This Monstrosity, This Proliferation, Once Upon a Time Called Woman, Butterfly, Asian Girl

Yvonne Volkart on Lee Bul

Lee Bul's entire oeuvre, from around the mid 1980s until now, is a radical staging of female figuration, global cultural and historical phantasms and fantasies of femininity. In recent years, her work has centred on the ostensibly close relationship between women and technology that is simultaneously threatening and seductive, controllable and proliferating, human and monstrous. This very real situation is symptomatic of a broad cultural and social transformation.

What makes Lee Bul's work so intriguing is her starting point that, although we seem to have reached a new level in technological development, we are still captivated by fantasies that are closely connected to their historical precedents. She then exaggerates and transforms these historical fantasies through her own perspective as a female art producer from Seoul, Korea. With respect to content and phenomenology one could say that Lee Bul's work functions as the aesthetic subtext to the highly gendered unconscious of new media and new technologies. It seems as if she wants to make a translation of something as yet unwritten and unsaid, as if her projects are the latent visual reinterpretation of old and superficially changing fantasies. It incorporates the traces and effects which new media and technologies have on (female) identity and subjectivity.

In 1997 Lee Bul began with the production of cyborgs — sculptures made of silicone showing fragmented female bodies with smooth, closed surfaces. In her series of installations with the Cyborgs W1-W4, four white figures hang from the ceiling, casting ghostly shadows on the walls. These headless, one-armed and one-legged figures are not only abnormal, but deeply pornographic, forced into armour-like corsets that emphasise their waists, breasts and buttocks. This series refers visually to avantgarde western male fantasies of machine women and the femininity of machines (especially to Hans Bellmer, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Tinguely) as well as to the contemporaneous Japanese manga and Korean animes and the prevalence of young female cyborgs as sexy protagonists. Lee Bul makes it evident that, although there is a cultural, historical, geographical and high and low gap between the two genres, they are nevertheless very similar regarding the sexualisation and feminisation of technology and the mechanisation of women. As she has said, 'there's a very strange, ambivalent mixture of nostalgia for an impossible purity (usually embodied in the form of virginal young girls) and a dread of uncontrollable and potentially destructive sexual energy and power sublimated into the forms of machines'.1

Discussing Fritz Lang's film Metropolis — in which the corrupt scientist Rotwang invented a destructive, machine-like alter ego of the pleasant, brave woman, Maria — the American theorist Andreas Huyssen has shown that man's fear of the machine has turned into man's fear of the (castrating) woman. In other words, the socio-political issue of capitalist use of technologies may be translated into the familiar narrative of the war of the sexes, or rather of the phallic woman threatening men, armed with a castrating vagina dentata. By giving birth to a machine woman, a puppet girl, man hopes to master the uncontrollable nature of femininity and the violence of technology. Sometimes — Hans Bellmer being one well-known example — man identifies with his artificial female offspring, with her subordination, with her position as a victim. However, the male author can only represent the image of the female body, repeating the act of subjugation of women. The man's body remains outside, untouched; he is represented as voyeur, or possibly absent. His involvement with her position, his crossing of the boundary is only on an imaginary and symbolic level. Femininity is the only significant factor and it is both the cause of perverting technologies and the corpse onto which technology cannot fail to inscribe its perverting and deadly effects.

Within avantgarde art striking new technological developments occurred. It was a time in which the sovereignty of andro-centric subjectivity and autonomous identity was challenged and re-articulated, akin to the current promises and fears of bioengineering. On one hand, avantgarde artists represented the rising crisis of andro-centric subjectivity through images of fragmented, cut and destroyed female bodies with whom they could identify. On the other hand, they also created dangerous, castrating (machine) women who threatened them. At that time, the male artist tried to represent himself as strong and intact, but it was obvious that he was under constant attack by technological challenges and the transformation of gender relations through women's emancipation. Austrian art historian Silvia Eiblmayr has taken as an example the Surrealists' focus on a bestiarium of (female) insects like the praying mantis, which kills the male insect after the procreative act, one way to create an allegory of the phallic mother. Eiblmayr suggests we interpret this phantasma of the castrating/castrated female subject as the aesthetic negotiation of the traumatic moment of the 'shock' (Walter Benjamin) brought about by the velocity of mechanised technologies. Drawing on Huyssen and Eiblmayr we can state that people (artists) strongly feel a homicidal power caused by the way new technologies interfere with human life and bodies. But many artists, historical to contemporary, prefer to represent it as a gender problem and produce gendered technologies that are far from neutral, but seem to be essentially female.2

In her work, Lee Bul has consistently referred to these ambivalent avantgarde ('male', 'western') fantasies of the 'woman as machine' and 'the machine as vamp' (to re-iterate the title of Huyssen's essay). She has reconstructed images dealing with the fear of the castrating woman, of the fertile and threatening woman, the construction of the nice, innocent Asian woman, the woman as girlish puppet, flower, butterfly, insect, fish, the woman as a damaged victim and growing techno monster. Lee mimics and exaggerates the fantasy of the dissected female body, lost and apparent only in shadows, wires, knots, and ornaments intertwined. In her projects you rarely find the complete female body — it is dissolved in allegories, to be conveyed as feelings, intensities and qualities, leaving no scope for fixations and projections. However, unlike her avantgarde precursors, especially in the new works, she shows these partial bodies as paradoxically alive, even fertile and auto-erotic. These bodies or body-like entities no longer merely signify or supplement a male subject in crisis, they seem to live and grow, hanging and fragmented as they are. This suggestion of reproduction inherent in mechanised femininity is analogous to the beginnings of artificial life, generating a new intensity and a certain kind of pleasure.

