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A retrospective at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum celebrates one of the most vital and visionary Korean women artists, Lee Bul.

Text by Anna Battista

Lee Bul, After Bruno Taut (Beware the sweetness of things) (detail), 2007, Photo: Patrick GriesPhoto, Courtesy: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris

Lee Bul is among the most important Korean women artists in the international arena who, expressing themselves in a variety of media, address the dualism between a highly traditional society and tremendous technological advances.

A new exhibition at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, the first after two decades, explores Lee Bul’s universe through 45 works, 150 drawings and 50 models. The event, curated by Kataoka Mami, Chief Curator at the Mori Art Museum, takes the visitors through Lee Bul’s aesthetics, looking at her frustrations and yearnings, but also revealing the sublime behind the monstrous.

Lee Bul, Cravings, 1989, Outdoor performance, Jangheung, Korea, Photo courtesy: Studio Lee Bul

Famous for her sculptural and multi-media installations and combinations of new media and innovative technologies, Lee Bul explores through her pieces trends in popular culture, themes of feminine identity, and representation of femininity interpreted in a science fiction fantasy key, such as her “Cyborgs” pieces, a series of coloured smooth silicone sexualised armours with female shapes but with several limbs missing, aimed at analysing the relationship between woman and machine.

Lee Bul, Majestic Splendor (detail), 1997, Photo: Robert Puglisi, Photo courtesy: Studio Lee Bul

Lee’s artworks seemingly display a fascination with dichotomies such as art and bioengineering, utopia and dystopia, virtual reality and investigations of contemporary forms of popular entertainment. Her intricate sculptures and networks of industrial materials, including stainless steel and aluminum chains, copper and PVC, are juxtaposed to her grotesque costume for her outdoor performance “Cravings”, that she used to turn herself into a monstrous creature roaming around in public spaces and addressing her own inner fears and anxieties; images of her 1997 “Majestic Splendor” installation at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), displaying fresh fish among jewels – the stench and the rotting process gradually revealing different stages of death under the superficial beauty – are compared to her multi-media karaoke pods in the form of futuristic race cars that disturbingly resemble spaceship-like coffins.

“Lee Bul: From Me, Belongs to You Only” Installation view, Photo: Watanabe Osamu, Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum

Lee Bul’s newly-commissioned work for the Mori Art Museum exhibition “The Secret Sharer” a dog-shaped sculpture of different and highly reflective industrial materials, including mirrors, plastic, glass and acrylic beads, modelled after her own pet of 17 years is installed at the very end of the show. Set on top of a table in front of large windows overlooking Tokyo’s cityscape, at first glace the sculpture seems to be dominating it softly and silently, yet the vast quantities of materials pouring out of its mouth like vomit hint at the disclosure of all the time and memories it shared with the artist.

Cyborg Red, Cyborg Blue, 1997–98, Photo: Watanabe Osamu, Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum

ZOOT: Where does the name of the exhibition come from?

Kataoka Mami: “From Me, Belongs to You Only” was originally a line in a letter sent several years ago to Lee Bul from her lover. She thought the phrase was so warm and lovely that she wanted to share that feeling with all the visitors to her retrospective.

As a curator, what was your selection process regarding the pieces included?

KM: I focused on her major works that represent her practice in every phase; I also considered the entire flow of the show as well as the contrast and dialogue of the works within the same gallery. Selecting the pieces wasn’t challenging, but it was a very intriguing process.

Lee Bul, Amaryllis, 1999, Photo: Rhee Jae-yong, Photo courtesy: Studio Lee Bul

As a curator, what fascinates you the most about Lee Bul, her hybridic visions, materials of choice, technology employed, or willingness to experiment and break all kind of boundaries?

KM: Synthesis of all of the above as well as her talent of form making, strength in fundamental motivation for creation, sensibility of the relationship between the works and the given space, sympathies on predecessors’ vision for utopia and dreamscapes, and sincere attitude for creativity.

Do you feel that Lee Bul’s production somehow reflects her homecountry progression from military dictatorship to democracy?

KM: Social and political history of the environment where she grew up is obviously reflected in her practice and in all details in the most subtle or allegorical ways.

Lee Bul: From Me, Belongs to You Only” Installation view, Photo: Watanabe Osamu, Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum

What did you learn while researching this exhibition that you didn’t know about Lee Bul?

KM: Too many thing to describe – curating is an accumulation of learning.

Are there any plans to take the exhibition on tour anywhere else?

KM: There has been a lot of interest, but nothing concrete yet.

Lee Bul, The Secret Sharer, 2012, Photo: Watanabe Osamu, Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum

“Lee Bul: From Me, Belongs to You Only” is at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, until 27th May 2012.

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