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Artist’s Chemical Experiment with Rotting Fish Challenges the Museum

Lee Bul’s seminal work “Majestic Splendor,” removed from the Hayward Gallery, reminds us of the importance of collaboration among curators and conservators when making futuristic exhibitions.

Lee Bul, "Majestic Splendor" (2016, detail), installation view, <em>Connect 1: Still Acts</em>, Art Sonje Center, Seoul; fish, sequins, potassium permanganate, mylar bags, dimensions variable (photo by Sang-tae Kim; image courtesy of Art Sonje Center)
Lee Bul, “Majestic Splendor” (2016, detail), installation view, Connect 1: Still Acts, Art Sonje Center, Seoul; fish, sequins, potassium permanganate, mylar bags, dimensions variable (photo by Sang-tae Kim; image courtesy of Art Sonje Center)

As a number of art news outlets have reported, Lee Bul’s sprawling solo exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery did not open last week as scheduled, thanks to the botched removal of a work titled “Majestic Splendor.” The installation consists of dead fish decorated with kitschy beaded bracelets and fake jewels, each one resting in small plastic bags pinned to the wall in a grid. Lee, a South Korean artist known for her eclectic, often dystopian work across mediums, began making a version of the work in 1991 (with the fish individually sequined by hand) and has since installed it a number of times at institutions around the globe. Over the course of each exhibition, the fish are left to rot, creating a fetid smell that permeates the gallery.

At least one iteration of “Majestic Splendor” — an infamous showing in the Projects series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1997 — had to be removed because the stench was so overpowering that it made guards physically ill, and so far-reaching that it wafted up to the restaurant. (Thanks to MoMA’s Press and Archives staff, this writer learned that the problem primarily stemmed from a faulty refrigerator unit that held some of the fish; when the unit was hastily removed from the show, Lee pulled the rest of the work, too.)  In recent years, the artist has added potassium permanganate to the plastic bags to neutralize the smell. A compound with myriad uses ranging from disinfecting water to treating fungal infections, potassium permanganate is highly flammable in combination with other chemicals — in fact, it’s included in survival kits as a fire starter and serves as the primary material in plastic spheres manufactured to create controlled burns on ranges or in wildfire situations.

Having belatedly come to terms with the clear danger posed by potassium permanganate, Hayward decided to pull the fish from the show only hours before the preview, lest anything accidentally blow up. The joke, as it were, was on the gallery, as the deinstallation of the work sparked a small fire, causing enough damage to delay the opening. The story sounds like it’s been pulled straight from the annals of The Onion, a tale of vengeful bedazzled fish that illustrates the absurdity of contemporary art, and the lengths to which galleries and museums are willing to go to realize works that are dangerous to the institutions that harbor them.

But perhaps there’s a different set of issues here. “Majestic Splendor” articulates a compelling tension between beauty and decay — values that have been fundamentally opposed in the long history of art. While the fish in the installation decompose, serving as a real-time memento mori, the glittery baubles decorating their bodies remain impervious, shining on despite the grotesque array of bacteria working double-time around them. That juxtaposition of organicism and artificiality (or perhaps timeless beauty) constitutes one layer of meaning in the work; another emerges when one learns that Lee’s mother made beaded bags for a living, a fact — oft repeated by Lee herself in interviews — that links the baubles to gendered forms of labor. And Lee’s choice of fish as a substrate reportedly resulted from a fortuitous walk around a fish market, which brings us back to the work’s most troublesome feature: its smell.

Lee is not the only artist today working with olfaction. (An essay by Wendy Vogel for Art in America offers a primer.) Anicka Yi and Sean Raspet, among others, have been creating conceptual and installation art by capturing existing scents and generating new ones; both are interested, as is Lee, in all of the unseen molecules that swirl around, in, and through us, impacting our bodies and minds in ways that seem impossible to countenance, much less measure and exploit. All three are further motivated by a desire to decenter the optical sense as the primary mode of the aesthetic, and to reinstate smell and taste as valid modes of aesthetic inquiry.

As Vogel remarks, such projects can also be contextualized under the umbrella of “art as experience,” an ever-growing quasi-genre that privileges novel and often spectacular experiences over the contemplation of inert objects. But these experiences are by and large pleasant ones, whether they involve reveling in the selfie-verse of a Yayoi KusamaInfinity Room” or lying in a giant white pod to enjoy a personal light-and-color bath courtesy of James Turrell. Yi and Raspet, for their parts, are crafting scents (and also algae-based food bars, in Raspet’s case) that are intriguing and hard to place; sometimes mildly disagreeable, they are not intended to cause disgust.

A retched smell, on the other hand, is not an experience that most institutions would be interested in offering their visitors (reserving an exception for Dieter Roth’s infamous Staple Cheese, A Race), nor, for that matter, can visitors actually consent to experience the stink of “Majestic Splendor,” as it perfumes the air indiscriminately. Despite recent forays into olfactory art, the prevailing attitude is that if a work consists of rotting organic matter, it had better be encased in Plexiglas. (One wonders whether this was indeed a solution that Lee considered and rejected.) And as long as the line is drawn at scents that might offend, opticality — and more than that, beauty and pleasure as aesthetic values — will continue to reign supreme.

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