New York

Lee Bul

New Museum

Lee Bul gained prominence in the late '90s with a series of “Cyborg” sculptures. These hybrid forms, composed of seamlessly fused organic and mechanical motifs, spoke to the increasingly tenuous boundary between body and machine. At once referencing prosthesis and cosmetic surgery, Lee's silicone cyborgs addressed, among other things, the age-old fantasy of eternal youth. Her recent exhibition “Live Forever” built on many of these themes in an installation of biomorphic karaoke chambers and projected videos. Although it was engineered for fun, the show sought to elicit a critical response from within a spectacular entertainment experience.

Three sleek, futuristic pods that looked like sports cars provided the show's centerpiece. (Related drawings and a pink foam prototype appeared in a rear gallery.) Each of these white plastic “vehicles” could be entered through a hatch on top that when closed created a tightly sealed, soundproof space. Inside this form-fitting chamber one donned headphones, gripped a microphone, and belted out a tune from a list of songs displayed on a monitor mounted in place of a windshield. (The videos on these monitors, shot by Lee, corresponded to the chosen song and were simultaneously projected on a gallery wall). While each pod had a unique song list, leather interior, and programmed theme, the intensely phenomenological experience inside the chambers was common to all. Melted prone into the plush foam-cushioned interior, reveling in the nostalgia of a once-favorite song, one found it all but impossible not to be lost in carefree fantasy. (Not surprisingly, the Ramones' “I Wanna Be Sedated” was on a playlist.) Every detail of the installation blurred the distinction between self and other: the protective exoskeletal shell, the dreamy video on a glowing screen immediately before one's eyes, the digital reverb modulating one's voice. However fleetingly, one almost felt transformed into one of Lee's cyborgs. The experience of such dissolution—perhaps a taste of our future—was powerful, uncanny, and pleasurable.

By creating such an over-the-top installation in a museum (arguably one of the last critical refuges), “Live Forever” laid bare our escapist desires. For it's only in the leaving, when the museum guard knocks on your pod door for you to give the next person a turn, that the possibility for reflection reemerges. Unwilling to accept the total extinction of enlightened experience today, Lee recognizes that the only means to counter spectacular society is to use its strengths against it: to juxtapose karaoke with a critical context. (In this strategy, Lee is aligned with artists Stan Douglas, Maurizio Cattelan, and Piotr Uklanski, all of whom, with Lee, participated in the landmark exhibition “Let's Entertain” at the Walker Art Center in 2000.) “Live Forever” highlights how frighteningly easy it is, in the face of our real-world spectacles, to feel rather than think—to not worry that it might be too late to be saved from our own lazy desires. However disconcerting, Lee's installation demonstrates that a critical vantage point remains possible, though perhaps only if we can unplug from our machines.

Jordan Kantor