Korean artist Lee Bul’s artistic oeuvre is permeated with theoretical musings tied to a specific era of feminist thinking. While her current large-scale solo exhibition ‘Crash’ at Gropius Bau spans several decades of her work, beginning in the late 1980s until the present, there’s an underlying attachment to a somewhat dated but nevertheless compelling strain of third wave feminism, espoused by thinkers such as Judith Butler and Donna Haraway, and afro-futurist author Octavia Butler. Lee’s cold, mechanical sculptures, installations and architectural models generate the landscape of a dystopian sci-fi future, in which femme bodies are distorted and contorted into slithering, tentacled masses and artificially enhanced by cyborg protheses.
‘Crash’ is the inaugural exhibition curated by Stephanie Rosenthal, the newly appointed director of Gropius Bau. As such, the show has been heralded as a major leap forward for the museum, not just in content but also in curation: the exhibition spans the entire first floor, looping around its central atrium, and uncharacteristically presenting a comprehensive body of work by a mid-career, non-western woman artist. The exhibition format is linear, not departing too much from standard museum fare, yet each room offers a breathtaking artistic tableau in its own right, giving space to individual installations without over-stimulating audiences with text and context, or over-crowding the works themselves.
‘Crash’ is made up of several architectural elements, from a flying car convertible-cum-video viewing pod, to a black-clad cave with an echo sound chamber inside, to scale models for eerie, unbuilt structures fashioned with chards of reflective glass and nests of hair. Many of the works look like set designs for other-worldly theatre productions or props from 80s sci-fi films, like Blade Runner. An enormous, tiled white bathtub, filled with what appears to be a jet-black liquid, takes over one of the windowed corner rooms of the exhibition. The tiles of Heaven and Earth (2007) are worn and cracked, as if it were a ruin left-standing, and the sides of the tub itself are lined with a small white mountain range. Like many of the other works on view, the still black pool is striking in the mix of beauty and horror it evokes.
A funhouse-style mirror maze takes visitors on an interactive journey to a central room, lit with seemingly endless lightbulbs, in the style of Yayoi Kusama’s ever-popular infinity rooms. The analogue and DIY quality of Lee’s work, however, reinserts it in the tradition of utopian architectural experimentation. The exhibition even includes pieces of iconic ‘bubble architecture’, staples of a certain radical urban practice of the 1960s, in the vein of collectives like Ant Farm and Archigram. In Willing to Be Vulnerable (2015-16), Lee presents a metallized balloon in the shape of a Zeppelin, alluding to an era of experimental design that pushed the limits of form.
Lee’s retro-futuristic aesthetic in ‘Crash’, while quaint in its apparent ignorance of contemporary technology, speaks to a by-gone time when state apparatuses and radical opposition groups used basic materials and resources to create visual ideals of control, surveillance and disguise. Her Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (2007) refers to Russian literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who popularized notions of the carnivalesque and the grotesque in literature, noting that laughter is a therapeutic and liberating force, which has the ability to degrade structures of power. Lee’s often humorous works in the show attest to her belief in the radical potential of laughter (literally echoed in the bunker-cave), as she weaves disparate and unexpected materials into otherwise serious forms.
‘Crash’ exposes a huge range of works by Lee to an audience as-yet likely unfamiliar with the artist’s oeuvre. The exhibition at Gropius Bau presents an exciting opportunity to delve into the cross-references and discrepancies between geographical approaches to utopian architecture and technology, wherein Lee oscillates between a kind of shadowing of past, internationally-recognized theoretical and aesthetic traditions, and the creation of a distinct visual language intimately tied to her embodied position as a woman raised in a divided Korea.