BUL LEE, CYBORG RED (work in progress), 1997. Silicone, paint pigment, steel,160 cm high x 100 cm diameter at base.
Photo: Yoon Hyung-moon.
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Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist talks to Korean artist Lee Bul about her cyborg-works, images of femininity, the cult of technology and how the smell of fish creates a stir at MoMA.
by HANS ULRICH OBRIST
Hans-Ulrich Obrist (HUO): My first question is related to your new works, the cyborg sculpture series. Can you tell me about the different cyborgs you are
working on ?
Lee Bul, via interpreter (LB): There are two currents of thought in my work with the cyborgs. The first is that it references and elaborates on popular imagery borrowed from cyborgs in animations and films, but my cyborgs are all missing organs or limbs, so they are incomplete bodies in a sense, questioning the myth of technological perfection. The other idea is to invoke archetypal images of women, art-historical representations of femininity, particularly in Western art history - the Pieta, Botticelli's the Birth of Venus, or Manet's Olympia -by rendering these cyborgs in those timeless, iconic, feminine poses. So the original conception for the cyborgs began with animation images, especially Japanese anime and manga, which are prevalent in Korea as well. Much more so than Western images of robots and super-action heroes that are feminine, the Japanese and similar Korean cyborgs combine an ultra-violent, dystopian aspect with some mythical ideas about femininity, so you have cyborgs which have superhuman powers but also with recognizably feminine physical features and the characteristics of girls. Interestingly, these cyborgs always have a master, usually a young man or boy who programs and controls them. In essence, there is superhuman power, the cult of technology, and girlish vulnerability working in ambiguous concert within this image of the cyborg, and that's what interests me.
HUO: Hybridity as a catch word?
LB: Yes, but also it seems in some ways a projection of male desire to see both the combination of superhuman strength, sexually identifiable feminine features and vulnerability that is very much associated with girls.
"In essence, there is superhuman power, the cult of technology, and girlish vulnerability working in ambiguous concert within this image of the cyborg, and that's what interests me."
HUO: Are you familiar with Haraway's cyborgian writings?
LB: Although I haven't actually read Haraway's work, because it hasn't been translated into Korean, I'm familiar with some of her concepts in "A Cyborg Manifesto." And what I do know of her work is very interesting and relevant to some of my own concerns, the notion of the cyborg as an entity that is both trans-human and trans-gender, and how that operates as imagery in the popular imagination, and how it might serve to mediate issues of culture, politics and economy. But, as I said before, the impetus for me initially was the cyborg in animations, because it's so prevalent and popular here, especially among the young kids.
HUO: There is a crossing of high and low references in your work , as when you describe applying it to art-historical references.
LB: Aside from the crossing of high and low, which is inevitable in this case, I'm interested in how concepts and representations of femininity proliferate through various channels in the culture at large, whether it be high or low; and also the processes of their formation and function, which seem to coexist and converge in high and low cultures, as you see in art history and also in popular media images of women.
"...much of the so-called scientific technology, computer technology, advanced engineering, and so on, has always been seen as the domain of male privilege, and, in fact, this attitude is found in the popular notion that women don't know how to use computers or women don't build things that are highly technical."
HUO: In your early work, like in your performances, you use extensions of the bodies like artificial limbs . Are the new cyborg sculptures related to these older works?
LB: In a way, it is an extension of my concerns from my earlier works, which explored the boundaries between the body, objects and culture in a biological sense, so that the materiality of the world was seen as a sort of living organism; and I was trying to decipher its various manifestations and transformations. My concern with the body now deals with its extensions and substitutions, or its representations through technological means. And while notions of femininity may appear to be changing with the advent of new technologies and new ideas and theories arising from those technologies, I still find that certain representations simply reinforce and continue traditional discourses about what constitutes femininity and images of femininity.
HUO: Do you see it as a critique of stereotypes?
LB: Well, that's certainly a part of it, but it's not a one-dimensional critique of flat stereotypes. I'm trying to look at the processes, ideas and ideologies involved in the formation of those so-called cliches and stereotypical images. In regards to technology (which heretofore has been considered, in some ways, neutral, but in fact operates within a context that is still very much complicit with the prevailing ideologies), I'm trying to question who has the power to use it and what sorts of images and products are created through that power and its attendant ideologies.
HUO: There is also the question of how to disturb or to extend or to change the existing framework of the computer or the camera.
LB: Certainly what you mention is a part of my concern, specifically the notion of power and who controls these new technologies. My critical strategy in creating the cyborgs, with reference to images of women in high culture, low culture, art history and popular media, is an intervention against a recursion of the kinds of ideologies that are operative in such representations. One thing that I talked about before was that much of the so-called scientific technology, computer technology, advanced engineering, and so on, has always been seen as the domain of male privilege, and, in fact, this attitude is found in the popular notion that women don't know how to use computers or women don't build things that are highly technical.
HUO: I recently had a discussion with Itsuko Hasegawa, an architect in Japan who made statements for horizontality as opposed to the vertical city.
