January 2008, Lee Bul, Fondation Cartier

Lee Bul, On Every New Shadow, Installation View 2007 courtesy Foundation Cartier, Paris

Lee Bul On Every New Shadow
Fondation Cartier
(through January 27 2008)

Something about the Fondation Cartier's transparent glass, smoke-and-mirrors architecture always calls to mind the eponymous jeweler's most famous product: diamonds. Is this a subtle demonstration of corporate "branding," or just my own personal fancy?

I'm not sure. What is sure, though, is that Korean artist Lee Bul's delicate installations (the stuff of figurative smoke but literal mirrors, with some faux diamonds in the mix) should be a dream to see in this environment. Yet the work on display in "On Every New Shadow" risk getting lost inside this glass fortress.

 Lee Bul, Sternbau, Installation View 2007 courtesy Foundation Cartier, Paris

Since the early 90's, Bul's installations have experienced considerable international success. The artist displays an incisive awareness of the audience's experience of her artwork, explicitly toying with some of our most basic assumptions about how and where we should encounter art. 10 years after causing a scandal at MoMA through her use of rotting fish, the acrid scent of ammonia and india ink emanating from the work "Heaven and Earth" at the current Cartier exhibit continues to draw affronted reactions – but only from those viewers who are willing to throw their museum-goer's caution to the wind and walk across the tile paving surrounding the basin of jet-black liquid. Bul involves the audience without imposing an interaction.

Much of the artist's appeal lies in her ability to bring together themes that are at once eminently classic and acutely contemporary, or culture-specific. With a series of cyborg sculptures and inflatable "monuments" created in the 1990's, she worked at the intersection of themes of "superhuman power, the cult of technology, and girlish vulnerability," to look at how gender stereotypes are inscribed in the realm of technology, while technology (still possessed of these stereotypes) is in turn reformulated in the realm of popular culture (Korean comics in particular).

 Lee Bul, Weep Into Stones from Mon Grand Récit courtesy
 the 10th Istanbul Biennial

At once spare and grandiose, these types of conceptual constellations are mirrored in Bul's aesthetics. With 2005's "Mon Grand Recit," which was on show at this fall's 10th Istanbul Biennial, the artist announced the new turn we see continued in Paris at the Fondation Cartier.

The result of a residency in New Zealand, "Mon Grand Récit" builds up a utopian aesthetic – and then roughs it up, hollows it out, and shows us how it might feel to come upon the ruins of an abandoned space station, to discover the poignant and terrible remains of someone else's ideal, alternate reality. A tower of vertical cliffs rises from the center of the sculpture, its gessoed surface weirdly translucent. Attached precariously to its side, and jutting out at odd angles, is a miniature metropolis of spiky towers, antennas, and strange geometric volumes connected by staircases. Uniformly white, the bleak city presides over a terrain of hardened, once-liquid lava supported by scaffolding beneath. A set of raised tracks hovers over this shifting topography, ending abruptly at the edges of the sculpture-world.

These are the remains of a world now mysteriously devoid of people, though we have conflicting clues as to how long they have been gone. On one side, an inverted architectural model of Hagia Sofia, whose dome crumbles as its broken columns rise like stalagmites toward the sky, seems to indicate a long-term process of decay. On the other side, a billboard with illuminated letters continues to flicker and pulse like a dying neon sign.

Bul discreetly layers myriad visual references until she has summoned a sensation (which we believe in: it originates with us), as much as she has created an object (of which we might be skeptical). Critics' descriptions of her work testify to this effect: at a certain point, most leave precise description behind and turn to more atmospheric terms to explain the meaning in her works' seeming "weightlessness" or "luminosity." With its effects of temporal displacement and the unsettling image of a failed, otherworldly civilization not too distant from our own, "Mon Grand Récit," though physically rendered on a small scale, impresses on us nevertheless the sheer monumentality of utopian dreams.

Several of the installations currently at the Fondation Cartier hark back to the utopian aesthetics of "Mon Grand Récit." A tower made of silver scaffolding which echoes Vladimir Tatlin's Architekton supports a billboard with an ambiguous message written in flashing lights. A shimmering "stone" resembling yellow quartz, which trails black seaweed-like strands, locates us by an unknown sea. In a third installation, a miniature landscape of silver mesh is contained in an open-sided cube.

From the sidewalk, the Fondation's block-long outer wall appears to be the reflective side of a typical urban sky-scraper, and passersby are often startled to discover that it is in fact a free-standing glass screen. Several stories high, it reveals an unkempt garden within – and a completely transparent glass building nearly as tall as the wall itself. The effect is something like a set of greenhouses for art, set one inside the other like Russian nesting dolls.

Rarely does a finished architectural product so closely resemble the stylized renderings that precede it on paper. But at Fondation Cartier, visitors, artworks, and trees are flattened into silhouettes. Separated into distinct planes by the layers of glass, they are superimposed on each other like so many paper cut-outs. On a recent visit, sheets of torrential rain (inside/outside, inside/outside) enhanced this effect.

 Lee Bul, Autopoeisis, Installation View 2007 courtesy Foundation Cartier, Paris

While Bul's installations are meant to reflect, and play with, Jean Nouvel's architecture, in this glass-walled environment works like "Autopoeisis" risk drifting away entirely. A delicate affair of crystal beads and aluminum wire, "Autopoiesis" hangs high above the visitor's head, resembling a trio of fragile, tentacled underwater creatures.

At "On Every New Shadow," Bul has paved the floor of the Fondation Cartier in mirrors, perhaps in an effort to ground those works which hover just above the floor by giving them their own reflective "shadows." The hanging installation "After Bruno Taut (beware the sweetness of things)" carries some of the same delicacy as "Autopoiesis," in part because its volume is built up through a skillful manipulation of similar materials (golden chains, wire mesh, crystal beads). A Rorschach sculpture whose chandelier-like silhouette meets its own reflection in the floor, its cavernous innards are revealed in the mirror just below.

But it is "Heaven and Earth" which most successfully unites Bul's aesthetic and conceptual strengths. Rising out of the mirrored floor on an island of white tile, a similarly tiled rectangular platform is hollowed out into bathtub-shaped basin. The tiles are systematically cracked, and where pieces of the smashed porcelain have broken off, gray plaster tinted with ground color pigments shows through. The basin, rimmed by a miniature white mountain range, is filled with what initially looks to be solid black lacquer – yet it turns out to be liquid, and the source of an intense ammoniac smell.

With "Heaven and Earth," Bul cleanly executes a simple, yet effective, equation connecting two characteristic components of her work: a sense of disquietude, and an evident attention to aesthetics. Here, the tiny touches which explicitly signal her aesthetic conscientiousness are also the most menacing. The ground pigments visually vary the otherwise pristine white tiles – yet they are also traces of destruction, wounds inflicted on a landscape. The liquid ink mixture, whose scent may prompt questions about what "ingredients" are appropriate to an artwork, also takes on the more threatening role of something familiar which is not quite as it should be.

 Lee Bul, Weep Into Stones from Mon Grand Récit
 courtesy the 10th Istanbul Biennial

In Istanbul, "Mon Grand Récit" was situated amongst the burnished silver panels, polished stone walls, and deep green marble floors of Istanbul Cultural Center, and Bul's artwork and its surroundings conferred a subtle luminosity on each other. The Fondation Cartier presents flashier tableaux. Yet Bul's installations, which risk disappearing into open space, and whose delicacy (verging on preciousness) could lead to quick dismissal, retain a conceptual weightiness that anchors them anew.


Sarah Neel Smith

Sarah Neel Smith is a writer in Paris.

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