Lee Bul at the Ikon - truly ikonic

At the weekend I went to see the highly anticipated first ever solo UK exhibition of works by Korean artist Lee Bul. Three days later, my head still spins.

To be more accurate I didn’t simply see the show - I immersed myself in it. This collection demands it - the large-scale sculptural installations entice you in with their attractive colour, sparkle and playfulness. However once inside you realise you are enclosed in a claustrophobic, almost sinister, space in which you look back at yourself - uncomfortably close - through fragmented mirrors. Everything suddenly feels fragile and unstable.

Lee Bul was born in 1964, and studied sculpture at Hongik University in the late eighties. In the year of her graduation, South Korea declared itself a democracy.

Her recent work explores modernist utopian ideas through dramatic, architectural sculpture. In the first piece of this exhibition, After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift) (2013), Bul creates her own cityscape suspended with metal chains, intricate beadwork and elaborate decoration – an injection of social realism according to Bul, referencing the poor women of South Korea who earned a living by making beaded necklaces.

Earlier works Mon grand recit: Weep into stones… (2005) and Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (2007/2012) are just as intricate and draw you right in.

On first glance Bunker (M. Bakhtin) has an appealing quality, a playground for you to explore. And then those mirrors hit you with your sliced-up reflection.

You want to reach out and touch Mon grand recit: Weep into stones…, eat it almost – the glossy, gloopy qualities of the structure look almost edible.

But the real showstopper lurks upstairs. First you must navigate two second-floor galleries that have been transformed by Bul into destabilizing spaces, thanks to a geometric, mountainous plywood floor. In Diluvium (2012), walls filled with drawings and experimental pieces provide an insight into the artist’s thought processes and bring to life the evolution of her ideas.

And then you come to Via Negativa (2012). Deceptive in size and scale, this interactive installation-and-a-half took my breath away. Literally. A labyrinth of lights and mirrors you enter, at first, excited as though you have happened upon a pimped-up topiary maze. But as you inch further and further through mind-boggingly endless and increasingly tight tunnels and corners, leading eventually to a menacingly dazzling core, you find yourself unsteady on your feet and unsure of where the floor begins and ends. Dizzying refractions of yourself, everywhere you look, provide no place to hide. No escape.

Truly immersive and memorable. A must-see.


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