Hayward Gallery, London
Some of her shape-shifting work may be lost in translation, but the courage of South Korean artist Lee Bul shines through
By Laura Cumming
The Korean president lies dead in a block of ice. Or not quite dead, perhaps, for his sunglasses still glint with vitality in the depths of the transparent resin. Through a fissure near his head, skeins of black sequins spurt like blood, gathering in bright pools on the floor. The sculpture is deeply sinister and yet somehow pretty; although its title, Thaw, is a clincher. At any moment the ice could melt and President Park Chung-hee might come back to life in all his brutality.
Beauty with menace: that is the classic Lee Bul formula. It has made her the most famous artist in South Korea. Born in Seoul in 1964, she was brought up under Park’s ruthless military dictatorship; the memory lingers in that president on ice. And nearby stands another of Lee’s most renowned sculptures: an immense bath filled with black ink, surrounded by a range of pale mountains reflected in its shivering surface.
This invokes the water torture of a young civil rights activist in 1987, the very year of South Korea’s first democratic elections. All dreams of a free future were dashed by further repression and the rampant urbanisation that stands in contrast to those ghostly mountains. Once a place of pilgrimage for South Koreans, they are now beyond reach inside the boundaries of North Korea.
These are sharply political works, and there are others in this huge survey, especially those that play on Korean consumerism: mountains of plastic bracelets, cheap gewgaws recast as priceless ceramics, ancient sculptures reprised in billions of throwaway beads. But Lee is not so easily pinned down. For one thing, she works in every genre, from installation to video to delicate painting on silk, and with every kind of medium, from cardboard and canvas to shattered glass and dead fish. What strikes, more than any individual work here, is the overwhelming mix-up of it all.
The opening gallery is a kind of high-wire circus. Suspended from the ceiling are the white cyborg figures for which Lee is probably best known – a futuristic hybrid of weird prostheses and idealised female proportions: JG Ballard crossed with Barbie. Among them hang angel wings disfigured with insect-like proboscises, and huge inflatable suits sprouting multiple hands and writhing, tuber-like growths, stitched in flesh-pink and ash-gray cloth. These were once worn for street performances, as you discover from videos in the next room. The whole thing is a kind of giant aerial wardrobe.
It’s good that the Hayward is screening these early performances, because they show Lee’s outright radicalism. South Korea was once a country where women could not show more than 20cm of bare leg above the knee, where there was only one permitted hairstyle, where abortion was (and remains) illegal. To see Lee crawling about in her bizarre body sculptures, performing anti-authoritarian monologues, or dangling naked above anxious and bewildered citizens actually talking about the humiliations of life as a Korean woman is to have some sense of her extraordinary courage.
Some of her art must inevitably have a different meaning to Korean viewers. It is hard to gauge, for instance, the power in Seoul of a gigantic inflatable doll – blown up with the aid of many visitors – which showed the artist in a revealing costume made out of cheap plastic flowers. Or the sci-fi karaoke pod into which the singer climbs to sing her heart out entirely unheard. But other pieces appear directly aimed at the west. Silk embroideries which turn out to be stitched in human hair. Silicon goddesses. Dainty glass hands, with butterflies trapped inside them, a jab at our ideas of oriental femininity, specifically Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This jeux d’esprit appears not once but three times, falling flat.
But it seems to me that Lee likes to thwart. The Hayward Gallery has recreated a historic work, first shown at Moma in New York in 1997. Majestic Splendor is a polythene shrine kept aloft by jets of air, containing what appears to be a wall of memorial plaques. But enter, and these turn out to be scores of dead fish in polythene bags, each garnished with a handful of glittering bracelets. Whatever one expected, whatever one tries to make of this spectacle of death and beauty and sacred ritual, the presentiment of putrefaction overwhelms.
Of late, Lee’s work has become grander and more technically complex. You are invited to enter a gleaming black plexiglass Batcave and put on headphones. The soundtrack alters according to the world outside. For me there was a silence so ominous it felt as if a gun was about to go off. Lee is brilliant at this imminent sense of disaster. Step back out, and you’re beneath a colossal chandelier strewn with emblematic chains that might be about to crush the citizens below.
But she can also veer straight from the pointed to the pointless. A full-scale zeppelin made out of tin foil, empty as the balloon it depicts; a maze of mirrors, etched with mirror writing on the subject of the right and left brain function that can’t be read. Above all, the largest work in this show, which is titled City of the Sun.
This takes the form an ankle-height plateau fashioned out of shards of black glass, each digitally cut, resting upon hundreds of plastic cups. Lightbulbs installed in its surface apparently spell out the title in Korean and English. But of course nobody on Earth can read it, so the significance of the whole endeavour depends on an explanatory wall text. That’s the thing about art objects and their meanings: they have to have a relationship of their own independent of somebody’s else words otherwise they remain – in this case, literally – illegible.