LB: Yes, the example you bring up is simple but it's good, because it's indicative of how certain images or products in culture that do come from a specifically masculine point of view, masculine attitude, have meanings preprogrammed into it. We accept these meanings, but they're not seen as specifically masculine; we accept them as a sign of advancement, a symbol of high technology, all sorts of ideas that exalt that achievement, but in fact it's very much implicated in time-honored traditions of masculine privilege and vision. So, I'm trying to explore ways to bring out those assumptions that operate beneath the shiny surfaces.
HUO: Invisible assumptions.
"...and I feel that I have to do this because the object itself has no power to exercise until it is encountered by the audience and what they bring to it."
HUO: Your early performances were about process, your current work mainly consists of objects. Could you talk about the relation of the object and the process, and the in-between-ness ?
LB: When I began my career in the mid-to-late 1980s, there was this idea circulating in the general art discourse that the artwork as an object is not finished when the artist decides it's finished and is presented in a gallery setting. The artwork as a finished, complete object was a notion that I never subscribed to; what I wanted to show in my work was how the object functions vis-a-vis the audience, within the context of audience response and interaction.
Part of my early attraction to performance was that it was an indeterminate form; the results were never known ahead of time. There was always an improvisational element to it, and this notion of processes contingent on audience participation, reaction and interaction carries over into my other works now, which are in some ways physically more object-oriented, but always try to involve the audience (not simply viewer) in some sort of response that goes beyond a distanced viewing; and I feel that I have to do this because the object itself has no power to exercise until it is encountered by the audience and what they bring to it.
HUO: One very concrete example would be your inflatable monument. It's almost an anti-monument, it's not imposed upon the viewer, the viewer actually decides upon its visibility, if it's up or down.
LB: In the case of the balloon works, which are, as you say, anti-monument, I did not want simply to produce a parody of monuments. What I wanted to do was to criticize the processes, actually enacted or reenacted in the form of a parody. So, there would be an object which borrows the imagery and structure of monuments (tall, phallic, public), but I also wanted the audience to actually participate - all monuments are, in short, collective efforts, whether we realize it or not - so the act of the audience pumping air, collectively, to bring out this image (which is a very questionable representation of Asian femininity) on what eventually became this enormous, overwhelming object, was not only to critique monument as an object but also to enact the processes by which all monuments come into being. I'm trying to explore the mechanisms, the collective ideas and processes.
HUO: And the fact that the viewer can inflate it by pushing on these foot pumps means that it's not imposed.
LB: Yes, on the one hand it depends on how much the audience decides to push air into this monument to make it fully erect, but on the other hand there is a tone of obvious humor in this act. They have to step up and down repeatedly on this foot pump, which is an absurd behavior in a gallery setting, but at the same time they themselves are aware that this is not a natural behavior, so they become more conscious of some of the forced collective action that is needed to bring this about. While they are aware that they are participating in this process, they are also self-conscious of its criticality.
"As for MoMA, I guess you could say that the white cube structure of the supreme modernist institution couldn't contain, in more ways than one, the disturbances set off by my work."
HUO: My next question is about the way you use nature in many of your works. In a discussion we had one year ago in Seoul, you told me about your fish pieces and your butterfly pieces. The fish, for example emanates a very strong smell , but at the same time includes lots of artificial elements. In your garden in the exhibition at the Recycling Art Pavilion (Expo Science Park, Taejon) in 1994, you used both manufactured nature and given nature.
LB: The garden work is the more pertinent to your comment about the crossing of existing nature and contrived or invented nature, because the fish and the butterfly works have other issues that are more central, i.e. what do natural objects signify about womanhood and femininity, particularly in Korean culture? The garden piece was my response to the organizers of the exhibition, who wanted a conventional artwork to place in a very unconventional setting. The venue had an atrium-like roof which was completely glass, and the exhibition was to last for a year. So, an artwork, an object, had it been displayed in that setting, would have eventually deteriorated from exposure to the extreme sunlight. What I did was to put an ironic twist on the concept of the exhibition organizers, who wanted some sense of nature within this very artificial setting. The subtitle of the artwork was "How far would this contemporary art grow in a year?", the idea being that what we take as nature and natural - beyond human control, superhuman, or transcendent - is in fact subject to all sorts of human forces, and we simply idealize nature as something that exists apart from human intervention, manipulation and construction. So I used both artificial flowers and real plants, which either could die over the course of the exhibition, or, depending upon how much human intervention actually went into it, could grow into a garden.
HUO: What about the butterflies and the fish? You mentioned a specific Korean connotation.
LB: The butterfly pieces are part of a whole series of worked entitled Alibi. The imagery and the reference is to Madame Butterfly, the Puccini opera, and its misguided fantasies and ideals about what constitutes Asian femininity. The obvious reference appears in the butterfly which is caught in a hand made of silicone. In both Eastern and Western cultures there is this long tradition of embodying enduring values through nature, because it seems to be beyond human manipulation, intervention and so on. But the butterfly in the work is a dried butterfly that appears alive but is in fact preserved, so it refers to a certain amount of preservation of old ideas that continue to exercise the force of immediacy. The material of the hand is silicone, which of course is often used in medical technology for enhancements of the body. Using both artificial material that is sometimes substituted for the body, and the idea of nature substituted for enduring, "transcendent" beliefs, I was trying to undermine their conventional functions and meanings.
