Lee Bul: Utopia Saved
The Manege Central Exhibition Hall, St. Petersburg
November 13, 2020 – January 31, 2021
Lee Bul (b. 1964) is an artist based in Seoul, South Korea. Trained as a sculptor during the period of social and political upheavals of the 1980s, she started off her artistic career with performative pieces that incorporated wearable soft sculptures. In the 1990s she gained international recognition with a series of provocative works, including her scandalous installation of fresh fish left to decay and her Cyborg sculptures, hybrids of machine and organic forms. In the 2000s she became interested in using her art to explore the history of modernity. Lee began creating large-scale installations and architectural sculptures – imaginative inquiries into history fused with her personal memory and experience.
Her work has received widespread acclaim around the world, with solo exhibitions taking place at leading museums and contemporary art centers in New York, Philadelphia, Sidney, Toronto, Marseille, Bern, Tokyo, Seoul, London and Berlin. She has also twice taken part in the Venice Biennale, in 1999 and 2019.
In more recent projects and exhibitions, Lee Bul has produced stunning, immersive installations, such as Civitas Solis II and Aubade III for South Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014 and Palais de Tokyo in 2015, and Willing To Be Vulnerable for the 20th Biennale of Sydney in 2016. Her most recent survey show encompassed the entire 30 years of her career; Lee Bul: Crashing, curated by Stephanie Rosenthal, was held at London’s Hayward Gallery and Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin from May 2018 through January 2019.
Lee Bul’s longstanding fascination with utopia entered a new phase in the first decade of the 21st century, when she started creating architectural sculptures and drawings inspired by Constructivism and Russian avant-garde art and architecture. The artist uses icons and tropes from utopian modernism, transforming, allegorizing, and juxtaposing them in her own creative works. She engages with utopian modernism with empathy and originality, with critique and imagination. Utopia Saved is Lee Bul’s first solo exhibition to be held in Russia, and for the first time presents her post-2005 works alongside the Russian art that inspired them.
The exhibition focuses on the artist’s environmental installations, architectural sculptures, and drawings produced since 2005, from a maquette for Mon grand récit to the Civitas Solis and the Willing To Be Vulnerable series, among others, in addition to preparatory studies that reveal the complexity of her creative process. Some of the drawings and maquettes included in this exhibition have never been shown before. These will for the first time be exhibited together with works by Russian avant-garde artists that have intrigued her imagination for years.
The multifaceted work of Lee Bul has in many respects defined the development trajectory of contemporary Asian Art and has also had a significant influence on the contemporary artistic process all around the world.
The Utopia Saved exhibition is one of Lee Bul’s most personal artistic expressions. It is the first time that the artist has so fully explained to the public the sources of the current phase of development of her artistic path and the influence that the Russian avant-garde has had on her work.
Preparations for the exhibition in Manege have been underway for about two years. Lee Bul has been quite active in all aspects of the project, from developing the initial idea and selecting the works to preparing the catalogue and coming up with architectural solutions for the exhibition. Lee made a model of Manege’s space by hand at a scale of 1:50, which allowed her to meticulously plan the positioning of the exhibits and organize the exhibition like a journey through a site-specific landscape, opening up unexpected conceptual and visual parallels.
The exhibition in St. Petersburg focuses on the architectural sculptures, environmental installations, and drawings that Lee Bul has produced since 2005, including some drawings and maquettes that have never before been shown. The exhibition includes one of her most recent pieces: Untitled (Willing To Be Vulnerable Velvet#9 JTVP3582/23 CE), a collage on velvet. Other large-scale installations from the Willing To Be Vulnerable series will be reassembled especially for the Manege exhibitions.
A dual-language catalogue has been prepared. It includes articles by Russian and foreign experts written especially for the publication that explore various aspects of Lee Bul’s art. Manege’s publication program partner is Free Artists – an Autonomous non profit organization for the development of art and culture.
The exhibition and accompanying event program aim to give a voice to one of the most important artists of our time and to immerse visitors into an absorbing research study into new cultural codes and ways of thinking visually. In addition, their mission is to demonstrate the importance of the way modern culture is perceived from the viewpoint of being involved in global artistic and sociocultural processes.
The exhibition forms a key part of the Year of Cultural Exchange between Russia and South Korea (2020), which is taking place to mark the 30-year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
On 11 November the sixth annual International Symposium dedicated to salient issues in contemporary art took place at Manege. This year, the event’s theme was the work of Korean artist Lee Bul and her dialogue with the art of the Russian avant-garde, which she has been conducting since the early 2000s. Russian and foreign experts have been invited to participate in the symposium, including Mami Kataoka, director of the Mori Art Museum (Tokyo); Stephanie Rosenthal, director of the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition centre (Berlin); Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, professor of cultural studies at Kyung Hee University (Seoul) and of course Lee Bul herself and project curators Sunjung Kim and SooJin Lee.
The symposium has been moderated by curator Sunjung Kim, Semyon Mikhailovsky, Rector of the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, and Pavel Prigara, director of the Manege Central Exhibition Hall.