Sydney

Lee Bul

Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia

Art is conditioned by other visual phenomena, and Lee Bul’s creepy sculptures owe debts that this, her first solo exhibition in Australia, can’t acknowledge. The ideal Lee survey would own up to the vertiginous array of fashion, painting, cinema, and architecture that underlies her intensely memorable sculptures rather than repeating lazy, dead words like “subversion” and “cyborg.” For even if avatar presences started out as Lee’s basic modus operandi in works with titles like Cyborg W4, 1998, the most interesting aspect of her practice has long since been its genuine affinity with cinema: her ability to create extraordinary props and mise-en-scènes from high-tech polyurethane panels with aluminum armatures strung across deep space in the simulation of computer-generated imagery. These certainly aren’t best read as illustrations of the previous generation’s body-theory seminars. Lee’s sprawling sculpture, Amaryllis, 1999, looks admirably single-coded, like the repellent alien of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film. In common with Alien’s extraterrestrial intruder, Amaryllis is memorable for suspense rather than for presence and for its sheer mobility and chaotic affect.

Looking at sculptures informed by such glamorous image histories and so many visual collisions between semimoving parts, our attention shifts on three fronts: from theory to disembodied experience; from the spooky icon to the calligraphic mark in space; from the posthuman—a fairly dated concept for an artwork, though not for a car or a cup—to a sexualized formalism remarkable for its attention to scattered microcosmic detail. Lee’s recent Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist), 2004, is mimetic and distracting in just this detailed way: A glossy-pink mutant female figure shown from the waist down, it trails several yards of glistening crystal-and-glass-bead webbing from an orifice that approximates to its genital area. I don’t think the effect is exactly uncanny but nor is it completely horrific or repulsive. The impact is an odd, randomized double vision, a bit like Stan Douglas’s Win, Place or Show, 1998. Photographs of Lee’s sculptures always look like film stills, especially when they are set in anything like memorable museum architecture. Like Douglas’s work, Amaryllis is centrifugal, and it eliminates the panoramic comfort of an opening master shot. Multiple parts look like they go together, and the viewer mentally pieces them into a phantom whole. The works are navigated through a range of angles. The fractured, fissured representations can be traced back past art to a wider field of visual culture.

It is just this wider perspective that the Museum of Contemporary Art show doesn’t deliver; it abjures any in-depth context in its tiny catalogue on an artist who has now been internationally active outside Korea since about 1993; and it confines her enormously ambitious works to a sequence of small, dimly lit galleries cluttered by concrete pillars and awkward mezzanine spaces confused by ugly staircases. “Live Forever,” Lee’s series of karaoke pods produced at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, in 2001, was here reduced to one lonely pod available for just an hour each day, children discouraged. The multiple video projections, synchronized to each pod’s driver, that made the karaoke experience at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, in 2002 feel like joyous flight simulation were absent, relegated to an adjacent space. Her environmental sculptures and pods demonstrate on the one hand the emulation of cinema—artists’ cinema-longing—and on the other the explosion and messy fragmentation of that form’s already-exaggerated eroticism.

Charles Green