Lee Bul’s Beginning: A Lesser-Known Story about Korean Contemporary Art

08 APR 2021

In the lobby of the Seoul Museum of Art, Lee Bul’s interactive work Hydra (Monument) (1996/2021) lies surrounded by foot pumps that invite gallery-goers to inflate a ten-metre-tall image of the artist performing a female figure subverting the Orientalist gaze. Best known for her late-1990s conceptual explorations of the cyborg and her delicate steel-and-light installations of the 2000s – which have been the subject of numerous European surveys in recent years – the artist’s current solo show, ‘Lee Bul: Beginning’, focuses exclusively on her bolder and less refined early practice. The works on display range from the late 1980s until 1997, the year her infamous Majestic Splendor (1991–2018) – a dead fish adorned with kitschy jewels – was removed from New York’s Museum of Modern Art for its rotting smell.

After graduating from Hongik University in Seoul in 1987, Lee swiftly won global renown – despite not having studied overseas – thanks, in part, to South Korea’s rapid internationalization at that time. Yet, when the artist’s work was ‘exported’ to the West in the 1990s, she discontinued the performances that had been the core of her formative practice. It is these works – many of which were previously only known through word-of-mouth in the Korean art world – that form the centrepiece of ‘Lee Bul: Beginning’. Eleven videos, produced between 1988 and 1996, document militant performances such as Abortion (1989), in which Lee hangs upside down, naked, while licking a lollipop, screaming and speaking with painful honesty about abortion.

‘Lee Bul: Beginning’ revisits the artist’s lesser-known body of early work. Similar to the country’s unrelenting periods of rapid economic development, the Korean art scene might have grown without much time to write its own narratives or histories. As such, the exhibition contributes to an ongoing trend within the South Korean art scene to illuminate the country’s recent past.

‘Lee Bul: Beginning’ is at Seoul Museum of Art, South Korea, until 16 May. An anthology of essays, documents and interviews about the artist’s formative decade will be published in Korean and English in April.

Main image: 'Lee Bul: Beginning', 2021, exhibition view at Seoul Museum of Art. Courtesy: the artist and Seoul Museum of Art; photograph: Hong Cheolki