Korean artist Lee Bul Tackles the Marginalization of Women
There is always something to be said about a left-handed person born to change the world in a right-hand dominated world. Lee Bul is one such person. Born in 1964 in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do, South Korea, Bul emerged on the contemporary art scene in the late 1980s where she became well known for her performance, sculpture, and installation work. She continues to be one of the most prolific South Korean artists of her generation.
As a woman growing up in a military state, Lee Bul faced many obstacles including gender inequality and the disregard for her passion, the arts. This only fueled and continues to inspire her to create in order to bring light to the situations she faced growing up. Much of her work focuses on the marginalization and oppression of women, as well as questioning the patriarchal system due to her life under a dictatorship.
She portrays these concepts and that of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on gender equality with organic shapes, industrial structures and Utopian ideals and failures. Another popular art form that Bul utilizes is her performance art where she uses her own body to make a point while creating dramatic scenes.
One of Bul’s first performance pieces was presented in 1989 and took a jab at the patriarchal system and its political oppression of the female body. Titled, Abortion, Bul hung her nude body upside down with rope to bring attention to a male-dominated system criminalizing the act of abortion, as well as recreating the physical pain women must suffer. The performance became too extreme for the onlookers, and they eventually cut Bul down. She recalls, "They never thought it was theatre. It was a real body and a real situation."
Lee Bul’s most notable work is her sculptures, particularly her series, Cyborg. The series of sculptures began in 1997 and ran through 2011, consisting of different cyborg bodies as a reflection of a science-fiction and failed Utopian society. While the sculptures are futuristic, they are also a call back to classical sculpture with their marble white visage and missing limbs.
The bodies of these cyborgs are heavily influenced by manga, a style of Japanese graphic novel and anime, their on-screen counterparts. The anatomical, yet sexualized cyborgs are a representation of the imperfections people feel they need to fix through cosmetic surgery as body and technology continue to slowly merge.
In continuation of her science-fiction feminist ideals, Bul began creating sculptures crafted from materials such as metal, chains, crystal beading and different organic materials. In an installation piece in 2014, Bul created Civitas Solis II, a Latin phrase spelled out with lightbulbs in both English and Korean.
The phrase, which translates to “The City of the Sun,” is refracted off of the uneven and shattered ground beneath it, framed by the unsettling branches of trees sprouting along the edges of the stage. While the style and outward appearance seem to be futuristic, much of Lee Bul’s inspiration can be traced back to several artists, including Piranesi and Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia.
Lee Bul’s newest exhibit, Beginnings is on display at Seoul Museum of Art or SeMA. This exhibit highlights all of Lee Bul’s lesser-known work from earlier on in her career.