In her new sculptural works Amaryllis and Chrysalis, a three-dimensional realisation of the earlier Monster Drawings, Lee refers strongly to Hans Bellmer's anagrammatic drawings and puppets of raped and damaged young girls. As discussed above, the represented or, rather, associated femininity here is more intricate and muddled. It is no longer so clear what the basis for figuration is — polyp, octopus, flower, tangle of intertwined cords, hair or a low-tech arrangement of machine and computer intestines. In any case, its origins would appear to be female, with this curly (pubic) hair, with these dismembered genitals, breasts, clits, lips, with this proliferation without boundaries, with this hysterical look. It is as if woman's ability to give birth, as if the productivity of her hole, had turned inside out, had become something visible and corporeal. This reproductive aspect of the female body, of its capacity to generate something similar to its own body, was elaborated on by Lee Bul in her earlier work. In these works she was wearing something like a dress of growing flesh and skin and human entrails, embedded in the middle of which was a big red vagina. Wearing this costume in public, being 'pregnant' with amazing fertility, she made it clear by all available means that she identified with this female power of (re-)productivity, with this proliferating and frightening monstrosity, and that she was not afraid of it.

This aspect of female fertility and its potential monstrosity is also relevant to her work with fish. In different projects she decorated fish with sequins and pearls and put them into mylar bags till they decayed. Everything seems to be extremely magical, mysterious, girlish, and innocent, until the fish become a stinking soup. In Lee Bul's world, femininity is never a harmless serenity or a casual ambience of innocent happiness and sisterhood as in the works of Mariko Mori or Pipilotti Rist. Lee's beautifully ornamental, feminine objects change brutally, they become awful and disgusting, damaged and terrifying. In the installation (She was) as good as gold Lee Bul makes us have a bodily encounter with the possibility of abrupt changes. One enters a dark, magic cave; initially you see nothing, until you become aware of scattered gold dust and a slide projection of carp in a pond evoking oceanic feelings of intra-uterine life. But then you see, you smell this rotting fish in the mylar bags and you become aware that everything connected with gender relations and the situation of women is more complicated, more brutal than you ever wanted to know.

Lee Bul clearly demonstrates that the fear of female monstrosity and of her ability to give birth did not disappear with the advent of new technologies — which tend to substitute women's capacity of production and reproduction. Instead, that fear has been transformed, transferred into the sexualisation and feminisation of the technological itself. Lee Bul reacts to this technological displacement and plays with old and hidden fears. She combines fears of motion, velocity and disorder caused by the impact of technology and by female nature to invent proliferating, flooding female-like sculptures that prove woman is always everywhere, with nowhere left to flee. However, as already mentioned, her strategy of dissemination is so totally exuberant, ambivalent and aggressive, that it has nothing to do with the current fantasies of a nice, casual and virtual new femininity being dealt with by a lot of women artists.

Although it is so much about the impact of new technology, Lee Bul's work is, nevertheless, always related to 'old' media, like sculpture and installation art. It seems as if she consciously distances herself from current new media hype, demonstrating that you do not always have to be in the middle of technological enthusiasm and progress to reflect its history and outcomes. Lee Bul exposes the extent of fantasy femininity around the so-called new technologies and its possibilities. There is so much fiction about the new woman in current considerations of 'real' new virtual worlds that the urgent question of how a woman, especially a real woman from Asia, can inscribe these given narratives with her own stories has to be addressed. Looking at Lee Bul's recent work you realise that the game of the virtual has already begun and that woman, or rather femininity, has been playing a very special role which she can now commandeer. Lee Bul's work is a radical attempt to reassert that everyone (artists, theorists, people of colour, feminists and others) has to participate and engage in the process of narrating techno stories with whatever means available in order to repossess these fantasies.

With her installation Gravity Greater than Velocity, seen in the Korean Pavilion of the 1999 Venice Biennale, Lee provided an opportunity for individual inscription into existing narratives. She installed capsule-like structures that contained equipment for karaoke and a selection of ninety pop love songs that the audience could use. Her new video Amateurs was projected onto the rear wall — without music but with superimposed love song lyrics — and onto small LCD-players within the karaoke capsule. The video shows identically dressed schoolgirls playing together, facing the camera. The camera pans very quickly, with the position changing between showing the girls' faces, or torsos. As with other work, the whole body is rarely seen; however the environment, a forest, is consistently in view. The camera eye is in constant motion, restless. It approaches very near, too near, so that you lose the overview, it fragments their bodies, it is almost touching, bodily, you seem to be in the middle of their game, you become one of them.

This aspect is reinforced by the way you are singing your song, a pre-recorded song. In this installation you experience that, although everything is already arranged, canned as public fantasy, you can make your personal choice: you can decide to be intense, to have 'authentic' emotions, to 'love'. Lee Bul has said that the title of the video Amateurs refers less to the signification of being a novice than to the etymological root of the word that in Latin means 'to love something'. Further, she asserts that the dream of these girls is to become an actress, a common ambition for most girls that age. Almost every girl longs to play another woman, one she cannot be yet, but one she already is by playing her. Lee Bul offers us this paradoxical setting in which we can sing our song — which is, however, always somebody else's song — and in which we can identify with normal schoolgirls who dream of becoming a very special woman. If we connect with the apparatus provided in this installation, we have the opportunity to temporarily lose our borders, to identify with the most stereotypical collective mass fantasies. Thus, in a paradoxical way, we not only become a very special woman, we also undergo the disturbing experience of making existing technologies and narratives our own.

1. Lee Bul in correspondence with the author.
2. See 'Infobiobodies: Art and Aesthetic Strategies in the New World Order' in Old Boys Network (ed.), Next Cyberfeminism International (Berlin, 1999).
For further information about Lee Bul see
This text has been written for make magazine, London August 2000