Lee Bul, ‘Majestic Splendor’, 2016, Art Sonje Center

Image rights: Photo: Sang-tae Kim

Majestic Splendor presents decaying fish flashily adorned with beads and sequins, placed in Mylar bags. The work presents the decomposing forms and smells of fish as they are left unattended during the exhibition period. This work was first exhibited at Jahamoon Gallery in 1991, followed by “Plastic Spring” at Dukwon Museum in 1993, “Ssak (Sprout)” at Art Sonje Center in 1995, Museum of Modern Art, New York and the 4th Lyon Biennale, both in 1997. However, the work has scarcely been shown at art institutions since and will be re-exhibited at the Art Sonje Center again after 20 years. In this exhibition, 98 Mylar bags, each with one fish inside, are arranged in geometric rows on the side wall near the exhibition entrance, covered in translucent vinyl.

Fish here represents womanhood, and Lee mostly used bream rather than other types of fish to allude to the beautiful and loyal Lady Domi (Domi is a homophone for bream in Korean), a character from an old Baekje Kingdom legend. On the other hand, the beads and sequins used to decorate the fish evoke female labor in handicraft manufacturing, which is largely eclipsed in the narrative of South Korea’s economic miracle. In her childhood, Lee’s parents were persecuted as political dissidents leading to a life on the run. Thus such handicraft labor and petty jobs became intimately familiar to Lee and her family, as a major means of livelihood. At the same time, the act of puncturing the dead fish to embroider them with sequins expresses, in yet another sense, a sadistic violence with a power to mutilate or instantly explode the stereotypes of femininity imposed upon women in Korean society.

The true force of the work, however, is revealed when the dead fish starts to decompose with the passing of time, especially as it loses its body fluid and begins to stink. The work resurrects the olfactory sense that has been expelled from a visual-oriented art history, challenging the conventional hierarchy in visual art. Lee once stated in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 1998, that the motivation of the work was to examine “the idea of representation and its relationship to the privileging of vision as the dominant aesthetic principle, and how this privileging of vision (against other senses) came about.”3 In this sense, the fact that the prominent modernist institution, MoMA, deinstalled her work, paradoxically demonstrates the work’s meaning. In 1997, for the exhibition entitled Projects at MoMA in New York, Lee prepared custom-made fridges, deodorizers and perfumes related to the concept of “Orientality” in response to the museum’s request to inhibit as much as possible the odor caused by the work. Nevertheless, the rotting smell that completely filled up the museum was not to be avoided. Despite the artist’s protest, MoMA decided to deinstall the work prior to the opening. Majestic Splendor can be seen as a case that both corrupted the sanctity of modernist purity, as well as opened up another approach to art history that embraces all that has been alienated and suppressed within it.

About Lee Bul

Crafted from materials including metal, silicone, resin, chains, crystal beads, and organic matter, Lee Bul’s cyborgs, monsters, and glittering architectural structures may seem futuristic but are influenced by specters of the historical avant-garde, like 18th-century Italian artist Piranesi’s labyrinths; the Futurist dreams of Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia; and Weimar architect Bruno Taut’s fantastic crystalline cities suspended in mid-air. Though Lee was academically trained in sculpture, her early works were often interactive, inviting viewers to create private performances in sleek karaoke pods or to pump air into monumental balloons mimicking manga and anime heroines. Lee’s diverse body of recent work—including installations of sculptures, drawings, and maquettes—continues to cross genres and disciplines, exploring themes of beauty, corruption, and decay.

Korean, b. 1964, Seoul, South Korea