Lee Bul at Ikon

Living in space? Hoverboards? Robot housekeepers? They can all go fuck themselves. The future is now and it’s throbbing centre is the crashing of visual cultures from comic shop to art gallery. I’d rather live in a time when you can move from Nostalgia and Comics store to Ikon gallery and experience the same questioning of contemporary society, than live in the past, when those two might have existed in separate worlds, never to meet. Oh, the future of now.

Mon grand récit: Weep into stones… (2005)
Mon grand récit: Weep into stones…

The recent exhibition of the work of Korean artist Lee Bul at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery from 10 September — 9 November 2014, brought together a broad stroke of her work, tracing several concerns that appear to have emerged over time. It’s a sci-fi future-past that she explores, with the cybernetic enhancement of the human experience, whether directly through physical enhancement (she favours the donning of costumes, as opposed to the life-altering slice and tuck of Stelarc, for example) or through a consideration of the built environment. I found the references too sci-fi rich in the work, or maybe it is too ‘of the now’ to understand what the work is really saying about contemporary life, and to separate it from those references.

Sketch by Lee Bul
Sketch by Lee Bul

As a retrospective, the exhibition covers some real detail. You can trace the nodes along the journey from her earlier performance (where Bul wore the cyber-enhancement costumes) to the more recent cityscape sculptures. We get to see the concept art and the sketches, much as one would with a science-fiction movie, but I wasn’t able to find any documentary footage of her wearing the suits, which seemed a shame. Maybe they disappoint in the execution? The sketches meanwhile, are rich in potential.

All in though, to move from reading Judge Dredd to then see Lee Bul at Ikon is to be confronted with a view of the contemporary cityscape that must be true, just because they echo each other so closely, one might think. There were plenty of opportunities to reflect as the exhibition was packed with works. Somewhere, there are a lot of empty packing cases sitting ready for repackaging. In the exhibition write up, the curators suggest:

The sculptures reflect utopian architectural schemes of the early 20th century as well as architectural images of totalitarianism from Lee Bul’s experiences of military Korea.

Maquette for Mon grand recit 2005
Maquette for Mon grand recit 2005

Maquette for Mon grand recit 2005 is Adventure Time meets Sandman via Gulliver’s travels. Beautiful rich pinky flesh colours dripping across an imagined city. While elsewhere, there are scaffolding-encrusted works, hinting at a a city being broken down (to move to better climate?).

If Bul’s work seems like a beautifully wrapped gift from the future-past, to the now, then it’s a delicate glass ornament, broken in transit across time. Hinting at what could have been a breakthrough, but is more likely to cut you now.

Ikon exhibition catalogue (PDF)