In November 2014, the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham opened it’s doors to South Korean artist Lee Bul’s first UK solo exhibition. With an explosion of highly reflective surfaces, flashing lights, progressive sketches and several large installations, Bul transforms the gallery into an immersive space, through her playful use of materials.

lee bul exhib

Unafraid of creating jagged and confusing experiences for her viewer, Bul shapes structures that are as delicate as they are vast. A first glance might lead the viewer to consider the work as being industrial, substantial and domineering; sharp edges that jut at irregular angles and forms that clump together solidly. A closer look reveals their fragile existence; a tentative balancing act upon nothing more than sparse and thin wooden legs. Bul’s transformation of a space and manipulation of materials, both playful and personal, allude to ideas of non-absolution; spaces where distrust is prominent and even the sturdiest of objects appear ready to tumble.

Via Negativa (2012), Bul’s huge installation built from reflective surfaces, exists as a labyrinth; confrontational and engulfing. The surfaces, luminous and reflective, create a kind of fractured infinity. Broken light reflects from every surface – the walls, ceiling, floor – forming an infinite maze of inescapable self-images. Colossal mirrors cover every surface, glossily interrupting the viewer’s connection with real-life and throwing them into a disorientating and uncomfortable environment. Sense of space is confused and the fragmented narrative emphasizes isolation.

lee bul

Image courtesy of The Ikon Gallery  

For the lucky ones, a glimpse at the ground might reveal the foot of a stranger or the chair leg where the invigilator sits; the only reminder that life exists outside of the walls of the installation. Tempting the viewer into the space, Bul forces them to release their grip on reality. Allowing the viewer only their fragmented and repeated reflection for company, Bul creates total isolation within an unfamiliar place, stripped of all recognisable and grounding features.

Continuing her playful exploration with materials and highlighting the evolution within her practice, Bul creates large-scale Diluvium (2012) – an installation covering two floors. Drawings, draft-sculptures and several series of paintings are scattered over walls, leaving little empty space. Clambering over plywood floor, the viewer is plunged into Bul’s imagination. Her creative process is revealed, whilst raised floors, like ramps at a skate-park, encourage curiosity and exploration; the gallery is transformed into a studio peephole.

It is not hard to believe Bul began her practice in the 1980s as a performance-based artist. Though now predominantly working with installation and sculpture, elements of performance still exist strongly within her work, and her approach to materials remains playful and explorative. Placing her viewer within the multitude of reflective, jagged and untrustworthy spaces, Bul abandons her viewer, forcing them to acknowledge and trust their own self-image and beliefs.

Standing back and observing from afar, put simply, Bul’s exhibition is an ongoing performance with an ever-changing cast. Bul’s playful approach to materials suggests a desire for viewer participation. Not static, the work becomes unique to each individual’s response.

Becca Harris