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Lee Bul, Sorry for suffering 1990
“Sorry for suffering – You think I’m a puppy on a picnic?” (1990)Southbank Centre

The Korean artist using manga and rotting fish as social commentary

Everything you need to know about the pioneering South Korean artist and disruptor Lee Bul

Had you walked the streets of Tokyo in 1990, you may have bumped into a South Korean artist dressed as a monstrous, tentacle-laden creature. This artist was Lee Bull, whose 12-day performance, “Sorry for suffering – You think I’m a puppy on a picnic? (1990)”, began when she boarded a plane at Seoul’s Kimpo airport and headed for Tokyo, swamped by the heavy, flesh-coloured material of her bulging bodysuit, and ready to let loose on the capital city.

Like so many of us who have found ourselves feverishly hoping that an overpacked bag will pass as hand luggage, Lee – visionary artist though she may be – fell victim to the dire regulations of air travel. Airline staff informed her that it wouldn’t be possible for her to book a seat, given her weighty, bulbous attire. Lee rowed with the airline staff and finally persuaded them to let her board the plane on the condition that she bought two seats.

For the average holiday-goer, such airport disputes are a hassle at best, but for Lee, this was all part of her art piece. While she says that she will never discuss what her art means, “Sorry for suffering – You think I’m a puppy on a picnic” (1990) is believed to be a feminist critique on the controlling of women’s bodies in patriarchal East Asian society, given Lee had transformed her female body into something monstrous; something socially unacceptable. How better to show the restrictions placed on our bodies, than by donning a monster suit, and defying the (airline) rules?

“I was constantly reminded of the fact that my life was unlike the lives of others” – Lee Bul

This early piece would kick off a three-decade-long career for Lee. From the late 80s up until now, she has been prolific in creating a wide-range of works, which draw on a jumble of references from Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell (1989-90) manga series, to South Korean politics, and even the decaying stench of a fish market. Her work sees her revisiting past experiences (even her own abortion) and then imagining what our future hopes could look like.

This is a journey through Lee Bul’s unusual life and one that might also get you thinking about the tangle of memories and occurrences that make up yours. In an ode to Lee’s incredible oeuvre, the Hayward Gallery is currently in the midst of hosting more than 100 of the artist’s works, in the show Lee Bul: Crashing, which runs until August 19.

Before you head there, read everything you must know about the seminal artist Lee Bul.

HER WORK IS INFLUENCED BY HER CHILDHOOD IN SOUTH KOREA

From 1960-1980, South Korea was ruled by a dictatorship under president Park Chung-hee, and in 1964, Lee Bul was born right into it. Growing up under a military regime was only made more difficult by the fact that her parents were left-wing political dissidents who opposed the government’s ideology. This meant that the family had to move house constantly under the watchful eye of the police force, who would regularly inspect their home for banned items.

At the age of 11, Lee moved into a military village with her family. She has described this as a bleak time in her life, surrounded by an ugly and deprived landscape. President Chung-Hee’s chaotic modernisation plans meant that developments and roads were often left half-finished, and her neighbours – soldiers and farmers working on these projects – were continually coming and going. “I often found myself placed amongst strangers, and… I was constantly reminded of the fact that my life was unlike the lives of others. That my conditions were different. I developed a sense of distance because of it,” said Lee in conversation with Stephanie Rosenthal. “My interests are very strongly related to my childhood, the 1960s and 1970s, the rapid modernisation of Korea,” she has said. “My life is very strongly connected with the modern. I’m still mapping something – following the memory.”

SHE DISRUPTS THE SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE 

Lee studied sculpture at Hongik University but was unsatisfied with her art school experience. It was when she discovered theatre that she felt creative freedom: “Because of my interest in theatre, I was able to recognise the limitations of sculpture and push it …”, she said, speaking to Stephanie Rosenthal for the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition catalogue, “everything was available to me as a potential material, even my physical body.” Indeed, for Lee’s performance piece “Abortion” (1989), her naked body was the focus point: completely naked from beginning to end, she was strapped, tied, and hung upside down on the stage, while she talked about her own abortion for nearly two hours.

Abortion was, and still is, illegal in South Korea, and this work positioned Lee as a radical social commentator. For “Sorry for suffering – You think I’m a puppy on a picnic?” (1990), Lee reified her status as disruptor when she took to the streets of Tokyo wearing a monstrous body suit made up of bulging tentacles and limbs, which resembled grotesque and mutilated flesh. “South Korea was once a country where women could not show more than 20cm of bare leg above the knee, where there was only one permitted hairstyle, where abortion was (and remains) illegal”, wrote The Guardian’s Laura Cumming. “To see Lee crawling about in her bizarre body sculptures… or dangling naked above anxious and bewildered citizens actually talking about the humiliations of life as a Korean woman is to have some sense of her extraordinary courage.” 

SHE HAS A LOT TO SAY ABOUT SOUTH KOREAN POLITICS

Lee’s work is distinctly rooted in political and ethical discussions: “I came to realise that growing up with leftist parents in a country that at the time did not approve of leftist ideas shaped me”, she has revealed. This is most evident in 2007’s “Thaw (Takaki Masao)”, an iceberg-like sculpture, with a figure of ex-military dictator Park Chung-hee trapped inside. Black tentacle-like beads trail out from the sculpture, which, in the exhibition guide, Lee relates to the fact that Park “still exerts a kind of dark, nostalgic pull on many Koreans”.

