Widely regarded as the leading Korean artist of her generation, Lee Bul was born to left-wing dissident parents and came of age in Seoul during a period of turbulent political and social transformation. Icononclastic from the beginning, she was prominent in the underground art circuit as a leading member of Museum, a loose collective of idiosyncratic artists, performers, and musicians whose brief period of activity in the late 1980s continues to resonate not only in the experimental arts but also in aspects of popular culture in Korea today. During this early period, she made a radical break with her academic training in sculpture to produce performative works incorporating elaborate, wearable objects that served as mutable, artificial bodies contravening idealized conceptions of beauty.
Through the mid-1990s, Lee Bul continued to create formally inventive, intellectually provocative works that crossed genres and disciplines, exploring themes of beauty, corruption, and decay. Her deepening concern with the experiential and ideological dimensions of the body in a culture increasingly permeated by technology eventually led to the first of her signature sculptural hybrids of machine and organic forms. Her Cyborg W series of sculptures, first shown at the 1998 Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and then at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, draw upon elements from art history, science, and the popular imagination to give expression to our fascination with, and anxieties about, the utopian promise of perfectibility through bio-engineering.
Subsequently the trope of the cyborg has taken on darker, more complex manifestations - baroque, aberrant hybrids of flora, insect, and machine that the artist refers to as "anagrammatical morphologies," with a nod to Surrealist antecedents, and with referents ranging from critical theory to the dystopian dream worlds of speculative fiction and film. Her sculpture Still, in the UBS Art Collection, embodies this distinctive vision, in which, as critic Elisabeth Wetterwald observes, "The boundaries between the natural and the artificial, the organic and the machine have disappeared; everything is at the same time a matter of intertwinings, knots, accidents, weldings, branchings, rhizomes and swellings . . . a step away from the denizens of medieval bestiaries . . . or the hybrid creatures in Bosch's paintings." Exposing the myth of technological perfection as flawed and ambiguous, Wetterwald continues, Lee Bul's art "provides an occasion to think again about the relationship between science and nature, fiction and reality, past and future - dream and nightmare."
Lee Bul: Monsters. Franck Gautherot, ed. Dijon: Les presses du réel/Janvier, 2003.
Lee Bul: On Every New Shadow. Interview by Grazia Quaroni. Paris: Fondation Cartier, 2007.
Quotation: Elisabeth Wetterwald from Lee Bul: Monsters. Franck Gautherot, ed. Dijon: Les presses du réel/Janvier, 2003.