Standing in front of Lee Bul’s dazzling and seductive installations is an intense experience that makes your brain buzz. Employing glistening architectural constructions that are both attractive and evocative of decay, Lee Bul analyses the socio-political ideologies of the contemporary world and architecture, focusing in depth on the human fascination with ideals of perfection. Through complex and elaborate works, Lee Bul portrays failed models that echo the qualities of utopian systems of early twentieth century architecture as well as the politics of totalitarian regimes. The works displayed in ‘After Bruno Taut’ at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac strongly emphasise the excess and fragility of our world, and our failure to control it.
The gallery is inhabited by drawings, sculptures and installations, whose surface often conceals a dark and ominous interior. In the main room two large-scale installations, ‘After Bruno Taut (Beware the Sweetness of Things)’ (2006-2007) and ‘State of Reflection’ (2016), record the fantasy worlds and catastrophes of utopian ideals, focusing particularly on ideas developed by twentieth-century architects. Employing crystal, glass beads, bronze chains, stainless steel and aluminium armatures, Lee Bul has reproduced cityscapes that intertwine reality with fantasy. Such works convey at once a sense of perfection, true of utopian societies, and an ideal of fragility and precariousness typical of modernity. Inspired by the work of Bruno Taut, a German architect who supported the construction of glass buildings that would alter the perception of nature and architecture, Lee Bul’s scaled-down environments express the same intention to build a society made of light organic spaces. Taut formulated this futuristic architectural style before the end of the First World War as an attempt to turn humankind’s attention away from the traumas inflicted by the war. In a similar way, Lee Bul’s seemingly perfect cityscapes reflect on the gender disparity and socio-political situation in South Korea in the 1980s. The beads allude to the underprivileged working conditions of women who earned their living by making beaded necklaces. The use of such luxurious materials aims at revealing her fascination with futuristic and utopian architecture, but also subtly reveals relevant social issues.
The corridors of the gallery display ‘Civitas Solis’ (2015), a series of works that presents a sequence of mirrors, whose surfaces are broken and fragmented, allowing the viewer’s shadow to disappear in an infinite vortex and slip away into multiple corners of the surrounding environment. Despite their ethereal and reflective exterior, these mirrors cause an overwhelming sense of loss, accentuated by the broken exterior. Lee Bul’s work usually lacks human presence, however in this series visitors become an active presence, integral to the work, which has been damaged by the artist’s visual deception.
Lee Bul’s art is attractive and shiny. Its seductive appearance sucks you in even before you know you are dealing with intricate and elaborate ideas. Lee Bul is undoubtedly fascinated by the failed utopian ideals of past societies, precisely South Korea’s totalitarian regime in the 1980s, which still haunts her memory. However, it is her distinctive vision of the future, always marked by a hidden premonition of catastrophe, which made her one of the most significant artists of our age; an age marked by uncertainty, imperfection and anxiety.