CREATING A WEB THAT HOLDS DIFFERENT ELEMENTS TOGETHER. Lee Bul is a contemporary sculpture and installation artist who was born in 1964 to dissident parents under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee in South Korea.  Her work investigates the ways that modern art, architecture and technology have shaped both our real and imagined worlds, and questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women.

Lee Bul is in Korea, in her studio. She recently opened a show of paintings at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in London.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Lee Bul, how do you describe these works, are they very different and something new? 

To talk about what’s on view in general, maybe we can say they are paintings attempted by a sculptor.

What else can you say about these paintings? 

They’re a series under the title of “Perdu”. In terms of images, they continue my exploration of the body, organic forms, and technology; touching on critical theories of the cyborg, which I’ve dealt with in my sculpture in the past. In terms of method, they look like paintings but actually they’re produced by adopting some of the methodology of sculpture — accumulating thick layers of paint, mixed with materials like mother-of-pearl and stone powder, on wooden panels. These layers accumulate until there is no discernible image. But then this is followed by a painstaking process of manually sanding down through the layers to reveal, intentionally but also intuitively, the forms I’ve envisioned. I think of it as a kind of excavation, as in archeology.

When you started your life as an artist just after school in the 80s, there was a kind of dictatorship in Korea that your parents were against and they were obliged to hide and move from one place to another. Was your art a pretext to follow your parents, to be against what was going on? Do you think art is a vehicle for a message, and is that what you felt when you were very young?

That was my thinking when I was in my twenties. But looking back on that time, I see that my situation, including the experiences of my parents, constituted my entire environment, and this naturally determined my perspective on the world. So I wonder whether my early artistic aspirations were only about resistance against the political situation. At that young age, surrounded by the absurdity of the world that I inhabited but could not comprehend, making art was maybe just my way of trying to figure out the world.

“What if I simply “erased” the idea that only certain things could be materials for art?”

Lee Bul

Lee Bul. Perdu CLIX. Mother-of-pearl, acrylic paint on wooden base panel, stainless steel frame. Suite of 4 panels. 160 x 110 x 6 cm (163 x 113 x 6.5 cm framed), each. © Lee Bul. Photo: Jeon Byung-cheol. Courtesy of the artist.

Lee Bul, even if there’s a lot of aesthetic beauty in your art, it seems that your concept of art does not have much to do with beauty. On the contrary, do you want to show your inner feelings as a feminist and transform them into art? 

When I started out as an artist in the mid-1980s, I didn’t do it with the intention of presenting a feminist perspective as such. I’ve always been more interested in power structures, whether about sex and gender or economics and ideology. Given my personal background, I was naturally suspicious of power structures that determine how we live, so I was always asking questions about these structures, and tracing and revealing hidden structures, through my work.

To put it simply, I felt I was an aggregation of what could be called minor elements in those various power structures. So the meaning of my work and even its form and methodology arose out of this recognition about myself. People talked about these early works only in terms of issues like gender because they wanted to see it as a resistance against the mainstream modernist story of art made by white, male artists. But, for me, it wasn’t just resistance. It was my attempt to erase and write something new over that existing story.

What is the evolution of your art since the first body performances in which it seemed that you were fighting about the commercialization of sex or oppression of women. You were doing performances with your body in Seoul, but the most important one at the beginning was in Tokyo, maybe because your mother is of Japanese origin? 

Certainly the things you’ve mentioned are relevant to my work. But it’s hard to say what exactly led to the use of my body as a medium in my early work, especially the performances. I was always grappling with the question of what is and is not art. What if I simply “erased” the idea that only certain things could be materials for art? Then a whole new set of possibilities opened up, where anything could be used to make art. So if I wanted to ask questions as a human being about myself, then why not use my body as artistic material?

But in using my body as material in images and performances, it was often seen as dealing with issues of gender, simply because of the fact that I am a woman and Asian. But if I were a man or if I were not Asian, maybe the same work could be considered more broadly as proposing a new mode of expression or posing questions about the power structures that I spoke about before. Related to this, I’d just like to note that images of so-called Asian women in my work are deliberately of indeterminate origins. So, I’m looking at problematic dichotomies, not only of gender, but of cultures, for instance, and Orientalist perspectives that continue to underlie existing power structures. There are many more layers to my early works than most commentators recognize.

You have changed because from using only your body, in recent times you pay a lot of attention to landscapes, where it seems that you include the intimate topography of the body, but inside the landscape. Can you explain this?

You’re right to see this evolution. It might seem like I’ve just moved from dealing with the body to the landscape or cityscape, but this was a logical progression in my thinking and asking bigger questions about the ideas I had been exploring in my work. So, to explain, if you take a very microscopic look into the body, you start to see cellular structures and landscape, but at the same time, if you zoom out on a macro level from the body, you also see structures and landscape. And these two directions can both lead to a perspective on the universe, in an expansive cosmological context. I wanted to deal with these directions with different references from history and literature, and at the same time, synthesizing them into structure of landscapes which can also be perceived as an organic body. In my thinking, these two directions are making an infinite circle that comes back and around. So, in the mid-2000s, though I wasn’t sure I was ready to take on those bigger questions, but also knowing it would take a long time to delve into them, I just began these new works.

