PARIS, FRANCE.-Lee Bul, one of the leading Korean artists of her generation, presents an ambitious new sculptural installation at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris. Variously suspended in mid-air or anchored to the floor, the sculptures constitute a singular environment that engages with the surrounding Jean Nouvel architecture, inhabiting and elaborating on its physical and conceptual frameworks. Complex and sensuous, the artist’s installation manifests the disintegration of utopian aspirations that continue to haunt the collective imagination in a darkly seductive space of glittering ruins and vestiges.
Born in South Korea in 1964, Lee Bul initially studied sculpture, but quickly extended her practice to various media: in the late 1980s she began creating voluminous forms that were often paired with performances.
Some of these sculptures, with stuffed appendages and extensions, were worn in performances in the streets and other public spaces, in representations of the body as a mutable, artificial, and sometimes monstrous construct. The artist’s interest in the human form, simultaneously a body as well as a social entity, continued into the late 1990s when these themes were developed in her Cyborgs and Anagrams series, sculptures made of fantastical and twisted tentacle-like limbs or baroque bio-mechanical forms.
These creations expand the idea of the physical body to include new technologies that redraw the frontiers of human existence, where the borders between reality, science, and fiction are intentionally left up to individual interpretation. Lee Bul gladly combines sound, video, and solid objects that are a cross between sculpture and design, according to her artistic needs.
Her projects from this year alone include exhibitions at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, at Domus Artium in Salamanca, Spain, and the 10th Istanbul Biennial. She also participated in Real Utopia at the 21stCentury Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, and Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Her extensive solo exhibition at the Fondation Cartier is her first in Paris.
Within the Fondation Cartier’s glass-enclosed spaces, Lee Bul presents a global project in which the human being remains, as always, the center of her work. In this case, however, it asserts its importance by remaining almost completely absent, and is replaced by constructions and forms that evoke key events and figures in Eastern and Western history and culture. Mirrors, reflections, metal and beads worked like lace, these ample volumes remain extremely light: sculptures suspended like floating islands and aerial architectural structures rising above spectators’ heads may be observed from many different angles thanks to an interplay of mirrors meant to stand the viewing path on its head.
While the visitors’ experience is an intensely aesthetic one, it also moves beyond the physical to the referential. The entire project, especially some of the larger suspended sculptures, refers to the works of the visionary German architect, Bruno Taut (1880–1938), and in particular to his phantasmagoric Alpine Architektur projects and his Glashaus (‘Glass Pavilion’) (Cologne, 1914).
Also celebrated for his social activism, he was active in his attempt to visualize his dreams, in his desire to make a better world concrete and tangible. Lee Bul appropriates the imaginative energy of the utopian values of Taut’s work—the references are explicit—and makes it the center of her visionary project. The decision to develop it at the Fondation Cartier is not accidental: Jean Nouvel’s building, made entirely of glass, harks directly back to Taut’s exaltation of the material as ideal for the construction of cathedrals of the future. The architect even chose Glas (glass) as his pseudonym.
While Lee Bul allows herself to go to great lengths to imagine an improved world in some of her works, thereby sending a positive message, other sculptures—despite their magnificent lightness of form, a common thread throughout the project—are charged with allusions to brutal events and figures in Korean history. Thaw (Takaki Masao) (2007) is a sort of ice sarcophagus for the military dictator Park Chung-Hee, responsible for South Korea’s brusque modernization between 1961 and 1979. Heaven and Earth (2007), a sculpture reminiscent of a bathtub that evokes the human figure due to its size, supports a stylized representation of Baekdu Mountain, the mythical birthplace of the Korean nation, on its edges.
While the bathtub conjures up the memory of a not-too-distant past when it was used to torture public dissidents, however, the surface of the black ink with which it is filled reflects the utopian forms and magnificent suspensions above.
Without opposing the world of dreams to that of reality, Lee Bul presents them both to us, mirroring the contemplative and the active sides of life that always go together. One is no less real than the other; the former often gives us the courage to improve the latter.