Ikon Gallery has been transformed into an immersive landscape in this new exhibition – a survey of the work of South Korean artist Lee Bul. It is Lee Bul’s first solo exhibition in the UK and I was fortunate enough to go along to the launch on Wednesday. Described by Ikon Director Jonathan Watkins as a ‘landmark’ moment in British art history, this show is a feast of beautiful and thought-provoking installations, sculptural works and drawings, brought together from different places and different periods in the artist’s career.
Lee Bul began her career under South Korea’s military dictatorship, in the 1980s. From the beginning her work engaged with politics and drew on the ‘idealistic impulse’ that is found within societies, particularly regarding the march of technology. Her work has been varied and often crosses genres and disciplines; in the 1980s and 1990s she created street performance works, as well as female Cyborg sculptures. Lately, her work has drawn increasingly on architectural influences.
This exhibition highlights these architectural influences and Lee Bul’s inventiveness through her installation and sculptural works particularly well. The first of these you encounter upon entering the exhibition space is After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift), a new commission made possible through collaboration between Ikon, the Art Fund, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and New Art Gallery Walsall. It references the architect Bruno Taut, a big influence on Lee Bul, and has been unveiled for the first time as part of this exhibition. It seems fitting that this new, intricate, captivating creation entices you in to the exhibition. Hovering like a fallen chandelier, almost touching the concrete, as if weighed down by the multitude of glittering crystalline shapes and silver strands. The work has a sparkling allure and perhaps highlights the burden of modern society’s insatiable desire for shiny things.
Not far away another large sculptural work adds to the landscape that Lee Bul has created. Mon grand recit: Weep into stones… (2005) is one of the most significant works of Lee Bul’s career. At its heart is a ghostly, mountain-like white shape, with numerous small, disruptive and mechanical shapes protruding from its steep sides. Sweeping highways glide across a landscape featuring a representation of the stark office block where Lee Bul had her studio from the 1980s and a mass of upturned classical architectural shapes, but they lead to nowhere. The whole thing sits atop a forest of thin metal supports. It highlights a central concern in Lee Bul’s work – the realisation that humanity’s efforts to impose order on the world often result in confusion.
Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (2007/2012) is an intriguing installation work looming in the back corner of the exhibition space. It resembles a termite mound drenched in crude oil, a monolithic lump. Glimpsing through a small opening in its side, however, you can see something shimmering within. Stepping through the opening you find yourself in a cosy grotto. The undulating interior surface is covered in fragmented mirrored glass and it sparkles back at you.
Lee Bul is an artist who likes to experiment with the exhibition space. Her works interact with the white spaces at Ikon, enabling you to experience them in new ways. To get up to the second level of the exhibition you must first pass through Souterrain (2012), a jagged, winding tunnel of an installation, again shimmering with shards of mirrored glass and bright lights. Upstairs, Lee Bul has used plywood to create an angular, sloping landscape that disrupts the large gallery space and alters how you move around. This area is a treasure trove of drawings and paintings, many of them as intricate and jewel-like as the sculptures and installations downstairs. There are fantastical creatures and organic shapes, all drawn with an incredibly delicate hand, alongside jewel-like diagrammatic drawings like fashion illustrations. Along one of the plywood ledges perch a whole host of multi-coloured creatures, like wolves and other beasts with their heads lowered respectfully.
Navigating the plywood slopes you come, sadly, to the final room, where a huge wooden structure appears to levitate above a mirrored floor. The multiple outer surfaces of Via Negativa (2012) are covered in fading strands of paper like a skin, covered in and Korean and English print. Step through the narrow gap in this façade, however, and you find yourself in a winding, narrow hall of mirrors. It is wonderfully disorientating and at times I had to stop and look around to find the next turn, my eyes deceiving me. Small alcoves along the way provide passing spaces and you are continually standing face-to-face with your reflection. Persevere to the centre of this mirrored maze and you find yourself in a really brilliant space – an inner sanctum filled with the light of what appears to be thousands of little bulbs that could have come straight from Science Fiction. Reflected by the mirrored walls, they appear to stretch away in several different directions, illuminating multiple illusory passages. These dazzling corridors lead to nowhere and it is virtually impossible to locate the real source of the lights. The effect is a quite powerful sense of discovery. Perhaps Via Negativa makes a statement about the difficulties in deciphering the real from the unreal and following the right path.
I love exhibitions that are immersive and multisensory, that give me fresh perspectives. This is a mesmerising and immersive exhibition that is visually impressive and also thought provoking. I love the way that so many of the works interact with the fabric of Ikon in ways that I’ve not seen before, enabling you to see the gallery spaces in new and interesting ways. So many of the installations are fascinating and encourage you to delve in and explore. I’d never heard of Lee Bul until a few weeks ago but after seeing this exhibition I feel that I have a real sense of her work, her philosophies and sources of inspiration, so I think this exhibition succeeds in presenting her to UK audiences brilliantly.
You can catch Lee Bul at Ikon until 9 November. Don’t miss it!