“When I think of my experience of Korea it feels like a love-hate relationship”

Lee Bul, you say you find your inspiration in literature, in films and also in architecture. How do you merge the different genres of art, literature, film and architecture into your work?

The various references I bring together are ideas and images I’ve encountered or followed, sometimes loosely and randomly, in my intellectual pursuits throughout my life. My work often arises out of this fortuitous fusion of things that take hold of my mind and eyes. And if I can say that at the base of my artistic concerns is a questioning of power structures, then it becomes necessary to look at the formation of modernity, the modernist ideas that have profoundly shaped the way we live and think to this day. But these ideas and images exist in a fragmented way in my work, as traces or ruins or as things left unrealized and incomplete. It’s not readily legible. It’s not explainable in a modernist language. I like to think of the process as creating a net or a web that holds these different elements together since that’s the way I see my life as well.

Since you were very young, you were the most famous or the most important Korean artist. You exposed your work at the Venice Biennale in 1999. You also have exhibited work in New York, in Tokyo, then in Australia, in France, in London, in Luxembourg and many other countries. Besides your success and the fact that museums or collectors are interested in your work, do you think that you have achieved your purpose, which was to denounce dictatorship and oppression or fight for a better condition of women?

Actually, I’ve never asked that question myself. About success, I can only say I’ve been very lucky, and I think this is true of any artist who manages to find public recognition. So anyway, in terms of the content of my work or in terms of public recognition of my art, I’ve been fortunate to have an interested audience. But if I now ask myself “Am I satisfied?” then I cannot say that I am, because I suffer from doubt and anguish whenever I try to expand the scope of my art, to take it to that next stage, whether in terms of themes and ideas or physical scale.

You travelled a lot and met many artists all over the world, but you are Asian, from Korea. Do you consider yourself an Asian artist or just an artist? And do you think that there is a difference between the way that art is conceived in Korea or in Asia or in other parts of the world?

When I meet anyone, they see that I’m Asian. I’m a Korean person. That’s a fact. Just as someone is American or Italian or whatever. It’s a geopolitical fact that distinguishes different people. But that’s different from saying we can categorize art or artists as “American” or “Italian.” Is this actually possible? Maybe it’s a matter of different perspective and approach.

Certain parts of the world get the spotlight for a while because of geopolitical shifts or maybe some commercial factors or political influence, but then it’s forgotten. It’s a process that’s repeated. So it’s a bit dangerous, and I’m wary of any spotlight being put on a culture or a country, because there’s a touristic element to this.

Nowadays, there is great importance given to African art. Once there was a great importance given to the American artists, then the Germans and some English ones, and the Italians. It changes, and there have been movements even after the war, from Pop Art to the Arte Povera, but nowadays it doesn’t look like there is a particular artistic movement that one belongs to. How do you position yourself as an artist?

I think there aren’t the kinds of artistic movements today as we maybe had in the past. And artistic practice is more fragmented because the parameters, whether regional, aesthetic, or intellectual, are constantly shifting with so many different things happening at the same time in various places. Maybe in the future when we look back, and we look at a certain region or a certain time period, we might be able to talk about certain artistic movements. But from the perspective of now, we can only perceive the world more as a connection of different parts.

You work in your studio in Seoul in Korea, even if you travel a lot. What kind of country is South Korea today? It’s no longer a dictatorship and therefore have you completely changed your point of view within your country? Maybe you are now also better accepted by your own country. How is your situation today after so many things have changed in your country?

It’s a difficult question that I find myself asking often: What is Korea to me? What is this place at this moment? It’s true there is no dictatorship in Korea, and the country has made great economic progress, and with it, there is now a strong national identity that is known around the world. But this whole process of change still feels really precarious to me. And when I think of my experience of Korea it feels like a love-hate relationship. Often I jokingly say that I can’t say I like Korea or I love Korea because I’m living in it. I’m too close to it to be able to offer a broad commentary on its situation.

Lee Bul

Lee Bul. Sorry for suffering–You think I’m a puppy on a picnic?, 1990. Performance, 12 days. 2nd Japan and Korea Performance Festival, Gimpo Airport, Korea; Narita Airport, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, Otemachi Station, Koganji Temple, Asakusa, Shibuya, University of Tokyo and Tokiwaza Theater, Tokyo. © Lee Bul. Courtesy of the artist.

Lee Bul

Lee Bul. Cyborg W1 – W4, 1998. Cast silicone, polyurethane filling, paint pigment. © Lee Bul. Photo by Yoon Hyung-moon. Courtesy of the artist.

Lee Bul

Lee Bul. The Secret Sharer, 2012. Installation view of Lee Bul: From Me, Belongs to You Only, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2012. Stainless-steel frame, acrylic, urethane foam, PVC panel, PVC sheet, PET, glass and acrylic beads. Dimensions variable. © Lee Bul. Photo: Watanabe Osamu. Courtesy of Mori Art Museum and artist.