HUO: The fish, and your "supplements" to the fish look extremely artificial, but it's not a representation. Even if it appears very artificial, it's real, because it starts to smell after a certain time (and Roland Barthes once said that a photograph's shit doesn't stink). Could you talk about this paradox and also its exhibition history, because I think that smell is a relatively unexplored sense in art exhibitions. Museums are more and more used to video and to audio installations since the 1960s, but smell still is seldomly used, so it might be interesting to talk about your MoMA experience.
LB: What I'm trying to examine is the idea of representation and its relationship to the privileging of vision as the dominant esthetic principle, and how this privileging of vision came about. If you trace the idea far back enough, the mastery that you acquire thorough vision was a distinctly masculine privilege, so all of the other senses were relegated to realms outside of high art.
While the fish can be seen as a representation, it also evokes - because of this other element of smell, which doesn't fit in to the traditional categories of representational strategies - a sense of the real, of object immediacy, of something that is prior to, or beyond, representation. For instance, if you go to an exhibition where this fish work is shown, and if you have normal smelling capacities, what you will encounter first is the smell, the element that is outside representation, and through that context you then come upon a visual representation. In a sense I'm trying to reverse the traditional strategies of art, to disturb the supreme position of the image, or the privileging of image and visual experience in the traditional hierarchies of art apparatus. As for MoMA, I guess you could say that the white cube structure of the supreme modernist institution couldn't contain, in more ways than one, the disturbances set off by my work.
"Also, the work itself had to have a certain degree of complexity, had to have some intellectual appeal, but not so complex that the potential collector would feel at a loss as to what it was about. So the artworks themselves constituted a representation, an index of the various desires of the collectors."
HUO: Several of your earlier work, such as your performances on the street or your toilet installation, happened on the margins of institutional spaces or in unusual contexts. How do you see the oscillation of the exhibition between inner and outer institutional spaces?
LB: The point you make about the oscillation between the inside and the outside pertains to, for instance, Artoilet, a work I did using a photocopy collage on a public bathroom located on the grounds of an art museum. One of the things that I'm trying to disrupt is the compartmentalization of experience. For instance, when the audience approaches my actions, whether it be a work or a performance, the assumption is that because I am an artist the work is therefore art; that it is somehow separate from other aspects of experience and culture; and that it can only be experienced within certain physical settings, like an art museum, and cannot co-habit in other places or with other aspects of experience. One of the things I accomplished with Artoilet is that whenever people went to use the toilet, their experience of the work was inescapable; of necessity people have to go, and then there was this work there that they had to encounter. It also refers to inside and outside, what is private and what is public.There is an intermingling here, because they come face to face with art, but in a space that is supposed to be private and sort of divorced from the public setting of where art is viewed, or where one chooses to see art.
HUO: What about the street?
LB: The street performances and activities are different from my performances in a theater setting, which is a more conventional space in which you expect to encounter an artwork. In the theater, the audience is prepared for an esthetic experience and they keep a certain amount of distance between what is happening on the stage and their viewing of it. There is ample room to estheticize and intellectualize about the experience, whereas aswhen I did pieces on the streets of Tokyo, the encounter was unexpected: the accidental audience is unprepared, they don't come with a set of assumptions about esthetic experience. It's a spontaneous sort of mixing of life and art. In short, the audience comes to it disarmed, without any assumption about what constitutes an art experience, and they take away something that approaches the esthetic but which is also very much implicated in daily life.
HUO: My last question is about economic implications of your work. Throughout this century artists have been investigating different notions of the economy of art, from Marcel Duchamp to Marcel Broodthaers to the present. You discuss this in the catalogue of your Auction work of 1994, which is a parody of an exhibition as an auction...
LB: The Auction work was specifically a response to the fact that there is no auction in the Korean art market. The prices, the evaluations, are essentially a collaboration, an invention, between certain artists and certain galleries, so there is no free market logic operating here. But on the other hand, I was also speaking to the broader idea that there really is no free market logic operating in the economy of art. In this particular show, I considered the context in which the artwork was shown, a gallery, but not an upscale commercial gallery, so I knew that the people who would come there would be prepared to spend a certain amount of money for a certain type of work that could be collected. Also, the work itself had to have a certain degree of complexity, had to have some intellectual appeal, but not so complex that the potential collector would feel at a loss as to what it was about. So the artworks themselves constituted a representation, an index of the various desires of the collectors. They were all smaller works that could be displayed in private collections, and in a price range that these collectors could afford. There was certain amount of labor that went into the making of the work, which corresponds to the notion that "good art" must manifest some individual "touch" of the artistic genius, and not simply a concept. By the act of bringing these desires to the surface through the selling of these works, I was suggesting that the economy of the art market operates through a certain amount of collaboration between the artist and the collector, and is in fact quite separate from a free market logic that we usually assume is a fair way to determine what things are worth.~