What does the phrase ‘South Korean Art’ bring to mind? If anything, possibly something portraying an idealised landscape, or something brightly painted in, for want of a better expression, fairground colours. In other words, the answer is probably no idea. Lee Bul’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery would certainly explode any misconceptions. In fact, as reported recently some of the exhibits – rotting fish – had to be removed from display because they were literally exploding. There’s invention for you. This show features works from Lee Bul’s 30 year career, and takes us back to a time when South Korea was ruled by military dictatorships through to the present day of economic success.
Some of her work reminded me of the organic shapes that Louise Bourgeois revelled in, some of it is interactive – a cave (Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (2007/12)) which hears the sounds you make and provided you’re wearing the headphones relays those sounds back to you, altered as in an echo chamber. The largest work is Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015/16) which is perhaps a one tenth scale version of an airship made out of what looks like silver foil, suspended over a floor similarly coated in silver foil. It is kept inflated by a compressor hidden somewhere inside it which constantly hisses. The gallery guide suggests the airship was “Once a symbol of progress and modernity, the popularity of these futuristic vehicles came to an abrupt end in 1937, when an airship carrying 96 passengers burst into flames as it attempted to land.” Indeed, suspended below 1,000s of cubic metres of hydrogen one might well think you were ‘willing to be vulnerable’ but on a technical point, the flames from the Hindenberg disaster spread so quickly because of the type of lacquer used to cover its surface, and despite the terrifying image of the burning behemoth crashing to the ground, around two thirds of the people on board survived. Compare that to the Concorde crash in Paris, where no-one survived. Passengers on planes generally don’t survive crashes. I think I might feel less vulnerable underneath an airship. As the Donald might say, ‘big and beautiful!’
But I digress. The range of work exhibited here attests to a truly inventive and for that matter politically attuned mind, and I can only say is worthy of attention for its boldness in experimentation and originality. And all this was going on in a conservative culture, unlike the pretentious upstarts nicking ideas celebrated in our own nihilistic YBA fantasy world.