The Korea Herald


Lee Bul’s early ‘soft sculptures,’ performances presented in Seoul

By Park Yuna

Published : March 6, 2021 - 16:00

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“Majestic Splendor” by Lee Bul (Courtesy of the artist) “Majestic Splendor” by Lee Bul (Courtesy of the artist)
Lee Bul is one of the most influential contemporary artists both at home and abroad, known for challenging the conventional and pushing the boundaries of art.

“Lee Bul – Beginning” at Seoul Museum of Art focuses on Lee’s early works from the late 1980s and 1990s that reflect the artist’s conscious rejection of conventional art when she was only in her 20s and early 30s.

Born in 1964, she lived in an era of oppressive dictatorial regime in South Korea, observing postcolonial modernism in the country. After graduating from Hongik University in 1987, Lee was often left frustrated with art education at the time that forced the use of hard and fixed materials as a sculpture student. 

Artist Lee Bul (Courtesy of HO-AM Foundation) Artist Lee Bul (Courtesy of HO-AM Foundation)
Over time, she experimented with soft materials such as fabric, light fiberfill, and synthetic hair; and materialized sculptures of wriggling beings that are soft to the touch like human flesh.

Lee organized and performed a total of 33 performances, from “Cravings” in 1988 to “I Need You (Monumen)” in 1996. Out of 12 of Lee’s representative performance videos, several will be featured at the exhibition hall, dubbed a “giant black box,” where the audiences can watch the performances played in the hall.

Among Lee’s most famous performances include “Abortion” in 1989, where she challenged social norms when it was first put on show at “The 1st Korea-Japan Performance Festival” at Dongsoong Art Center.

A naked Lee occupied audience seats and hung upside down from the ceiling, her entire body tightly bound with ropes. The shocking performance led to some members of the audience, who could not bear seeing her in pain, asking the artist to end the performance. 

Performance ”Sorry for suffering -- You think I’m a puppy on a picnic?” in 1990 in Japan (Courtesy of the artist) Performance ”Sorry for suffering -- You think I’m a puppy on a picnic?” in 1990 in Japan (Courtesy of the artist)
“I did what is called guerrilla performance or unannounced street performance, it caused quite a lot of debate and questions. What I found very interesting however was that the audience got desensitized very rapidly,” the artist said in an interview with Bloomberg in 2015. “My intended messages or the issues that were supposed to be evoked started getting lost and the desensitized audience started wanting stronger stimulation and ideas.”

“Their threshold got higher and higher. So I stopped my performances at that point,” she said.

Another of Lee’s representative performance, “Sorry for suffering -- You think I’m a puppy on a picnic?” was presented in Seoul and Tokyo in 1990 as a guerrilla performance. Lee shocked members of the public when she roamed around airport gates, imperial palaces, shrines or university campuses wearing her eccentric-looking soft sculptures. 

“Majestic Splendor” by Lee Bul (Courtesy of the artist) “Majestic Splendor” by Lee Bul (Courtesy of the artist)
Lee’s eye catching shows did not always go smoothly. In her showcase of “Majestic Splendor” in 1991 in Seoul, which was a display of 63 garishly decorated raw fish in refrigerated glass cases, was invited to the “Projects” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York six years later. The exhibition however was canceled a day before the opening due to stench from the fishes.

The work later appeared at the 4th Lyon Biennale L’autre at an exhibition to show the process of fishes’ gradual decay, raising questions on the boundaries between beauty and ugliness, as well as life and death. 

The Seoul Museum of Art exhibition, which runs through May 16, showcases some 50 drawings being shown to the public for the first time, 10 sculptures and objects, 70 performance videos and “Hydra,” a participatory work that grows into a giant balloon monument as visitors step on air pumps to inflate the work.

By Park Yuna (