Lee Bul: On the edge of in-between

We instinctively tend to live in binary structures. The good hero saves the day from the evil villain in Hollywood movies. World-leading governments are forced to split into two ideologies. Pepsi versus Coca Cola, East versus West, black versus white.
Contemporary thinking has been challenging the absolutism that we have placed upon our society. For instance, the idea of gender is transforming into something more fluid with many other concepts appearing on the blurry lines of ideologies, opinions and personalities.

Lee Bul, a prominent South Korean artist, who emerged in the end of 1980s has spent her lifetime and career questioning the simple categorisations that we use to put a divide between ourselves. Lee utilises her sculptures, installations and paintings to challenge binary concepts such as east and west, male and female, beauty and grotesque, past and future. Through her provocative, yet allegorical art, Lee earned herself a key position in contemporary art.

Lee Bul in one of her two studios in Seoul photography by Tim Franco for Tatler Hong Kong

Lee’s personal life is full to the brim with opposing forces. She was born into the arms of a left-wing activist family during the military dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee. Lee also witnessed the transition from a military regime to republican democracy, the year she graduated from Hongik University (1987), majoring in sculpture. At the time of Lee’s graduation there were two prevalent art movements (Monochrome painting known as tansaekhwa and People’s Art also referred to as Minjung misul), with opposing style and ideology. Due to Lee’s upbringing and general contention of definite ideas, she did not feel drawn to either of these movements. 

Soon after graduating Lee began developing her artistic practice by transferring sculptures into live performative materials on the streets of Korea and Japan. Her wearable soft sculptures appeared both mesmerising and monstrous. Lee’s initial performances were provocative, yet allegorical,  challenging traditional gender roles that the patriarchal society placed on women and showed the emotional manifestations of a politically restrictive environment.  

Lee Bul, Untitled (Cravings Red), 2011 (reconstruction of 1988 work) photography by Jeon Byung-cheol

Her earlier practice focused on individual, intimate lived experience through the soul and the body. A great example of this is Abortion (1989), which was created as a response to Korea’s abortion ban. In protest, Lee distributed lollipops to the audience, hung her naked body upside down and told a painfully personal story of the termination of her own pregnancy.

A series that links Lee’s past and present works together is Cyborg (1999-2011). Cyborg combines Lee’s earlier focus of female struggles with her later exploration of a Utopian society. Cyborg is a collection of sculptures that represent a failed utopian society. The sculptures juxtapose sci-fi features with the classical Greco-Roman white marble material. The works of Cyborg were inspired by the beauty standards set on women due to media such as manga, anime and graphic novels. The sculptures show part-machine, part-female idealised bodies, an example of perfection that many desperately seek with cosmetic surgery and other technological tools.

Lee Bul, Cyborg W6, (2001) in Leeum Museum of Art photographed by Han Do Hee 

In Gravity Greater than Velocity (1999) and Live Forever (2002) Lee further expressed her concerns regarding technology and the future of humanity. Lee designed karaoke pods that act as empty shells for only one participant at a time providing them a lonely, digitised and dehumanised experience.

In her latest works, the human drive to achieve the impossible has shifted focus from the body to architecture, designing Utopian city scapes. Utopia saved (2020), Lee’s solo exhibition, provides a deeper view on her take on modernism and exploration of Utopia. The exhibition features architectural sculptures, environmental installations and drawings. Utopia saved exhibited ‘Willing to be Vulnerable – Metallized Balloon’, a 17-metre-long floating silver Zeppelin that serves as an homage to the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. Remembering the tragic crash shows one of the first aspiring visions in modern technology and the human drive to complete impossible tasks.

Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon in Berlin (2018) photographed by Mathias Völzke

Throughout her entire career Lee remained both politically and socially aware, while maintaining a level of ambiguity, challenging binary structures. Having been born into both ideologically and politically restricted environments, Lee succeeded to break through traditional thinking and created a portfolio that explores the vague territory of gender, body and utopia.

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