(Berlin.) It happens quite often in art, that people of a Western background misunderstand an Asian artist. In the case of Lee Bul, it might even start with the name: Family comes first, in our terms that translates to Bul Lee, but the artist is certainly no relative of Bruce’s and the - in your eyes, potentially - missing second “l” tells, that it is a she-Bul, a she-Lee, a woman artist, not that it would matter in any case.
Now that we got this out of the way, let’s have a look at her show at MGB, Crash. ... No, stop, first of all I’d like to apologize for the above lines. MGB quotes the artist on having been bul-leed (sorry again!) in her childhood for a name that sounds unusual even to South ears. She owes it to her mother who, besides being “emancipated” in dedicating her life to hard labour on the unglamorous side of the fashion and jewellery industry, had partly Japanese roots, a circumstance that caused her much trouble when settling in a former war enemy’s country.
A different war, the Korean one, having ended only a few years ago (indeed not having ended at all, but taking a ceasefire that lasts until today), Southerners needed to define their position towards the fledgling Kim dynasty in the North who already sent out its agents to abduct their compatriots. Initially a socialist like the Kims, General Park Chung-Hee who in 1963 grabbed power in the South – preceding the birth of our artist by four years and staying in office for the next sixteen - soon turned his country into a dictatorship of the kind the US always liked best for an ally against the Eastern bloc.
As is the custom, Lee Bul and curator/MGB boss Stephanie Rosenthal in the catalogue over-simplify the historic realities to ‘‘twas tough being a lefty’ (as were the Lees; and Bul on top even –handed). In this context we’re told, how hard it was in the South Korean Seventies to find – and how very easy to loose! – an employment if you held the “wrong” political views (take note: this happened long before the social media/-eval sh.. storms of today). When her mother was serving a seemingly excessive three years prison term for breaching the ban on public assembly, little Bul saw herself obliged to care for her younger siblings. The mother’s life and career serve to explain the frequent allusions to the beauty industry - glitter, pearls, &ct – in Lee Bul’s art, for the artist they share unique, and bitter, connotations.
For more understanding, you’ll need to dig deeper or blindly trust the wall texts. What at first sight could be taken for an amber iceberg from resin, a crystalline blob, is indeed a mausoleum, a cocoon, housing – no, not Snow White! and Lenin neither, but - Park Chung-hee himself, in form of a miniature doll as becomes visible from up close. A second effigy, stark naked but for a Sumo diaper, floats freely under the ceiling – a patriotic sex toy? Parts of the Korean population still revere the general and eagerly await his return to life (his daughter carried on the family tradition for a while, albeit with limited success, being president from 2013-17 then getting disposed for a bribery scandal). This Barbarossian installation might have been deliberately chosen for Berlin, or maybe they’re not even aware of the analogy (12th Century German/Roman Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa is reputedly just taking a nap in a mountain, too). A line of black beads leads like strings of hair away from the General doll into the wider room, tracing past or future.
A bath tub in a mountain setting, and filled with a black liquid, water, ink or blood (or the contents of that one cup at every party everybody uses for an ashtray, or to get rid of liquor and spittle) relates to a historic event that has become deeply inscribed in the South Korean psyche, the death by torture of a student - almost Marat-esque in a bathtub. Apparently, every Korean recognizes the scene in this artwork.
A neon billboard in another installation that resembles a Carrera track curling around a mountain, with many blinking lights, displays the words: “Weep into stones // Fables like Snow // Our few evil days.” A haiku? The banner in fact cites Thomas Browne, and for once not the Urn Burial, but a poem. ... Wait, having just checked the catalogue: those lines are from Hydriotaphia. Only the imbeciles don’t have a clue as to what they’re talking about and call it a poem. To be precise, Lee Bul turned an abridged citation of Sir Thomas Browne into a poem of her own here. The original goes like this: “Darkness and light divide the course of time, and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest strokes of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables. Afflictions induce callosities; miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and, our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.”
Oh, the beauty.
You are further encouraged to recognize the Hagia Sophia in Byzantium, the artist’s studio in Seoul, “monolithic architecture”, and “Hugh Ferris’ SciFi novel The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929)” in the same artwork. An exercise in postmodernism?
The largest work in show is a 17m long white zeppelin. This symbol of crashed progress hovers in the atrium, high above an on-going archaeology show on ground floor. Having been told, the artist frequently works with “different times and realities” and also draws inspiration from all kinds of literature, seeing a Thomas Pynchon reference here (Against the Day) might not be entirely unfounded. Around the turn of the millennium, there have been efforts to revive the German zeppelin industry, more than sixty years after it suffered that devastating blow on a rainy airfield in New Jersey. The revival took place not far from Berlin, and the site serves today for a tropical theme park. Comes time, goes technology.
Another outmoded air carrier, the model of a hot air balloon, occupies a staircase at MGB; transparent, and filled with multi coloured neon lights, it recalls sweets and toys filled balloons for children that seem to have risen in popularity lately.
And ever so forth, in an astonishing collection of sculptures and middle scale installations that further involve a futurist car prototype inviting visitors to karaoke with 80s trash pop, a penetrable cavern in yet another small mountain with glass mirrors on the inside that might or might not reference Niki de Saint Phalle, and a maze-like mirror cabinet - don’t get lost in there, trying to reach the central reactor chamber where a wall of light bulbs (bad, evil, climate destroying relicts of a dark – but lighted nevertheless! - past) emanates warmth. That installation’s outside is covered in mirror writing but without a chance to read it right, despite all mirrors.
Elsewhere, you meet with crashed spaceships, severely distorted like in a beaming accident – but who would beam an entire spaceship? - and cyborgs, for the most part equally dismembered. Arms, legs, mere torsos in red, silver, black, or white, with more than a touch of Manga hero to them. We’ve had postmodernism before, now it’s cyberpunk? Chimaeras, some more technical, others more biological, their intestines falling apart like roots, and a metal octopus hugging a tree trunk (Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife? Ctulhu?? Davy Jones???) - no, that’s its very own body in a symbiosis of animal, plant, and technology!
Lee Bul, who is very obviously fascinated by bodies in transformation – literally and sociologically alike - once started her career with performances of which we find some documentation here. Blood’n’boobs, as usual (who would not like that kind of feminism?). Crash is a huge show, highly impressive, enigmatic, and occasionally disquieting, with a lot of sculptures and installations, even drawings and water colours. Sometimes you get the feeling, Lee Bul could also have become a gifted set designer for horror movies (remember that Korean film at Berlinale 2017, most Western viewers didn’t get at all? Watch Train to Busan, that’s better; and with zombies). Most works also exist in a second, miniature, version as shown in a dedicated room, just like Duchamp’s Boite-en-valise.
One last word: You should definitely take notes all the time through your visit. It will not only come in handy when trying to understand the experience (even better) later, but moreover, it will make you feel like a North Korean general for once. Don’t forget to nod, and smile, not to loose your head.
Lee Bul, Crash, 29 September 2018-13 January 2019, Martin Gropius Bau
World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism