Lee Bul

From Me, Belongs to You Only
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo
4 February - 27 May 2012

Over the past twenty-five years, Lee Bul’s art career has borne witness to the global Asian art boom. In the 1990s, she was one of the best-known ‘Asian women artists’, at a time when there were few to be found in international museums. As her recent mid-career retrospective at the Mori Art Museum puts forward, there is also a synchronicity to be found between the chronology of Lee’s art practice and South Korea’s emergence from military dictatorship into a democracy. However, as Lee expressed in a recent interview, she does not consider herself a political person.1 She does not believe in any ‘isms’.

Nevertheless, curator Mami Kataoka uses this shared chronology between the artist and her country to identify, in Lee’s works, an increasingly complex questioning of the theme of collective ideologies and ‘isms’. Lee grew up in a family of anti-government activists, an environment in which the artist would have been exposed to politics from a young age. As she graduated from art school in 1987, South Korea was on the brink of reform. As Kataoka points out, the year of Lee’s graduation was also the year South Korea declared itself a republic. It was an uneasy time of demonstrations and competing ideologies.

After an early career consisting mainly of performance, Lee progressed to a number of figurative sculpture projects. The Cyborg series of sculptures, made during the first years of the new century, are the culmination of her critique of bodily improvement. The most interesting part of body modification for Lee, especially female bodies, is the line between improvement and destruction. In works such as Cyborg W4 (1998), Lee has created an artwork that not only strives for bodily perfection but also, with its missing limbs, exceeds its accepted boundaries.

Later, from about 2005 onwards, Lee’s art moved from corporeal dimensions to architecturally inspired sculptures. In works such as After Bruno Taut (Beware the Sweetness of Things) (2007), she recreated Taut’s Alpine Architecture. Taut believed in the political good of architecture; he wished for nations to come together and build monumental buildings. Lee’s chosen scale is much larger than an average architectural maquette. It slightly outsizes visitors as they walk around the object and take in its varying angles.

After Bruno Taut recreates Modernist architecture, but Lee’s chosen materials suggest a feminine culture. Masses of jewellery chains and crystal beads drape over the structure and sparkle in the gallery’s spotlights. This suggests a thematic link between earlier works that use the same material. Within this exhibition, going from room to room, works such as Ein Hungerkunstler (2004) demonstrate Lee’s motif as it carries from one series to the next. Crystals, beads and wires spew forth from a strange, ceramic creature. Thematically, the earlier sculptures appear to carry ideals of beauty out to their inevitable conclusions, both utopic and dystopic. When the materials are used once again in her Modernist maquettes, this suggests that the same interrogations are now focused on architecture.

Moreover, the architectural series, under the series title Mon Grand Récit, gives some form of alternative to the grand narratives of Modernism. Lee is referencing Jean-François Lyotard’s term, grand récit, for the grand narratives—the ideologies—of Modernism. However, by calling them her (Mon) grand narratives, she gives herself license to alter the visions. The title suggests the possibility of individual perspectives after collective ideologies have lost their relevance.

The last piece in the exhibition was produced by Lee as a commission from the Mori Art Museum. Once more, the sculpture, in the shape of a dog, includes masses of strings of crystals and jewellery. The work is described in the exhibition as the artist’s reflection on her career; the dog is a mascot. It sits on a table, facing a bay-window view of Tokyo from the Mori’s fifty-third floor. It is a reflective piece, figuratively and literally—the dog is covered in tiles of mirror. This sculpture ends the exhibition by urging viewers to look to Tokyo’s distant horizon and reflect on what has been and what is yet to come. Lee’s examinations of the past, and her visions of the future, offer a space beyond the grand narratives of Modernism.

Lee Bul, 'Lee Bul: From Me, Belongs to You Only', 2012. Installation views Mori Art Museum. Photography Watanabe Osamu. Courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. 

Lee Bul, 'Lee Bul: From Me, Belongs to You Only', 2012. Installation views Mori Art Museum. Photography Watanabe Osamu. Courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. 

notes: 

1. Interview held with the artist 20 March 2012, Tokyo.