In 1997, MoMA, New York, was forced to remove an installation by Lee Bul (b. 1962) from the Projects series because of the intense odour that it gave off. Majestic Splendor (1991-1997) saw a rotting fish embroidered with sequins, in one of the South Korean artist’s eclectic determination to address notions of beauty, the role of femininity and its value.
It had been expected that Majestic Splendor would be on show once more, as a part of Lee Bul: Crashing at the Hayward Gallery, London. This time, the use of chemicals eliminates the shock value. Amidst concerns that the fish could pose a potential safety hazard, it has been taken off display once more. Given Bul’s diverse and extensive career, however, there are plenty more works to focus on: the exhibition covers the past three decades, and highlights the artist’s venture across disciplines into painting, sculpture and performance.
Early pieces, like the performance Sorry for Suffering – You think I’m a puppy on a picnic (1990), in which Bul took to the streets of Seoul in a costume affixed with appendages resembling body parts, demonstrate the outlandish approaches taken to engage with the audience. Over time, mechanical grandeur has replaced these organic, soft costumes. Cyborg (1997-), the iconic sculptural piece in which incomplete body casts that merge human with machine, approaches the desire to achieve perfection – as made possible by new technologies.
Whilst themes like science fiction, futurism, and urbanism are the constant force in Bul’s work, the sheer scale continues to increase. The maze-like installation Via Negativa II (2014) posits the viewer in an overwhelming display of mirrors and lights that destabilise spatial awareness. The architectural qualities reflect the pace at which globalisation and technological advancement are changing the world, and draw attention to visions of utopia. The sense of awe-inspiring immersion that Bul’s elicits is never far from the potential of disaster; a giant foil Hindenberg Zeppelin dominates the recently refurbished Upper Galleries, teetering between hope and horror.