Lee Bul

Lee Bul. Sorry for suffering–You think I’m a puppy on a picnic?, 1990. Performance, 12 days. 2nd Japan and Korea Performance Festival, Gimpo Airport, Korea; Narita Airport, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, Otemachi Station, Koganji Temple, Asakusa, Shibuya, University of Tokyo and Tokiwaza Theater, Tokyo. © Lee Bul. Courtesy of the artist.

Lee Bul

Lee Bul. Willing To Be Vulnerable, 2015-2016. Installation view of the 20th Biennale of Sydney, 2016. Heavy-duty fabric metalized film, transparent film, polyurethane ink, fog machine, LED lighting, electronic wiring. Dimensions variable. © Lee Bul. Photo by Algirdas Bakas. Courtesy of the artist.

Lee Bul

Lee Bul. Perdu CLXIII, 2023. Mother-of-pearl, acrylic paint on wooden base panel, stainless steel frame. 160 x 110 x 6 cm (163 x 113 x 6.5cm framed). © Lee Bul. Photo: Jeon Byung-cheol. Courtesy of the artist.

“Periods of my life are delineated in some ways by the dogs I’ve had”

Lee Bul, nowadays there is a lot of international attention to Korea, not only for the economy, but also in the world of art, with many international galleries opening in in Seoul. But at the same time, you are very close to North Korea, which is very different from South Korea, and you are in the middle of Japan and China. You have a mother of Japanese origin, so what is your personal and then artistic relationship with these countries that surround you? What is your position as a Korean? Today’s situation, which is fashionable in the eye of the world, you have said can nevertheless be rather difficult and precarious considering the neighbours you have?

When I said Korea is in a precarious situation, this includes the geopolitical situation you’ve mentioned. But I’m also referring to the modernization of Korea, which was achieved in an extremely short span of time. I mean, if there is something that we can call the West, we can say it was something which came into being over a very long period of time. Korea has gone through something similar but in a very compressed period. And I think this has created a completely different identity. So I’m not sure if this is an appropriate metaphor, but it’s like a person whose feet are still in the feudal period, while the torso is in the modern period, and the head is in the contemporary period. So within this one body, radical changes are happening at the same time, and this creates a kind of monstrous identity. This is also connected to the particular geopolitical circumstances we’ve talked about. And maybe this is a source of power for Korea, a driving force for the country. But at the same time, we don’t know how this could function in a different way. There can be a dark shadow to this identity.

Are you afraid of a possible regional war?

A war can happen for small, trivial reasons. So, sure, a war could happen here as much as anywhere. But I’m not particularly afraid that a war will happen here specifically. I’m just fearful of wars in general.

Do you have the perception that Westerners understand the mentality or what is really going on in your country or in other Asian countries?

I think that people from the West can’t fully understand what is going on here, but I don’t think this is very different from the limitations I face when I try to understand my neighbours in everyday life.

Nevertheless, with all these contradictions, you are an artist and you produce work. I know that you have a specific and very close relationship and love for your dogs, but how do you live? Do you have a routine? 

I’ve really made an effort to establish a routine and now I have one. I get up late in the morning and make a cup of coffee and then I go to the studio that’s on the grounds of my house. So, basically I get out of bed and go straight into the studio, which is like my living room and my playground. Even if I’ve got nothing in particular to do, I try to stick to the studio. Aside from absolutely necessary outings beyond the confines of my studio, I try to make it a habit to be there because whatever thoughts I happen to think or whatever I’m trying out while there find their way into my work eventually.

And since I live in a mountainous part of Seoul, I’ve been afforded the space to live with dogs for a long time. This is quite rare for city dwellers, to have a bit of nature in your immediate surroundings, and I’ve been lucky in this respect. You get to see a different side of the lives of your dogs when they have room to roam in a non-domestic space. In my thirties, I had a family of dogs, a native Korean breed called Jindo — mother, father, and daughter. A very loyal and intelligent but independent breed. Now they’re all gone, but I find myself repeating this process of meeting them, sharing my life with them and losing them. It’s a particularly poignant sense of loss because their life cycle is so much shorter than ours. So, periods of my life are delineated in some ways by the dogs I’ve had. And in fact, some of my past works are related to this particular dog I had when I was in my thirties. I have another dog now in my fifties, so whatever we share may find its way into my work as well.

Unlike Picasso you don’t have a blue period, a pink period, and cubist but you have one dog, another dog and another dog. So in order to understand your art, we have to know the names of your dogs and the dates when they died so that we know that you will start a new kind of work. As we said at the beginning, you use art to continue to follow the fight of your parents against violence, dictatorship and injustice. In the new dog period are you coming to a more peaceful life, a more peaceful way of thinking, or there is still in you this kind of fighting that you had at the beginning?

Am I still fighting? This is a question that’s difficult to answer. I need to look into myself more, but I doubt I can say that I am. People say that there’s a certain kind of peace as they get older. Maybe I have some of that now, though I question whether I’m at peace. No, that’s not the case. But do I feel more tranquility or silence. Yes, maybe I do; a bit more tranquility, a bit more silence, than before.

Thank you very much for this interview.

Portrait of Lee Bul © Lee Bul. Photo by Hye-Ryoung Min. Courtesy of the artist.