Lee Bul, The Divine Shell, 1999, Portrait for Hydra II (Monument), © Rhee Jae-yong.

Lee Bul, Cravings, 1989, Outdoor performance, Jangheung, Korea, Courtesy: Studio Lee Bul.

Lee Bul's Investigations of 20th Century Utopian Democracy

Lee Bul, Apparition, 2001, Crystal and glass beads, polyurethane on PVC and stainless steel armature, 300 x 100 x 150 cm, Installation view: Real Utopia – Stories of the Unlimited, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Collection: 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Photo: Atsushi Nakamichi/Nacasa & Partners.

Lee Bul, Cyborg W1, 1998, Cast silicone, polyurethane filling, paint pigment, 185 x 56 x 58 cm, Collection: Artsonje Center, Seoul, Courtesy: Studio Lee Bul, Photo: Yoon Hyung-moon.

Lee Bul, Amaryllis, 1999, Hand-cut polyurethane panels on aluminum armature, enamel coating, 210 x 120 x 180 cm, Collection: Arario Collection, Seoul, Courtesy: Studio Lee Bul, Photo: Rhee Jae-yong.

Lee Bul, Aubade, 2007, 400 x 200 cm, Aluminum structure, LED lights, electrical wiring, crystal and glass beads, Installation view: “On Every New Shadow” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, Courtesy: the artist and Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, Photo: Patrick Gries.


Mori Art Museum
53 F Rappongi Hills Mori Tower
+ 81-3-5777-8600
Lee Bul: From me, belongs to you only
February 4-May 27, 2012

Lee Bul was born in South Korea in 1964 and has been considered one of Asia’s leading artists since the 1990s, when her work began to be shown at numerous international venues including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Lyon Biennale and the Venice Biennale.

Having set out on her career in the late 1980s, Lee’s maturation as an artist coincided with South Korea’s development in terms of democracy, modernization and economic strength. Lee tends to make reference to 20th century utopian theory, literature and politics in her work, and often imbues it with elements of South Korea’s modern history as well as her own personal history. In this way, Lee has questioned the nature of human beings and their notions of ideal society with the aim of arriving at universal values.

This exhibition includes early performances using her own body, a series of works in which sculpture is presented as an existence transcending the human body, and also recent works reminiscent of architectural or urban planning models. Through her practice, Lee has sought to transcend both the human body and society as we know them, and this exhibition represents the first chance to get a full overview of that process. It includes around 45 works, several of which are new.

Lee Bul's work has garnered international acclaim, having been exhibited at the Projects of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1997) and in numerous international exhibitions including Lyon Biennale and the South Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1999). As a leading Asian artist, Lee’s works have been shown number of times in Japan, but this exhibition will be considered as the mid-career retrospective covering her 20 year career and including roughly 45 works, some of them new.

The exhibition subtitle, From Me, Belongs to You Only, is a message to society in general but it also demonstrates Lee's stance of emphasizing the personal relations and emotions of individuals, which tend to be overrun by the waves of political and social change. The phrase is rich with the suggestion that we should always be conscious of the relationship between the whole and the individual. We can observe same attitude in a new work made especially for this show, which will be exhibited at the end of the exhibition.

Born in 1964, Lee grew up under a military dictatorship in South Korea and she developed her career as an artist at the same time that the nation adopted democracy in 1987 onwards and then rapidly set about modernizing and developing economically. While maintaining a firm consciousness of her own country's political and social history of being colonized in the early 1900s, of division into north and south after the Korean War, of various coups d'état and revolutions, Lee has explored ways that humans have over the ages continued to pursue utopias, or ideal societies. By layering her own personal history on those broader movements, she has created a world view that is truly unique.

A dazzling world of glass, beads and chains Instead of the traditional sculptural materials of wood, stone and clay, Lee uses glass, beads and chains — industrial materials that symbolize modernism. And yet, she also employs the kind of decorativeness that modernism so strictly proscribed. In that way, the works suggest a reversal of accepted values and a new relationship between notions of beauty and ugliness. Lee's artworks create a world, illuminated dramatically, that is dazzling and surreal.

Re-creation of the artist's studio The refined and stylish works of art that will be displayed in the exhibition are realized through a lengthy process of trial and error during which the artist creates a large number of drawings and models. Such drawings will be included in a special space in the exhibition called The Studio, where vast number of drawings, models and other materials used in the works will also be shown. This display constitutes a visualization of the artist's creative process, giving viewers a peek inside her mind.

