An artist whose works undulate with vitality one can almost sense through the skin does not come about overnight. That’s why for an in-depth understanding of artists and their works, looking back on the traces left behind has always provided an important clue. Lee Bul : Beginning underway at the Seoul Museum of Art(“SeMA”) since March 2nd is an exhibition that spotlights the early works of an iconic Korean contemporary artist Lee Bul, showcasing her “soft sculpture” and the records of performances presented over a decade.
The works of Lee Bul - leading the Korean avant-garde contemporary art - have put on display, the artist’s insightful take on society along the changing times. But what’s been considered to have permeated and expanded its basis, are the experiences and examinations of the era and gender that she lived through. The young Lee Bul who had fully embarked on her work upon graduating with a degree in sculpture from Hongik University in 1987 defied the largely conservative art world then and sought to break away from the rigid art scene by employing radical performances and unconventional materials.

The massive Hydra (Monument) one encounters upon entering SeMA’s main building is an artwork created as an extension of that period, and the work is open to visitor participation. The balloon monument with a printed image is connected to an air pump, engaging visitors to step on it to raise the figure, a paradoxical process so to speak. The resulting looming sculpture shows the portrait of Lee Bul dressed up as a composite of Asian women, which alludes to the nature of the artist’s perspective – one that parodies and mocks the distorted viewpoint of orientalism and social conventions on women –inherent in her artistic practice. In the exhibit space that follows, works produced by Lee Bul in her 20s offer a glimpse into how her work began. The bizarre-shaped “soft sculpture” occupying the center of the hall certainly calls to mind the human body, but the fragmented and disfigured pieces bunched up creates a mysteriously dreadful and grotesque air. The works that are suggestive of internal organs and tentacles – a far cry from universal aesthetic sensibilities – connote, due to its organic life-like features, the autonomous body that perceives the world, and foreshadow the shock to come in the next exhibit room.

A dark exhibit room distinguishable only through the wind murmuring nonstop and the light emanating from the beam projector. The experiences in Exhibition Hall 2 portrayed through the bodies and motions crowding the wall is a vastly alien territory for viewers. In this space assembling 12 video footages out of numerous performances acted out by the artist, we witness the convergence of the past and present, and experience an intense skin crawling sensation. Inside the black box that is the exhibition hall, the optic nerves sensing the artist’s performances - documented as objects of video recordings – suddenly galvanize our awareness of the present moment through works that emerge from a metaphor of watching flagrant spectacles and an era overflowing with physicality. The artists’ various activities – ceaselessly commenting on social aspects including gender issues, the East and the West, and the mass and the elites while making use of her own body as a screen naturally remind of the flesh in art, utilized as abject* and simultaneously reveal contradictory meanings. 
Moreover, partly available at the exhibition room, Majestic Splendor (1997) –- invited for display at the Museum of Modern Art(MoMA), New York – is an installation artwork of a lavishly adorned raw fish. Since the work also included the process of decomposition and alteration as time went by, it was taken down due to the stench and entangled Lee in a lawsuit. The work collided head on with the museum’s longstanding authority, and after winning the case against the museum, Lee cements her status as a globally renowned artist. The splendidly bejeweled fish was a metaphor for the body, and as it decays, is shunned and thrown out at the end, viewers will get a visceral feeling of the society’s prevailing views and customs.

Since the early works of the artist Lee Bul browsed through the exhibition can still be understood in the current context after 30 years, the Korean art scene in the early 2000s that observed the unfolding furor would call her a “female warrior of contemporary art.” Though it may be an irony of the era to have attached until the very end, “female” to an artist who talked about norms clashing against binary perspectives throughout her work, there’s no denying that the contemporary Lee Bul has transcended that stage to remain as an artist who addresses the humanity and world at large. As much as she’s an artist whose stories of the past stretch to the present as valid skepticisms and reflections, how far the stories of the present extend out to the future will remain as a stage for us  to experience ourselves down the road.
  • ©️ Jangro Lee
TRIVIA

Abject

Abject is a concept translated as “lowliness” and was theorized by the French thinker Julia Kristeva. According to the author’s book The Power of Terror, it is a psychological revulsion and disgust towards things that collide with physical stability, such as corpses, disfigured body parts, and excrement, etc. Thus, showing resistance to the universal aesthetic sensibility, Abject art has an intrinsic meaning of breaking down social taboos and building a hybrid culture.
Article. Jangro Lee (Art Critic)
Design. Yurim Jeon
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