Pop goes the artist

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Pop goes the artist

There is something irresistibly perverted about the images of Lee Bul; something so sinfully appealing and visually stimulating that it demands the viewer's complete attention, but then leaves an unpleasant, bitter aftertaste.

Lee demonstrates that aesthetic sensibility in works like her "Majestic Splendor" (1997) - a controversial display of rotting fish decorated with glittering sequins and cheap perfume sealed in clear Mylar bags. The work, which served as a bitter metaphor for the futility of fighting the female aging process, was removed from its place in the Museum of Modern Art in New York just one day after going on display because of its noxious odor.

In her more recent "Plexus" (1998) series at the Kukje Gallery, Lee presented a female torso split open, with streams of sparkling beads and fake pearls violently pouring out of a dark inner section of the body. Through "Amateurs" (1999), a video that surveys a group of young girls in traditional school uniforms playing around in a forest, she suggests a voyeuristic desire (males' in particular) that permeates our visual culture.

So in a sense, the visual sensation in Lee's works have always been used to pull the viewer into the artist's narratives.

Now the artist, who has a growing fame in the international art world, is coming back home. "The Female Warrior of Contemporary Art - Lee Bul," which kicks off Friday at the Rodin Gallery in Seoul, is Lee's first solo exhibition in Korea in two years. The exhibition at the Rodin focuses on Lee's recent works that haven't been shown in Korea, including her karaoke capsule project from the 1999 Venice Biennale, three video works and "Hydra" - a commercial balloon that grows into a tall, freestanding monument with air pumps.

While the karaoke machine might be surprising to some viewers, Lee Bul has always explored Korean popular culture, especially its cliches and stereotypes. Through psychoanalyzing significant cultural artifacts and phenomena, the artist explores the underlying problems in popular culture and reveals the contradictions that suffuse contemporary Korean society, often in the form of parody. What better parodies the sad Korean salaryman, desperately trying to survive in bad economic times, than the shabby neighborhood karaoke rooms, where people go to mimic their favorite singing superstars?

In Lee's karaoke capsule, "Gravity Greater Than Velocity," the experience of singing often becomes comical, if not perverse. The capsule, which is lined with plush cushions and everything needed for a private singing booth, is designed for a single individual, unlike regular karaoke bars that people visit in groups. Inside, the capsule contains a microphone, selection buttons, pop songs from the 1960s to the present and a flat screen monitor that plays slow motion, looped clips from the video "Amateur" - the image of six girls in school uniforms playing some unknown game amidst an exotic forest. The video, which was shot by the girls as they played, swings from one space to another, creating nausea, often complicating the viewer's consciousness between the song's narratives and the visual context of the video clips - when in reality the two elements have no connection whatsoever.

Her karaoke room is designed to protect the singer's privacy. Once the iron door is shut, it is almost impossible to hear the singer from outside. Besides, the music is often louder than the sound of the microphone, so that even if there is someone waiting by the door, it is unlikely the singer's voice will be heard.

Despite the karaoke chamber's user-friendly set-up, it is often difficult not to ignore the invisible audience in Lee's karaoke box. What becomes clear through the experience of being in Lee's karaoke capsule is that there is always a subtle consciousness about the public audience in a karaoke room, even though singing in general is regarded as a personal activity. In other words, the selection of a song is often based on the singer's notion of taste.

"What makes Lee Bul's work so intriguing is her starting point. Although we seem to have reached a new level in technological development, we are still captivated by fantasies that are closely connected to their historical precedents," writes an art critic, Yvonne Volkart. Volkart quotes Lee: "There is a very strange, ambivalent mixture of nostalgia for an impossible purity (usually embodied in the form of virginal young girls) and a dread of uncontrollable and potentually destructive sexual energy and power sublimated into the form of machines."

The main gallery also hosts Lee's cyborg sculptures - a mix of a monstrous-looking human body and machines juxtaposed with Auguste Rodin's "The Gates of the Hell" (part of the gallery's permanent collection). In the video room, there will be documentaries of Lee's early street performance works, which in the early '80s caused a stir in the Korean art world.

Volkart writes: "In Lee Bul's world, femininity is never a harmless serenity or a casual ambience of innocent happiness... Lee's beautifully ornamental, feminine objects change brutally, they become awful and disgusting, damaged and terrifying... you become aware that everything connected with the situation of women is more complicated, more brutal than you ever wanted to know."

For more information, call Rodin Gallery at 02-750-7818. The exhibition runs through May 5.

by Park Soo-mee

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