A huge, gloopy, multi-limbed, fleshy monster stares you out as you enter Lee Bul’s exhibition. And it’s not alone. Suspended from the ceiling are more of its blobby buddies and a battalion of pure white cyborgs. In the corner sits a silver and black behemoth among a landscape of shattered mirrors and blinking lights. It’s up to you to figure out if the Korean artist’s sci-fi dreamscape is actually a nightmare.
What you can know for sure is that there’s turbulence here. The artist grew up under a tyrannical, authoritarian regime. She saw what utopian ideals could lead to and it left her shaken. The result is a body of work that seems obsessed with cybernetics, the body, architecture and human enhancement but is totally unable to stop looking over its shoulder at the heaving dark clouds of history.
Although the galleries feel a little barren and under-done, this is still hugely powerful art. There’s an enormous tiled bath filed with black ink in one room, but the tiles are cracked, as if you’ve stumbled into the ruins of a fallen dictator’s war-ravaged bathroom. It’s a work about torture and death, about the silencing of protest, about a country falling apart. It’s horrible.
There are countless architectural models littered throughout the space, little future cities dotted with references to iconic buildings. Crystals pop up everywhere, shards of metal, robotic human figures; a sleek pod with karaoke machine promises eternal life, a mirrored maze leads to a room of infinite reflections. What Lee Bul is saying is that the things around us can have multiple narratives. They can be violent and gentle, soft or hard, real or fake. Everything has the potential to flip from one to the other.
Take the enormous inflated silver zeppelin that takes up a whole gallery – look at the power and beauty implied by the technology, but just wait for it to explode in your face and kill you.
Lee Bul’s work is a series of imagined futures overflowing with culture and history. It’s filled with the hope of utopia, but also a terrifying fear of what that might mean. This whole thing feels like a guess about what’s to come, about how our bodies might change with technology, or how cities might grow – but it’s also a prayer that it won’t be hell. There’s beauty in everything here, but an awful lot of threat, too. Bul is showing that whatever the future is, it isn’t going to be simple.