Lee Bul’s first solo exhibition in the UK at the Ikon gallery in Birmingham is weird, futuristic and full of mirrors and experimentation.
South Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964, grew up under the military dictatorship in her home country. In 1987, when the country declared itself a democracy after over three decades of military dictatorship, Lee Bul graduated from Hongik University, where she studied sculpture.
The exhibition at the Ikon gallery is spread over two floors and includes a variety of work from over the years and includes After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift) (2013), Mon grand récit: Weep into stones … (2005), Bunker (M.Bakhtin) (2007/2012) and Diluvium (2012). The work that is most impactful is Via Negativa (2012), which is on the second floor and takes up most of a room on it’s own.
Via Negativa is a kind of deconstructed funhouse hall of mirrors; you enter the structure and follow it through twists and turns, the whole time surrounded by fractured and warped mirrors, until you’re in a chamber that reflects limitless versions of yourself that seem to stretch out through the space infinitely.
The idea of mirrors and reflections is seen throughout art history and often suggests inward reflection; looking in instead of out, usually on the part of the artist. The self portrait is the artist’s ultimate mirror, showing the rest of the world the way they perceive themselves, whether accurately or not. In this work, the viewer is the one looking at themselves, seeing their image or, as Lee Bul puts it, “their fragmented selves…”, reflected back at them. The experience of entering an artist’s work can often feel like you’re inside their head, their creative process, but in Via Negativa fragments of yourself are projected onto the work. All viewers see different things in works of art, but in this case this is literally true; what you see is different to anyone else and only you can really know all the connotations and connections that your own reflection make in your mind.
How we see ourselves is an extremely important aspect of all our lives; especially in western culture we spend hours, both consciously and unconsciously critiquing our and others’ appearances; comparing ourselves to each other and to celebrities. But what are we really seeing? Do we see reality? When you look in a mirror you’re seeing yourself the opposite way to how everyone else sees you; it’s you but not really you that is shown to the rest of the world, and how strange is it to consider that out of everyone you know, they all know the real you better? In a society obsessed with image, the fact that we can never really see ourselves as we really are, literally or metaphorically, seems like a really good joke on behalf of the universe. Care what you look like? Well, let’s make sure you can never really know! Chortle.
Maybe this is why so many artists are fascinated by their own images and, conversely, why so many go the opposite way and try to exclude themselves completely. Our physical appearance has an effect on everything we do and whether other people like us or trust us or take us seriously. Grayson Perry has used his appearance as part of his work; he’s instantly recognisable as a figure but also within his own work; many of the people he depicts resemble him physically; tall and almost knobbly with angular facial features and exaggerated dress sense. In his recent Reith lectures he revealed that this was a conscious effort; everyone at art openings always knew he was an artist without him having to tell anyone.
On the opposite end is another famous artist: Banksy. His image is to have no image; part of what has made his work stick in people’s minds is the fact that few people have any idea what he looks like; do a google image search and there are a few grainy looking photographs that may or may not be him, but without real confirmation or better quality photos, the mystery remains pretty much intact. If he was at an art opening slurping free pinot noir in the corner, no one would be any the wiser.
Either way the choice becomes part of the art, part of the performance. Our obsession with appearances drives so much of our culture and our lives that there is no way we can escape it. And in Lee Bul’s Via Negativa you are confronted with yourself, in fragments, confused and splintered, until you reach a final crescendo of you, stretching out for eternity. Like everyone else, you’re a work of art.
The Lee Bul exhibition is on until 9 November at the Ikon gallery.
See more images from the exhibition here.