Pleasures and Terrors: Lee Bul’s Phantasmic Sci-Fi World


Sprouting monstrous appendages resembling limbs, horns, tails, and even viscera, Lee Bul’s first sculptures were soft, wearable objects that grew out of her provocative body-based performances of the late ’80s. Like the decomposing fish she once wrapped in Mylar bags and arranged in minimalist grids, these repellent forms were adorned with sequins, glittering skins possessing a strangely sexual allure. The decorative has always shaped Bul’s sense of texture, color, and organic composition, and in her trademark cyborg sculptures is a metaphor for the sensual body besieged by technology. In her latest exhibition, “Monsters,” it appears to represent the potential loss of traditional art-making as well, or so her use of craft-based materials would suggest.

In three of the best works on view, all untitled, thousands of crystal beads have been painstakingly hand-threaded onto chromium wire armatures, alternately dense and sprawling in form. The shiny, delicate strands allude to genetic and atomic structures in constant states of flux, but each sculpture is a feat of pure baroque distraction—as much writhing chandelier as biomorphic abstraction. Several related large-scale drawings made with inlaid mother-of-pearl, and oil paintings done on brightly colored panels of silk turn these crystalline structures into shimmering jewel-like maps, evincing again the materials and labor of traditional craft. If not for the huge installation of suspended cyborg sculptures that hangs from the ceiling like parts of a flayed carcass (though machine-like and white), the phantasmic sci-fi world Lee is best known to evoke would be lost in the pristine sparkle of these elegant yet homespun works. A warning, perhaps, against basking too long in the dazzle of beauty for beauty’s sake.