Lee Bul searches for utopia

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      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 10, 2016

      Adapted from an internationally touring retrospective, Lee Bul’s solo show at the Vancouver Art Gallery pulls together diverse aspects of her acclaimed career. It touches on a number of the Korean artist’s interests and expressions over the past 15 years, from early drawings of costumes for street performances to interactive, architectonic sculptures. The last gallery in the exhibition is installed as if it were the artist’s studio, filled with two- and three-dimensional studies for recent installation and sculpture projects.

      Born in South Korea in 1964, Lee was the daughter of political dissidents opposed to the country’s then-military dictatorship. The art she began producing in the late 1980s and early 1990s was political too, although not in the sense of explicitly opposing a totalitarian form of government. Rather, it critiqued other ideologies and cultural constructs, especially those around gender, sexuality, and desire. Her large coloured drawings of the full-body soft sculptures she wore during her performances are wonderful works in themselves. Through the expressive depiction of bulging flesh and grotesquely dangling appendages—feet,hands, tentacles—they convey both the monstrous and the seductive and are among the most compelling works in the show.

      Other drawings are studies for her installations of rotting fish embellished with sequins (again conflating the beautiful and the repellent) and her well-known series of cyborg sculptures (folding sexual allure and art historical representations of female beauty into society’s fearful anticipation of robotic technologies and artificial intelligence). Also on view are 72 works on paper developing ideas for an ambitious grouping of interconnected sculptures, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Again, Lee’s drawings are fluid and articulate.

      Since the turn of the millennium, Lee’s sculptures have been largely architectural in form and reference, addressing humankind’s aspirations toward a utopian way of life. These works are also informed by the artist’s concerns about the rapid and decidedly nonutopian urbanization and development in her home country—and throughout the world. Her references here include both early modernist and contemporary thinkers, from the German architect Bruno Taut and Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin to French cultural theorist Jean-François Lyotard and American psychologist Julian Jaynes.

      Pages from Jaynes’s book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in both English and Korean, are pasted on the exterior of Lee’s walk-through sculpture Via Negativa. Together with the Jaynes text, the mirrored interior of this work, a maze filled with a disorienting succession of reflecting angles, turns, and dead ends, suggests a confrontation with ourselves, of who we are and how we have constructed a sense of self. (A word of warning: for the claustrophobic, navigating Via Negativa can be a panic-inducing experience.) This work also calls up a succession of mirrored rooms and corridors by contemporary artists, from Lucas Samaras to Ken Lum.

      The untitled, chandelierlike sculpture hanging in the VAG’s rotunda alludes, somewhat obliquely, to Taut’s 1917 proposal for a utopian, mountain-sized glass structure. Lee’s mixed-media sculpture, with its draped and dangling strands of crystal, glass, and acrylic beads, does not attempt to mimic such a form but does communicate a kind of wonder. (In fact, it is a bit reminiscent of a galleon.) At the same time, the more angular, sharp, and abrupt metal forms within it create an intentional dissonance, suggestive of postmodern skepticism. Within this glittering fantasy resides an acknowledgment of the impossibility of ever achieving the past’s conception of a utopian future.