, mother-of-pearl, and dried flowers. Stephanie Rosenthal, the curator of the two exhibitions, focused on the ironic tension that is created when elements collide in her work. Whereas the survey at the Hayward Gallery was designed to contrast Lee’s artworks with the building’s Brutalist architecture by highlighting the ‘crash’ between them, the show at the Gropius Bau was curated to chronicle her works in order. Speaking about them both, Lee says: ‘The Hayward Gallery was a “space” for me, whereas the Gropius Bau was a “place”, and the two exhibitions started from this idea. At the Hayward Gallery, it was OK if my works created a new story as they mixed with the ideology embedded in the “architectural language” of the venue. On the other hand, “history” was a very important factor at the Gropius Bau, where usage and form have changed over the years. So I opened the window and connected the inside and outside of the building. I focused on what context could be created when my work was placed in these two unique places without any additional devices such as temporary walls.’ 

I saw the show at the Gropius Bau last December. The white cyborgs in the exhibition hall were reflected in the windows and seemed to be floating in the Berlin sky like ghosts. The show encouraged the audience to find, integrate, and reconstruct the narratives of her individual artworks. I imagined the long evolutionary process of her work: Her naked body transforming into a monstrous costume like a second skin, and then evolving into a majestic yet damaged cyborg. The places where they reside together start from smaller structures, such as a car, a karaoke capsule, a bath, or a bunker, moving on to an imaginary ‘star city’ replete with crystal and glass, mirrors and copper chains, and stainless steel. There was a 17-meter-long silver zeppelin hanging from the ceiling in the main hall of the museum, its sci-fi characteristics crashing with the archaeology exhibition on the ground floor and conjuring a surreal atmosphere. Lee had first presented it as part of Willing to Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015–2016), her large-scale installation at the 2016 Biennale of Sydney, its title taken from a phrase on an old circus flyer that she had found by accident. Some of the elements of a circus were applied to the design of the work, including a tent, balloons, and lights. A smaller-sized silver zeppelin will appear in the Encounters sector at Art Basel Hong Kong; Art Basel’s Director Asia, Adeline Ooi – who visited Korea earlier in March – told me it will be the first artwork visitors to the show will see.

Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon, 2015-2016. Installation view of ‘Lee Bul: Crashing’ at the Hayward Gallery, London, 2018. A smaller version of the work will be on view in art Basel Hong Kong's Encounters sector. Courtesy of Studio Lee Bul; Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, and Salzburg; Lehmann Maupin, New York City, Hong Kong, and Seoul; and PKM Gallery, Seoul.. Photo by Mark Blower. © Lee Bul.
Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon, 2015-2016. Installation view of ‘Lee Bul: Crashing’ at the Hayward Gallery, London, 2018. A smaller version of the work will be on view in art Basel Hong Kong's Encounters sector. Courtesy of Studio Lee Bul; Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, and Salzburg; Lehmann Maupin, New York City, Hong Kong, and Seoul; and PKM Gallery, Seoul.. Photo by Mark Blower. © Lee Bul.

While the zeppelin is an example of the evolution of Lee’s work that extends from architectural structures to her ‘city world,’ a selection of her paintings will also be on show at Lehmann Maupin gallery’s booth in the Kabinett sector, which focuses on artists from Asia. This will provide a rare opportunity to see a collection of these works, which she has recently devoted herself to. Her paintings can be separated into two categories in terms of production methods: one involves hair, dried flowers, or mother-of-pearl being placed on silk velvet; the other entails paints being mixed with various materials, as if making artificial marble, and then applied thickly, with the surface polished after it’s solidified. Lee zooms in on the paintings’ surfaces on her iPad and shows them to me. ‘It’s really enjoyable. Painting is balancing for my working practice and gives me some distance from my other work. It is similar to sculpture when it comes to the making. The images in them are connected to my other sculptures and installations. Working in two dimensions gives me the opportunity to use materials that are hard to handle in three-dimensional works and means I can use media that cover a wider range of traits.’ Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac’s booth will also present her early silk paintings that were shown at the Gropius Bau show, while the Infinity series, which creates an enormous sense of space through LED lighting and mirrors, will be shown at PKM Gallery’s booth.

Lee is curious about how her works will come across at Art Basel. ‘Some of them “operate” only when they clash with the exhibition venue,’ she explains. ‘We all know that art fairs are not easy places to create visual drama. Some visitors will ignore all the preconditions of the works and see them only for their visual features, while others will think carefully about the themes and context of the works and believe the themes only.’

Art Basel Hong Kong will take place from March 29 to March 31 in Hong Kong. 

Top image: Lee Bul. Courtesy of Swarovski Kristallwelten and Lehmann Maupin, New York City, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo by Klaus Vyhnalek.