A few months ago, a group of scientists claimed the octopus might be an alien from outer space. Able to compress themselves through tiny holes due of their boneless structure and change their skin-color at will, the lives of these molluscs are deeply unlike those of human beings. One look at science fiction is enough to show that this sense of otherness lurks behind the fascination of many with the sea, with aliens sprouting tentacles, suction cups and inhuman powers across fictional universes. It’s no wonder that these scientists, raised on the work of H.G. Wells and George Lucas, would begin to see traces of the cosmos in the planet’s waters.
The forms of the sea, and the otherness they embody, recur throughout Lee Bul’s solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. Fabric purple-tentacle costumes sag from wires next to the crisp lines of female cyborg fragments and assemblages of insectoid-parts. In the corner of the opening room, a fragmented mirror installation inspired by Tomas Campanella’s 17th century utopian novel, The City of the Sun, refracts light waves across the wall. Spanning thirty years of the Korean artist’s practice, these sculptures immediately frame some of her main concerns: technology, the female body and the dialectic between utopianism and apocalypse.
The opening wall text notes that Lee Bul is concerned with the relationships between the body and architecture. In a video of her performance Cravings, filmed in 1989 in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, Bul crawls face-forward down a flight of stairs wearing a monstrous costume like those hanging in the earlier space. She performs the architecture inhumanly, like a crab or moving sack of organs. Adjacent to other video works, where she carries out a similar performance in a high-street, or hangs naked from the ceiling reciting poetry, Bul here challenges our assumptions about the actors of public space, intensifying the otherness of the female body and its inscription in the civic arena. It is in these performances that the relationship to architecture is most powerfully conveyed, less so in the works hanging from the gallery’s ceiling.
Some of the most alluring objects in the exhibition are the fictional architectural models and maquettes that populate the gallery. Heaven and Earth is work Lee Bul created in response to the murder of Park Jong-chul, who was tortured in a bath-tub by the Korean government following student protests in 1987. An over-sized tiled tub with a lip of miniature mountain peaks, it is barely possible for the viewer to look over these into the squid-ink black water contained within. The ooze heightens the sense of a dark obscurity and censorship within an otherwise snow- white mountain-range. It’s a visceral sculpture that inverts the myth of Korea’s origins at the holy Mount Baekdu, turning it’s nationalism into a political veil as it holds its political reality to the mirror of its virtuous self-image.
Across the exhibition are the physical manifestations of crashes. The work of J.G. Ballard, author of Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, is an influence on Lee Bul’s work. In Ballard’s writing crashes literally interfuse technology with the body, be it car-fragments stuck into limbs or the prosthetics and aids needed to replace them, whilst also unleashing deeper aspects of the human psyche. On the second floor, a gigantic silver balloon fills the gallery space, a ghostly echo of the repeatedly screened Hindenburg Disaster of 1937. As with many of her works Willing to be Vulnerable hovers between a beautiful promise and a sinister disaster, reminding us of the stakes (and hubris of) technological progress. Perhaps this space of uncertainty, if the work of Lee Bul is anything to go by, is the one we need to embrace as we move into the future.