In “Heaven and Earth” (2007), Lee presents a bathtub filled with black ink. It is made up of damaged tiles, with a mountain range sitting around the rim. This piece references the death of university student Park Jong Chul, who was killed in 1987 at the hands of South Korean authorities while being tortured in a bathtub. Park was being interrogated about the whereabouts of a radical campus leader at the time of his death. This was at a time of mass demonstrations, which called for fair elections and reforms, and Park became a martyr of the “June Democracy Movement” of 1987. The work’s mountain detail also addresses the division of Korea into North and South. Lee has explained that the work and its title relate to Heaven Lake on Korea’s holy Mount Baekdu – which in Korean legend is thought of as the sacred birthplace of the nation’s founder. Since the separation of North and South, the site is now located in North Korea. Critic Yeon Shim Chung writes that for South Koreans, the mountain has become an abstract concept, similar to idyllic images of heaven.

SHE STANK OUT MoMA WITH ROTTEN FISH 

In 1997, Lee Bul’s “Majestic Splendor” (1991-97) saw bags of sequinned decaying fish pinned to the walls of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Lee had commissioned a specially made refrigerator system, but this failed, and the stench of rotting fish permeated the gallery space. Unsurprisingly, visitors complained about the smell and the exhibition was shut down.

In Lee Bul: Crashing’s exhibition guide, academic and professor Yeon Shim Chung writes that while walking through a Seoul fish market, Lee saw that “scent, sexuality, flesh, and desire are inextricably linked to inevitable decay”. This was Lee's stimulus for creating the bejewelled rotting fish as symbols of South Korean attitudes towards female sexuality. Yeon Shim also muses on Lee’s use of a specific fish called a domi – explaining that Koreans associate this fish with a folklore tale where a heroine commits suicide to protect her virtue, rather than submit to the sexual advances of a lusty king. In “Majestic Splendour”, Lee asks us to see this dedication to female chastity as ridiculous and problematic. We can take the fish to be a statement about the female body as something organic and decaying, rather than something transcendent and pure which is not to be touched. “Lee has placed the fish in a chemical and protected them in sealed Mylar bags, so it’ll be fine,” says curator Stephanie Rosenthal. “Health and safety wouldn’t be persuaded otherwise,” she adds.

“My interests are very strongly related to my childhood, the 1960s and 1970s, the rapid modernisation of Korea” – Lee Bul

SHE DRAWS ON A DARK TROVE OF REFERENCES 

Lee uses influences from a host of Asian and western literature, pop culture, and news items in her work. “Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon” (2015–16), a 17-metre long sculpture resembling a huge metallic blimp, references the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, where the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire, killing 36 people. Lee’s new work, Scale of Tongue (2017-18), draws on the Sewol Ferry Disaster of 2014: an incident which caused uproar in South Korea, with the ferry operator, crew, and South Korean government criticised for their lack of response. Both of these works critique technology and show modern devices as prone to failure, death, and destruction. The Guggenheim has also outlined Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927), Masamune Shirow’s manga series Ghost in the Shell (1989–90), and feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s book A Cyborg Manifesto (1991) as influences for Lee’s preoccupation with dystopian ideas. We can take the title of Lee’s Crashing (2018) exhibition at the Hayward Gallery to be a reference to sci-fi author J G Ballard’s Crash (1973), a novel about car-crash sexual fetishism, where the protagonists are sexually aroused by car-crashes that they cause. This echoes Lee’s account of an accident she witnessed as a young girl, where two lovers on a motorcycle lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a nearby bakery. Lee says images of the bodies mangled with colourful cakes lingered in her memory.  

HER MOST RECENT SUBJECT IS ARCHITECTURE 

Having grown up in a precarious existence of forced nomadism where the need for secure dwelling space was a constant anxiety, it’s no surprise that much of Lee’s work centres around architecture. Critic Michaël Amy writes in the exhibition guide that “Lee Bul was compelled to imagine what lay ahead, including the dwellings she would move onto next. The hope for better circumstances kept her going… Hope is the lifeline leading one out of horror.” Amy also talks about Lee’s architectural structures as symbols of hope for a better future. “These works resemble models for utopian architecture”, he says, “by which I mean an architecture embodying ideals that are longed for.”

To frame this utopian future, Lee draws on a wealth of historical references for her architectural installation “Mon grand récit: Weep into stones…” (2005). These include Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin’s “Tower” (1960), a modernist staircase from Federico Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita (1960), a skyscraper from Hugh Ferriss’ 1929 book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow, and Instanbul’s historical Hagia Sophia. This hope for a utopian future is evidenced in Lee’s “Devotion to Drift” (2013): suspended like a chandelier, resplendent with crystals, chains and mirrors, the piece resembles castles floating in the air. With a belief that echoes the ideological failures of her difficult childhood under a military regime, Lee imagines utopia but warns us that pursuit of this ideal is all too often riddled with failed hope. “Perched on skeletal frameworks, Lee’s landscapes are a fragile mass that could collapse in a matter of seconds – as unrealised hopes often do in utopias”, described writer Sherry Paik.

Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery runs 1 June – 19 August 2018. You can find out more here