While most people sleep, Lee, one of South Korea’s most famous living artists, works through the night in her Seoul studio dreaming up provocative artworks that use shimmering materials and sci-fi imagery as metaphors for humanity’s constant, desperate search for perfection. Her exploration of utopian ideals, and how they sometimes collapse into dystopian horror, has earned her international acclaim. In the past five years alone, Lee has had solo exhibitions at museums in the US, the UK, Germany, Canada and Russia, and in 2019 had two of her installations included in the Venice Biennale, considered by many to be the most important event in the art world.
“Lee Bul is truly one of the most compelling and inventive artists of her generation,” says Ralph Rugoff, curator of the 2019 Venice Biennale and director of the Hayward Gallery in London, where he hosted a show of Lee’s art in 2018. “Her work is consistently forceful.”
Lee’s latest pieces are currently on display at Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York, which has worked with her since 2008. And, after years of travelling the globe, Lee, 57, is now enjoying a homecoming. This month, the Seoul Museum of Art is opening a retrospective exhibition focused on the first decade of her work, from 1987 to 1997. Opening on March 2, Lee Bul: Beginning will run until May 16.
Today Lee focuses on making sculptures and installations, some measuring several metres long, as well as iridescent paintings that incorporate shards of mother-of-pearl. Lee builds her larger pieces in a sprawling studio in Samsong, on the northern outskirts of Seoul, with the help of her team of about ten assistants. She makes her paintings in a smaller workshop attached to her home in Seongbuk-dong, a wealthy neighbourhood perched on a steep hill, where she lives in a modernist home that has views of the Seoul skyline.
But when Lee began her career in the late Eighties, she was most interested in performance art. “I was born in the 1960s in South Korea under the country’s military dictatorship,” she says. “I came of age during a period of incredible social and economic upheaval marked by the transition to a democratic state. This political shift experienced over my lifetime has informed much of my work.”
Lee was born in 1964, three years after major-general Park Chung-hee led a military coup d’état, ousting the government and seizing control of the country. He ruled until he was assassinated in 1979. During that time, Park transformed South Korea from a democracy into a dictatorship. Under his orders, protests were violently suppressed, political dissidents were executed and thousands of homeless people were forced into labour camps, where many of them were tortured to death, creating an atmosphere of fear that permeated all aspects of life, including Lee’s childhood.
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