Born in 1964, South Korean, Lee Bull's work deeply reflects on her political and social environment. From 1961 to 1987 Korean had an authoritarian rule followed by democratisation (1988-97). During this time, women's art movements work advocated for women's rights and the work served to question the strict Confucian patriarchal culture that define women in relation to their partners: 'wives and mothers'. Lee Bul's politically engaged and bold provoking work strongly stir discussions about gender roles, state governance and control, and the rise of economic development and its effects.
Entering the gallery, you walk in on a host of half human- half machine invaders. An Apocalyptic party of cyborgs, Hypersexualised Manga style women figures and naked bodies hang beside soft, fleshy costumes of snaking hybrid parts: plant, humans and animal forms. In contrast; hard plastics, metals and machine parts make up the cyborgs and figures whilst the full-body monster costumes have been hand sewn together creating soft fleshy but irksome mass. Bul's costumes successfully brings together organic forms to create bold sensual but alien-like costumes. The cyborgs demonstrate the idealised form of female beauty: concentrating on exaggerated tits and bums whilst their cyborg nature draws our mind to a place of a post human- post male dominating world. A symbol of female empowerment. These costumes part of earlier performance work that one can see on display in the next room. Particular drawn to the hybrid sculptures, I overlooked the hard to read 'Civitas Solis' made up of light bulbs on top of a sea of carefully shattered glass. Although the plates of mosaic mirror did trigger a feeling about the fragility of life: with living forms dangling from the ceiling the room certainly threw me into a sense of anxiety, disarray and turmoil.
I am particularly impressed by Lee Bull's activist voracity: in an oppressive environment where the state forbid men to cut their hair and didn't allow women to show skin; here is Lee Bul, clearly on camera wriggling upside-down as she is suspended from the ceiling in her 1989 piece Abortion calling out against the authoritarian rule of the state.
I other work Lee draws us in to idealised forms of beauty: glinting shining paintings with beautiful colours call us over from the other side of the room only to make us reflect when we get closer seeing that the delicate lines are drawn from a tangled web of hair. Her choice of materials: glass, hair, velvet, silk, mother of pearl, glass shards and crystals are all evocative: whilst cheap consumer goods such as sequin and glitter refer to the demands of an increasing consumer society, mother of pearl sheets, collages with broken glass and black and white photos of architectural structures suggest something of beauty and fragility within the human condition, then the title serves to say it all: Untitled (Willing to be Vulnerable- Velvet 6# DDRG240C) says it all. Her work highlights the relationship between human beauty and fragility by using opposing materials assembled in intricate manners, depicting the tension and beauty of human fragility. A human fragility that is exasperated by an unstable political and social climate.
Other works that evolved around depicting the unstable Korean climate include: Evacuation 2007 and Thaw 2007 (amongst the few) and it was interesting to gauge insights into Buls' artistic process with drawings, maquets as well as the finished products on show.
A highlight from the show was the participatory hall of mirrors Via Negativa 11, 2014 hits on the psychological impacts of physical space as you traverse a path laden with a prism of mirrors, increasing self-consciousness as you are confronted with infinite images of yourself. In the centre, a gallery of bulbs and mirrors that puts you in the centre of its universe with endless paths to look down.
Evocative and powerful, Bull highlights human fragility. Her work an its cyborgian, futuristic sci-fi themes embraces female empowerment. Her use of materials, soft and hard, organic and man made clustered together creating aesthetically pleasing and thought provoking forms. Her interests in Architecture and structure as well as performance and costumes design highlight the capacity to traverse gender-stereotyped design and making.