Presented at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, South-Korean artist Lee Bul’s display encompasses two floors of the building, bringing together sculptures, installations, maquettes, several paintings and a large number of her drawings.
The first floor galleries show large-scale discrete and semi-discrete sculptures. These include After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift) (2013; fig.1), in the first room, a new work commissioned through the Art Fund International for the West Midland Consortium, whose collection is jointly owned by New Art Gallery Walsall and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It is an opulent and excessive chandelier-like construction. Tiny sparkling towers and cascades of crystal beads form a silvery, impossible city suspended in mid-air. It is sharp, fragile and reflective: it becomes your city, a city of the viewer’s imagination. But the glittering materials belie a darker undercurrent. This piece draws specifically on the problematic trade in trinkets made by poorly-paid and over-worked people. Bul’s reference point is the impoverished women who made beaded necklaces in South Korea up until the 1980s. The issue, of course, continues today in many parts of the world, conveniently overlooked by bargain-hungry Westerners. Bul’s introductory sculpture, then, marks her as an artist whose works are of incredible beauty and of shining, opulent materials that obscure or partially obscure significant political and social concerns. The title and form of this sculpture disclose her fascination with architecture and utopian design ideals. The titular ‘Bruno Taut’ was a German Modernist architect, who saw the potential of glass as an architectural material in its own right, as something to use in abundance, everywhere. Bul’s sculpture is influenced by his unrealised designs for a city of glass.
While After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift) (fig.1) is undeniably beautiful, intricate and inviting, even more engaging, perhaps, are Bul’s sculptures that undercut themselves further, that mix up materials and textures to create forms which are altogether more surprising. The next room is home to Excavation (2007) a concrete tower, with a heavy base and precarious flat top, almost like a bed on a pillar. A fall of dark hair hangs from its uppermost surface like a canopy and pokes out of tiny window slits on the concrete wall. Fairy-tale like, the false hair strikes an uneasy balance with the use of crystals and slabs of utilitarian concrete. Its material combinations are extraordinary, abject and compelling: it is South Korea, Birmingham and Neverland all at once.
This room is also the site for Mon grand récit: Weep into stones. . . (2005; Main image). In this huge sculpture there are empty stairwells, scaffolding, a lava flow that looks like wet cement and enormous roads that loop and twist back on themselves; echoes of the urban infrastructure of Birmingham are difficult to miss, although Bul’s point of departure is totalitarian Korea. There is a scale model of the studio she occupied in Seoul while it was under military dictatorship precariously balanced within this complex sculpture. The work combines with a nearby transmission tower which broadcasts two lines of text in flashing LED light-bulbs, the words, ‘weep into stones / fables like snow/ our few evil days/’ taken from Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia (1658) poetically alluding to death. The text’s pulsating rhythm, dominating scale and dis/utopian feeling are as much related to an imagined future as a realised present. A maquette for this work is shown nearby, and here the cement substance is more like chewing gum, another all too ubiquitous material on urban streets, clogging and marking pavements with rebellious gestures of discarded material.
Upstairs on the second floor, is Bul’s Via Negativa (2012; fig.2). The installation is constructed from angular wooden fragments, backed with book pages that speak of the origins of consciousness on the exterior, and mirrored glass on the interior. I say ‘interior’ because Via Negativa is a spiralling mirrored maze. It has a mirrored floor and ceiling, and the mirrored walls multiply and fragment the reflection of the exhibition visitor, over and over. It is a disorientating, unsettling experience. In this self-reflective work, the viewer must look at himself from every angle and at every step taken. The space, TARDIS-like, seems to be much larger on the inside than the outside, and in the middle are banks of green light bulbs that extend it even further. Bul uses infinity mirrors in the adjacent sculpture Untitled ‘Infinity Wall’ (2008; fig.3) too, and this science-fiction leaning can be seen throughout many of her two and three dimensional works. Space and place are layered, confused and undermined with visual trickery.
Bul transforms the last two of Ikon’s main rooms into an overwhelming landscape, full to the brim with sculptures and over one hundred and fifty drawings. The atmosphere of these final two rooms is markedly different. More playful, they continue to present the viewer with spaces to lose himself inside, but are somehow freer. If the viewer has already encountered Bul’s near obsessive attention to detail, here he finds the artist’s ‘uncontainablity’ and limitless energy.
The sprawling floor-based work, Diluvium, is at once a sculpture, a plinth and an interactive surface that can be walked over and sat upon. Constructed from steel supports overlaid with plywood, it forms a complex geometric puzzle made from modular units. These units relate back to Via Negativa, too: simple parts that form a complex whole. Bul has spoken about society in such terms. Her numerous strange sculptures of vomiting dogs are also located in this section of the exhibition. Rendered in felt, plaster, steel, packing tape, newspaper and many other materials, these are a series of experiments in material through repeated form. Her pack of dogs inhabits this place.
Similarly her drawings inhabit the vertical space, leaving little of the gallery wall showing. Bul has said of her working methods: ‘I start to sketch or just write about my ideas and put them up all over my walls in my studio, and every day I watch this grow into a map of ideas until one day I think maybe I can make this concrete and specific.’ Various drawings made at different points in her career map out ideas in series. There are cyborg drawings, relating to fish and fish-tanks, abstract forms that reference alien bodily forms repeated over and over like tests for the perfect set of marks. Studies for sculptures, costume designs, monsters, spaceships – the list goes on and so does her output.
Mirrors and glass are a recurring material motif throughout the exhibition, and her concern with architectural spaces and how art might shape these is constantly revisited. For me, though, Bul’s most interesting works are those that are less bound by material constraints and less discrete as autonomous objects. The more free and experimental works, those which are allowed to sprawl and crawl in the space, to climb the walls and to secrete themselves behind and on top of other works, or to wrap around the viewer, are the most rewarding. Bul’s exhibition is permeated with a sense of abundance and her relentless desire to keep on making, provides a space to lose oneself. The artist invites the viewer to let his eyes and his mind roam to inhabit Bul’s world of beautiful, flawed and impossible places, if only for the duration of the gallery visit.
Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
10 September – 9 November 2014
Commissioned and published by 3rd Dimension magazine, the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association publication, 3 November 2014.