‘Crashing’ at Hayward Gallery is a survey of the work of Korean artist, Lee Bull. Spanning along three decades, it starts with her early performances where she explored women’s oppression and finishes with her modernist utopias. Curated by Stephanie Rosenthal, the artist unwillingly becomes a benchmark against which the structural changes that took place in the art world during the past three decades can be assessed. Thus, what at the beginning seemed political activism, a decade later comes across as oportunism. What at beginning was post Fluxus irony, in the last decade came across as excessively alegorical and entertainment oriented. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Room 1 shows the astonishing diversity of materials that this artist uses. From fabrics to foam, like Joan Jonas, some of the props and outfits used by her in her early performances are arranged in a theatricalised installation with pieces that come from her series ‘Cyborg’ which are clearly informed by the debates launched by Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1984). Along her ‘Cyborgs’ we find her ‘Monsters’ which as hybrids of organisms and machines resist all categorisation and refer to her explorations of female roles in late capitalism. Although her ‘Cyborgs’ poses are reminiscent of classical sculpture, they also derive from insects and machines. In fact, the artist refers to them as ‘anagrammatic morphologies’. There is something of J.G.Ballard’s novels in this symbiotic relationship between machine, organisms and sexuality.
The Ballard’s influence will become even clearer in the strategic Room 2 where the recordings and videos of some of her early performances are available for watching such as ‘Artoilet’ (1990), ‘Song of the Fish’ (1990), ‘Diet: Diagramming III’ (1992) and ‘I Need You’ (1996). In ‘Abortion’ (1989), she hangs herself from the ceiling for two hours after distributing lollipops to the audience. Her performances combine tenderness with desolation and abjection with desire. The paradoxical nature of her works can be seen in her paintings in leather such as ‘Pluxus’, ‘Untitled’ and ‘Mekamelencolia’ where she explores materials linked with organisms. In ‘Come From Inside Out’, she uses silk which she understands as discharges from silkworms. Curator Rosenthal stategically placed her ‘Live Forever III’ (2001), a half car half vagina as a link between her early works and what in the following room will be her ‘modernist utopias’. The sex appeal of that car reminds of Richard Hamilton’s ‘Homage for Chrysler Corporation’ and informs the early Pop concerns of critics such as Reyner Banham and his seminal show ‘This is Tomorrow’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1957.
Room 3 is where the problems start with her futurist landscapes which, almost without exception, referred to her country’s recent political history. ‘Heaven and Earth’ (2007) is a giant bathtub that, according to the curator, refers to the way student Park John Chul, was tortured for participating in a protest in 1987. There is certainly something opportunistic in the transformation of a lake in the shape of a bathtube into a token of universal political fight for freedom. There other farfetched allusions such as in ‘Sternbau N2’ and ‘After Bruno Taut where the associations between the body and high architectural modernism.
In Room 4 she turns all these allusions into full blown allegory with works that explore the way machines can be threatening to human beings. Although the curator presents this as something groundbreaking, it is not. From W.J.Turner to Diego Rivera, this has been a concern of artists. The question is what Lee Bull could do with such a topic and the answer lies in two works. The first one is rather spectacular and is a silver-Hindenburg Zeppelin titled ‘Willing to be Vulnerable’. Besides it, she placed a tonguelike structure with a fan underneath that makes the fabric move. The titles of this work is ‘Scale of Tongue’ and cryptically refers to a capsized ferry that killed 300 people in Sewoll in 2014. There is no way, the visitor will get this reference without that piece of information and at that point the works becomes an illustration of an information which is not directly relevant to, let’s be honest, anyone. Room 5 is the one dedicated to ‘Negative Way’ which is a massive installation that aims at desorientating the visitor into endless fictional paths that very much look like any other work by Yayoi Kusama with the only difference that it includes a text which relevance only matters to the artist according to bla, bla, bla.
There were parts of the show that I liked but, to be honest, I couldn’t get over the bad taste and opportunism of that bathtub turned into a lake which referred to the tortured Korean student. Besides, this opportunism overlapped the one of the Hayward that charges almost 14 pounds and if you don’t listen properly they might make you make a donation. This added to the fact that even small bags must go into the cloakroom which has an additional mandatory cost of 1 pound. When I made a point of this, a person from the staff came to talk to me and the only thing she could utter was that the money goes back to ‘the program’. There is a lust for something that permeates this show all the way. Ones has the feeling that the institution got too big, too bureaucratic and too self important and that might be the problem with this exhibition for they seem to need to monumentalise everything that they show in order to justify the giant expense and by doing this they transform something good into something disproportionate.