LONDON — Alienation from one’s home country is a relatable theme in today’s rage-inducing populist climate. It’s also a major subject in Lee Bul: Crashing, a major retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery. Arguably South Korea’s most famous living artist, Lee Bul is known for her science fiction fantasies of crystalline sculptures and surrealist installations. She’s also had a string of political performance works and created a futuristic karaoke machine. Although many critics coming to the show have focused on the glitz and glamor of Lee’s work, what seems to be the more under-appreciated political side of her oeuvre contains gems of knowledge about the relationship between South Korea’s artists and their country over the tumultuous second half of the 20th century.
Much of Lee’s oeuvre attempts to balance the utopic with the dystopic, the beautiful with the damned. This work is best when it’s most political, like with “Bunker (M. Bakhtin)” (2007, 2012). A cave-like interactive sound sculpture, viewers are invited to step inside Lee’s creation and wear headphones that replay live audio from inside the cave through different soundscapes. For example, clapping inside the small cave could reverberate as if you were in a large mansion. This work was inspired by the life and work of Yi Gu, the grandson of the last Emperor of Korea, who was born in exile in 1931 under the watchful control of the Japanese colonial authorities, spending his early youth in what essentially was a prison. Gu moved to the United States for his studies, where he became an architect (career highlights include work on Disneyland and a four-year stint with I. M. Pei’s Manhattan-based firm). When the prince finally returned to South Korea in 1963, he felt like a stranger in his homeland, and never acclimated to Korean life.
The distorted sounds in Lee’s piece dramatize the spaces that Yi Gu would have inhabited throughout his life, from his Tokyo palace to his office as an architect and professor. Lee has a clear sympathy for the prince — if not a broader realization that his story of returning to a home he never really knew mirrored the rapid socioeconomic, cultural, and technological changes that occurred in Korea through the postwar years.
The modernization of Seoul into a megacity may have also reasonably compelled Lee’s interest in architecture. In some of her work, we see her attempt to combine body, architecture, and decoration into sculpture. These experiments — exemplified by the Yayoi Kusama-like “Monsters” (1998, 2011) and Takashi Murakami-influenced silk paintings (c. 2002–2004) — fail to complement their decorative nature with any ideological substance.
Elsewhere, there is a clearer relationship between the economic and political histories of South Korea and Lee’s work. Born in 1964, the artist grew up under the dictatorial regime of President Park only to later witness the military junta and rise of the authoritarian President Chun Doo-wan, whose army forces killed over 600 people opposing his leadership in the bloody Gwangju Uprising of May 1980. The curators have done well to include two chronological charts within the galleries that outline Lee’s place in the political and feminist movements at the time, while marking the broader history of the regime, and South Korea’s division from North Korea. Lee takes this fractious, often violent history and sculpts steel and crystalline structures that are simultaneously complex, magnificent, beautiful, fragile, and just as dangerous as the world she inhabits. Viewers get a taste of this work in the second gallery, which contains a series of small maquettes (c. 2005) that reference the legacy of Russian Constructivism, the early 19th-century doctrine that called for geometric and material purity within aesthetics. Preciously preserved in bell jars, Lee’s small buildings illustrate the alluring fantasy of design space. The “dream home” (or even “dream skyscraper”) speaks to the need for livable architecture in a city experiencing a construction boom.
The next gallery of Lee’s work, however, denigrates aspirations of Russian Constructivism by showing just how unlivable — if still beautiful — these architectures actually are. “After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift)” (2013) hangs like a luxurious chandelier over a floor mirror that helps expose the underbelly of this floating island of hazardous materials. Beads hang down from Lee’s futuristic city, which is supposed to represent an idealized depiction of landscapes from the East while the top half of the sculpture references cityscapes of the West. As Lee describes it, this larger work synthesizes “mystical strains of utopian dreaming” from both sides of the world to articulate a new futuristic plane of existence. Still, it’s always important to remember that the word “utopia” means has two meanings; it is both a perfect place and no place. Lee’s work demonstrates that duality, building spaces of beauty that writhe with the potential of violence.