Hayward Gallery at Southbank Centre has been transformed into ‘another place (at) another time’ with the South Korean artist Lee Bul’s artworks adorning the space. Formed of a compilation of sculptures, interactive installations, as well as study models, paintings, and sketches, Bul’s work is in conversation with the gallery. It follows a spatial and thematic narrative through the five rooms it spans.
The exhibition is charged with powerful political and philosophical themes including futurism of the past, self-consciousness, and fragmentation. These heavy, abstract themes find physicality in Bul’s work in an undoubtedly stunning manner. By using a variety of materials such as light bulbs, mirrors, and silk, she creates sophisticated, elegant compositions. The significance of her work stems from its accessibility. The sensorial nature of her pieces renders them compelling to a wide audience. Especially the larger installation pieces are quite emotive and thought-provoking.
Hence, my favorite piece was the installation in Room 5 called ‘Via Negative II’. The piece is a mirrored labyrinth with a central room containing perfectly aligned light bulbs. The whole structure feels ephemeral due to the materials used for its construction: glass and steel. Upon entering this reflective maze, the visitor follows a naturally meandering path which unexpectedly leads into a small room with a spacious feel. Except for the central room, the maze is dominated by cool colored light; the mirrored surfaces seem quite cold and grey. In contrast, the core of the installation is lit up with an abundance of incandescent light bulbs radiating a warm, yellow shade. Akin to the rest of the maze, reflective surfaces are incorporated into this small central pocket, yet the room feels much more intimate and welcoming. In my opinion, the experience of walking through the mirrored maze and coming across this stunning room of comforting yellow light in the centre is a reference to our consciousness and the stream of thoughts from generic to rarely found intimate ones.
Another strong characteristic of the exhibition is that it utilizes the gallery space in an impressively astute manner. The two floors of Hayward Gallery are connected via a staircase strategically positioned to offer views of the artworks below. The placement of Bul’s pieces capitalizes on the vantage point the staircase provides. Especially ‘Heaven and Earth’ in Room 2, a bathtub composed of a mountain landscape and broken bathroom tiles filled with pitch black ink, gains a different meaning when observed from half a floor above ground. The beautifully heavy concrete texture of the staircase frames the white and black artwork, allowing the visitor to immerse themselves into the fictional world Bul has created. Overall, the dialogue between the art and the architecture it occupies feels almost intrinsic, it’s as if the pieces were made to be displayed at the Hayward.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, I found the order of the rooms ineffective. Rooms 1, 3, 4, and 5 contain large artworks whereas Room 2 consists of early works by Lee Bul. When encountered in order, Room 2 detracts from the fluent narrative of the exhibition as it is more about the making process than the finished product. However, due to the structure of the gallery, many visitors move to Room 3 after Room1, which feels like a more natural circulation in the space than proceeding to Room 2.
Ultimately, Lee Bul’s work is very sensorial, moving, and impactful. Because of the emphasis on the senses, I would imagine people from any background would be able to find meaning in this exhibition. The materiality of Bul’s pieces could truly resonate with a wide audience.