Coinciding retrospectives of Lee Bul and Seung-Taek Lee shed light on a divided nation
By Jane Ure-Smith
While the world focuses this week on Korean geopolitics, two London galleries have turned the spotlight on Korean art. At the Hayward Gallery, a beguiling mid-career survey of work by Lee Bul presents us with a fractured world where seductive surface glitter masks something darker beneath, while at White Cube, a smaller but no less impressive show gives a taste of the poetic inventiveness of Seung-Taek Lee. Now 54, Lee Bul emerged as an artist in the late 1980s. South Korea was moving from dictatorship to democracy — and the contemporary art scene was poised to go global. A sculpture graduate from the elite Hongik University, Lee Bul nonetheless launched into performance art: padding out her body, she stalked the streets of Seoul as a strange, lumpy creature questioning notions of female beauty. Seung-Taek Lee, 86, grew up in what is now North Korea. As a young artist he was surprised to be asked by a party official if he could make a statue of Kim Il-Sung, the new country’s founding dictator. It was touch and go, but eventually he succeeded and was exempted from military service. A statue of Stalin followed. Then in 1950, as war broke out, he fled to the south. In their very different ways, Lee Bul and Seung-Taek Lee are two of Korea’s most politically attuned contemporary artists. Taken together, their coinciding exhibitions shed much light on the politics and history of the divided peninsula. Weird, multi-limbed “monsters” dangle from the rafters in the first room of Lee Bul’s show. Harking back to her performance days, they guide us to the first of a series of pieces centring on failed utopias, “Civitas Solis II”, from 2014, a spiky, fractured-mirror platform supporting hundreds of lightbulbs.
Failed utopias have long fascinated the artist. Up the ramp, in the adjacent room, we find “Mon grand récit: weep into stones”, from 2005, a sprawling dystopian landscape perched precariously on scaffolding, which speaks of the failure of modern cities, both in Korea and abroad, to live up to their promise. Alongside it is a chandelier-like assemblage inspired by the Weimar architect Bruno Taut, whose unrealised utopian dream was a city of glass in the Alps. I first saw the work in 2014, soon after it was made and, displayed on high, against a dark background, it seemed a delicate, far-off fantasy castle in the air. As a sign of our gloomier times, perhaps, the Hayward has hung it nearer the floor, above a dark mirror that draws us cleverly into the depths. Upstairs, a room-filling silver Zeppelin references the Hindenburg disaster and in the final room comes “Via Negativa II”, a disorienting mirrored maze. On the outside of the enclosure is a text on split consciousness (unreadable, because in reverse) by the American psychologist Julian Jaynes, who died in 1997. On the inside, the viewer follows a path to an inner chamber where you face yourself many times over, in illuminated infinity mirrors. For Lee Bul, this is a way of suggesting that our knowledge of the world is always fragmented. For the two women I followed, however, it was simply a place to go mad taking selfies.
The most powerful works in Lee Bul’s show are those that speak of Korea: the shudder-inducing “Heaven and Earth”, for example, a giant bathtub filled with black ink that evokes the memory of Park Jong-Chul, a student who suffocated while being tortured in 1987. Or the creepy “Thaw (Takaki Masao)”, a naked effigy of the dictator Park Chung-Hee, wearing his trademark Ray-Ban shades and encased in a fibreglass “block of ice”. A tentacle-like trail of black beads spreads out from it across the floor. “Park still exerts a kind of dark nostalgic pull on many Koreans,” the artist says. At White Cube Mason’s Yard, Seung-Taek Lee’s exhibition is a game of two halves. The exquisite abstract assemblages of string, wire and stone upstairs are a world away from the primary-coloured, spinning-top-like pieces in the basement. Made in the 1960s from shiny new vinyl — hardly a conventional sculptural material — the latter were adjuncts to early performance pieces that used wind, water and smoke. “His aim, I think, was to ‘contain’ the wind,” suggests the show’s curator, Katharine Kostyal.
Lee has always been a rebel. A path-breaking conceptualist, with a deep understanding of both Korean culture and western aesthetics, he has fought shy of alignment with any particular group, most notably Dansaekhwa, the Korean Monochrome movement, a dominant force since the 1970s. Until very recently in Korea, contemporary artists relied on public funding: if you didn’t sign up, you didn’t get shown and in effect you didn’t have an income. Lee has supported himself by making figurative sculpture, including a statue of General MacArthur: “I don’t define this activity as art,” he has said. Lee describes his work as “non-sculpture” but, as Je Yun Moon, curator at London’s Korean Cultural Centre explains, the connotations of the phrase in Korean are different from English: “It doesn’t mean it’s not sculpture,” she says. “It means it’s more than sculpture.” White Cube’s exhibition shows that, in Lee’s hands, materials can take on unexpected characteristics: knotted rope becomes a way of drawing on paper; intractable granite can become something malleable, sensual, even erotic.
There is nothing erotic about the Hayward’s brutalist concrete exterior. For Lee Bul it evokes a concrete bunker, a reminder of war, one of many still dotted across the world, not least in Korea. Invited by the gallery to respond to the architecture, she has covered the building with a delicate curtain of glass beads and crystals. On a dull day, it’s easy to miss them, but in direct sunlight they pulse and throb, tiny spots of purple, green, blue and red blinking at us, to magical effect.