Lee Bul studied sculpture at Hong Ik University in Seoul, South Korea, graduating in 1987, the year that major pro-democracy, antiestablishment demonstrations rocked the country. Though not contiguously related to civil politics, Lee’s practice has, from its origins in performance to the present, served to erode entrenched conservative ideologies of Korean culture—particularly Confucianism’s invalidation of women—and mine the parallax view of Asian culture from the West. Confronting birth control and sexuality in early actions, she appeared naked save for a rock-climbing harness (Abortion, 1989) and donned soft-sculptural constructions with fleshlike appendages (Sorry for suffering—You think I’m a puppy on a picnic?, 1990). With recent sculptures and videos concerning karaoke and automotive design, she has consolidated her position as one of the most prominent Korean artists working today.
Executed between 1990 and 1997, the series of installations entitled Majestic Splendor, which brought Lee international recognition, featured real, dead snapper and other fish species displayed in clear polyethylene bags or hanging from hooks. Each fish was individually decorated with colorful beads and sequins that embellished their glossy scales and fins. Colliding natural and artificial strategies of display—and addressing the maintenance of beauty—the bejeweled fish gave off a rotting stench as they decayed during the course of their exhibition.1 The artist’s “Cyborg” sculptures—the first of which, Cyborg Blue and Cyborg Red (both 1997–1998), were included in the Walker Art Center’s exhibition Let’s Entertain (2000)—elaborate on this admixture of organic and man-made by recalling the limbs and torsos of the erotically charged armored women of manga comics and anime cartoons. In their evocation of both a technocratic lynching and damaged ancient marble statuary, Lee’s later suspended white Cyborgs made from silicone, the material used in breast augmentations, address the female body in terms of a fetishized “future” and a classical past.
Plexus Blue (2000) inherits the decorative use of inexpensive jewelry employed in Lee’s Majestic Splendor fish works and the allegorical woman of her Cyborgs. A split female torso form made of tan-colored leather is festooned with beads, necklaces, and broaches that appear to crawl over the skin surface and emerge from the interior like insects. They spill out from where the head should be, as if they were flames, plumes of blood, or the snakes of Medusa. As Lee explains, the use of this kitsch encrustation in her work recognizes a specifically female job: “It was an acknowledgment of the everyday elements of Korean social reality. In particular, the beads and sequins used to produce the decorative effect referred to the kind of cheap manual labor done by woman, and the dynamics of class and consumption that were involved in Korea’s economic development.”2 Housed in its own cabinet like a venerable relic, Plexus Blue’s flayed, scarified, beheaded, and dismembered female form invokes some kind of divine symbol of decadent butchery and sacrifice—a deity-heroine for millennial mythology.