Korean artist recognized among world’s elite

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Korean artist recognized among world’s elite

“Cyborg,” by Lee Bul, alludes to a human portrait trapped in the body of machines. But Ms. Lee, one of Korea’s most established contemporary artists, prefers traditional ways.
Her name in Korean is a homonym for a blanket. People ask her whether Lee Bul is her real name. Foreigners think it’s somehow connected to a bull because of the similar English pronunciation. It’s a reasonable assumption, considering that her works are often large and bulky in scale.
She might not be strong as a bull, but Ms. Lee is definitely charging forward. Ms. Lee is scheduled for a series of shows this year, starting with a solo exhibition at New York’s Jeffrey Deitch Gallery and including Seoul’s PKM Gallery in October, Japan’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa in November and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in December.
On top of all this, Ms. Lee recently received a surprise invitation from the Marta Herford Museum in Germany, which is opening in October. Ms. Lee will be the only Asian female artist invited to exhibit at the museum. The group show will be titled “My [Private] Heroes.”
The museum director, Van Hout, who was art director for the large German art show Kassel Documenta in 1994, selected 50 artists, architects and designers who represent 20th century contemporary art history. Ms. Lee was chosen as one of “the heroes” along with artists such as Picasso, Paul Klee, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and Cindy Sherman.
“I was very excited when I first heard the news,” says Ms. Lee, who just turned 40. “As time has passed, it feels quite strange, rather chilling. I feel like I’ve knotted a big tie in my artistic career. The show in Germany is a very academic exhibition, which has little to do with popularity or public reputation. I became aware that my art has been introduced more and more in Western contemporary history texts.”
Ms. Lee adds that the exhibition is a prize she has earned for looking ahead and for working without compromising. That includes not backing down when the noxious odors from her exhibit featuring rotting fish at the Museum of Modern Art in New York spread through the entire gallery. She mocked male chauvinism with a large balloon resembling a penis. “Monster” and “Cyborg,” in her latest series, allowed viewers to re-examine notions of the body in a technological era.
“I am interested in challenging myself,” she says. “I feel alive when I manage to turn myself upside down. It doesn’t interest me at all to challenge things outside of me. I don’t want everyone to like my works. But the act of overthrowing myself does not require any temptation or guarantee. It’s just difficult.”
Ms. Lee recently moved to a new studio in Seoul’s Seongbuk-dong, where the space is ideal for the scale of her works. She says the new space is rather spartan, resembling a garage or a factory. Since she moved in January, she is already thinking of new ideas.
“I am curious that maybe there are some terrible bugs in my brain,” she says. “I like to tell young artists that they should be able to observe themselves. For them to continue working even when they make mistakes and build some kind of personal values, they need to be able to look at themselves very well.”
Whenever she earns extra money from selling her work, she says she’d rather produce a new work she has put off because of lack of money rather than paying back those who have helped her in times of trouble.
She bursts into laughter and says, “I must be an avaricious person.”

by Jung Jae-sook
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