Since debuting in the then rapidly globalizing international art scene of the 1990s, Lee Bul has established herself as one of Asia’s leading artists. In 1997 her work was shown in Projects at Museum of Modern Art in New York and in 1999 she was included in the Lyon Biennale and also chosen to represent South Korea at the Venice Biennale (in a two-person show). She continued to participate in international shows in Istanbul, Shanghai and elsewhere and had a solo show at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain and was included in countless group exhibitions in North America, Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, Lee Bul: From Me, Belongs to You Only is her first large-scale solo exhibition featuring representative works from throughout her 20 year career.

Lee decided to become an artist during the military dictatorship in South Korea in the late 1980s and started showing her artworks at the same time as her country’s famed “6.29 Declaration,” in which democratic reforms were promised. Her strong hopes for a new society and also her fears about an uncertain future can be detected in early performance-based pieces in which she wore monsterlike soft-sculpture costumes. Those same concerns developed into the autonomous sculptural series Monsters (1998-) and related drawings. Meanwhile, in 1997, the way that an era of lavishness — and the values that it entailed — collapsed with the Asian financial crisis of that year was given expression in her Majestic Splendor, which included gradually rotting raw fish decorated with garish ornaments. This work was exhibited at Museum of Modern Art in New York, but, as it turned out, the stench of the decomposing fish was so bad that the exhibit was closed down early. For Lee, this episode represented the “death of art,” and at the same time it prompted her to start questioning art’s fundamental meaning.

At the same time, Lee began exploring depictions of the body as an ideal form — a vision of perfection, of the "post-human" — as interpreted by humans across the ages. Those concerns found expression in her "Cyborgs” (1997-) and “Anagrams” series. The forms of Lee’s cyborgs, depicted without heads and limbs, integrate references ranging from classical Western statuary to human-machine hybrids in dystopian worlds in film and animation. The artist uses the idea of imperfection to question the meaning of the ideal bodily form. Meanwhile, the “Anagrams” sculpture series — the title refers to the act of rearranging letters to form new words — depicts indirectly connected organic bodies that evoke at once futuristic, human-transcending life-forms and mythical creatures populating the unknown worlds in ancient atlases. Meanwhile, her more recent series from 2005, Mon grand récit (literally, my grand narrative), which is reminiscent of architectural or urban planning models, makes reference to early 20th century utopian thought such as Bruno Taut’s Alpine Architecture (1919) and Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919/1920). Other works reference the modern history of the Korean Peninsula and thereby inspire viewers to think about notions of the ideal society as a universal value transcending time and place. Such works include Thaw (Takaki Masao), which takes the title from the Japanese name of Park Chung- hee (1917-1979), the general who established the military dictatorship in South Korea and Heaven and Earth, which depicts Cheonji, a crater lake located atop Mt. Baekdu, a sacred mountain lying in the border region between North Korea and China.

At the end of the exhibition is the new work which resonates with the exhibition subtitle, From Me, Belongs to You Only. While Lee seeks connections with wider society through her artistic practice, her work does not seek to convey overt political messages. Instead, it is focused on the emotions and personal relations of individuals, which are frequently tossed around in the waves of political and social change. This new work is full of hints that will make viewers think about the nature of the ideal society and human happiness and about the relationship between the whole and the individual.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear power plant accident that occurred in March this year have wrested Japanese society from its trajectory of Meiji Era modernization and postwar economic development and placed it in a situation that is entirely unfamiliar. We, too, must now think about our own vision of an ideal society — a vision that need not be wedded to current political or economic standards. Lee Bul’s 20 years of artistic practice in neighboring South Korea will no doubt offer hints for our future, too.

Born in 1964, Lee Bul urrently lives in Seoul. She majored in sculpture at Hongik University. Since the late 1990s, she has received high acclaim around the world and established herself within the post-globalization international art scene as one of Asia's leading artists. Lee has participated in solo exhibitions at Museum of Modern Art (New York, 1997), Le Consortium (Dijon, 2002), Japan Foundation Forum (Tokyo, 2003), Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain (Paris, 2007-08) and elsewhere. She has been included in numerous group exhibitions in North America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere. In 1998, Lee was a finalist for the Hugo Boss Prize and she was also awarded a prize at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999.

Lee Bul, G Reinhard Mayer/BAWAG FOUNDATION.

Lee Bul, After Bruno Taut (Beware the sweetness of things), 2007, Crystal, glass and acrylic beads on stainless steel armature, aluminum and copper mesh, PVC, steel and aluminum chains, 258 x 200 x 250 cm, Installation view: On Every New Shadow Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, Collection: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg and Paris, Courtesy: the artist and Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, Photo: Patrick Gries.