In the past, Lee Bul has often alluded to her mistrust of ideologies and of her scepticism of the type of utopia often pursued by architects. This undercurrent of suspicion and the fragility of social idylls radiates from her large-scale sculptures on show at the Ikon gallery - the upturned Hagia Sophia of ‘Mon grand récit: Weep into stones. . .’ (2005), the crystal castles of the chandelier-like ‘After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift)’ (2013) and the fragmented, disruptive mirrored maze of ‘Via Negativa’ (2012) can all be traced back to theories on architecture and utopia. Korea is in there too; implied in the underlying totalitarianism, explicit in the sculpture of the office block where Bul once had a studio (a minor detail in the mass of ‘Mon grand récit: Weep into stones . . .’) and in the silver chains cascading from Bul’s most recent work, ‘After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift)’, a reference to the glass beads hand made by impoverished South Korean women up until the 1980s.
The exhibition opens with this new piece; it is a huge, fragile mass, suspended from the ceiling like an upended chandelier. Light reflects from the cascades of silver chains and bounces off the crystal city that populates its’ surface. The piece is inspired by the modernist architect Bruno Taut’s (1880-1938) unrealised vision for a glass city, but Bul’s pairing of Taut’s fantastical utopia with the reality of gender inequality under modernist regimes typifies the artist’s beautifully complex oeuvre.
Bul’s work is both aesthetically striking and deeply theoretical, and the large sculptural pieces that occupy the first floor gallery represent her approach to layering both in a material and a philosophical sense. The blinking LED text of ‘Mon grand récit: Weep into stones…’ is an excerpt from the 17th-century English polymath Thomas Browne’s mediation on mortality. The message forms a small detail of the whole; a Tracy Island-esque terrain complete with Scalextric-style highway and gloopy, volcanic mountain. Amidst the landscape is that upside down Hagia Sophia and a scale model of her old studio in South Korea. ‘Bunker (M.Bakhtin)’ (2007/2012) is another mountainous terrain, but one that you can crawl into and listen to a recorded soundscape. The title is a reference to the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) who theorised on the ever-evolving nature of language. So the message here is that there isn’t one, definitive message - all meaning is fragmented and evolving.
There’s lots of cerebral digging around to be done for those that want to scratch beyond the surface but in terms of instantaneous reactions, the exhibition is crammed with immediate, visceral responses too. Up on the second floor gallery, Bul’s universe unfurls with early works, preparatory sketches, maquettes, an undulating plywood floor and the claustrophobic, immersive installation, ‘Via Negativa’. Here her work feels more organic, more connected to ecology, the fragility of nature and of man’s aptitude for destruction. There are coloured rock fragments that could be from the aftermath of some kind of explosion, mutated models of wolves, and sketches upon sketches of the lumpy costumes which Bul wore in her early career. It all leads you to ‘Via Negativa’ - a coiled maze of angled, shattered reflections that culminate in a central chamber of infinity mirrors. It’s amber nectar for those who are only ever a thumb-twitch away from a Selfie, but it comes with an overriding sense of disorientating nausea. The visual trick is a riff on the theories of American psychologist Julian Jaynes (1920-1997) who wrote on the origins of self-consciousness. In Bul’s hands, our conventional view of the world and of ourselves is distorted and subverted, over and over again. Nothing is what it seems, nothing is continuous, and the world can only ever be viewed through the prism of reflection.