artist / participant
Spectacular time is the time of a real transformation experienced as illusion. - Guy Debord
Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison? Born To Run by Springsteen? Blondie's Call Me? Why not go with Elvis' Suspicious Minds, or Rod Stewart's Maggie May? If you choose the Ramones' I Wanna Be Sedated, are you inevitably revealing something about your own tenuous psychic state? Or, worse, do you embody a middle-aged approximation of adolescent enthusiasm? There's something strangely intimate about the call to karaoke, a usually communal activity that, while ostensibly about casual entertainment, carries within it kernels of both personal and cultural anxiety. Karaoke invites you to carry out an almost impossible task: pick a song that is linked to both your sentimental (personal) past and your experiential (communal) present. Then, make it look fun. That's enough pressure to make anybody chicken out. Yet, the impulse to perform, to risk embarrassment while hoping for grace, often triumphs despite the odds.
Lee Bul has focused on questions of intimacy, gender, technology, class, and race over the course of her nearly fifteen-year career. Karaoke, wildly popular in Asia and becoming so in pockets of America, is her most recent metaphor for examining concepts she has explored elsewhere through drawing, performance, sculpture, and video. Born in Korea, Lee has a distinct relationship to issues of femininity, labor, and exoticism, and to locating the ways in which culture-specifically popular culture-has benefited from strategically repressing women, non-whites, and the lower classes. In the early nineties, Lee performed publicly, donning outrageous disguises outfitted with foreign appendages reminiscent of Yayoi Kusama's flaccid knobs and soft phallic sculptures. Later, Lee began to make series of slick, sparse sculptures that she named "cyborgs" and "monsters." Like her earlier costumes, the cyborg sculptures placed the human body at the center of an unstable trajectory, confusing strict definitions of liveness and gender. Lee's cyborgs are undeniably "feminine," with rounded and exaggerated breasts and hips, in the style of Japanese anime figures-yet they often lack heads, and have only one arm and one leg. These corporeal configurations represent the ways in which contemporary human subjectivity moves rapidly toward a kind of technological disembodiment while, ironically, emphatically re-asserting stereotypes of race and gender. The dismembered cyborg may be seen as an impossibly contradictory figure: transcending the body while retaining, even magnifying, its most problematic social burdens.
In her current exhibition, Live Forever, Lee continues to utilize the shape of the cyborg while removing it from strictly corporeal connotation. Still torso-shaped, the newest incarnation of Lee's cyborg appears at first to be a high-speed race-car, its glistening white fiberglass exterior playing directly into the fetishistic patina of car culture. Yet, as with her cyborg sculptures, here too Lee continues to complicate (and highlight) the pleasures of fetishism. Her pop-futurist vehicles aren't designed for mobility, at least not in the most obvious sense. These "pods," as Lee calls them, are karaoke vessels, produced specifically to accommodate a single singer and that singer's attendant desires. It might seem that Lee's primary interest in the body, so evident in her earlier performances and sculptures, has become secondary here. But, the three karaoke pods in the exhibition operate as surrogate bodies, lushly padded with form-fitting foam and rich leather that hugs each entombed participant with a kind of clinical tenderness. Lee, in Live Forever, concedes that though the body itself might not yet be equipped to flower into spontaneous cyborgian hybridity, we can still be transported into a timeless, siteless space. Glamorous incubators, Lee's karaoke pods promise an eerie journey both forward and back through time.
In her famous 1991 essay "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," Donna Haraway proposes what might be an unexpected feminist methodology-one that embraces identity as always partial, unfinished, even internally contradictory. This is one theory Lee would likely subscribe to. From her early works up to the present, Lee's practice has been predicated on a kind of exploration and (politically acute) celebration of the unfinished. It's interesting to note that Haraway's description of the cyborg-and in particular, a cyborg with feminist political possibilities, as paradoxical, perverse, and in process-is not dissimilar to a far more common unfinished figure: the adolescent. Indeed, when looking at Lee's entire oeuvre, one that refers overtly to slick comics, anime and manga techniques, rock music, and fascination with fame, one could speculate that the cyborg is, herself, something of an adolescent, suspended by her own elevated desires between an awkward sense of self and a culture that provides exaggerated pleasures and pains of every kind.
Lee's karaoke vehicles facilitate the rare, seemingly incongruous, opportunity to experience these exaggerated social fantasies while in complete isolation. In Live Forever, Lee offers three distinct karaoke pod experiences, each with its own color scheme, play list of songs, and accompanying video (shown on a monitor in the pod and also projected onto a wall outside). The first, Live Forever I, suggests a correlation between fame (however illusory or fleeting) and immortality. The pod, the interior of which is lined with black leather upholstery, shows as its accompanying video Live Forever, a kaleidoscopic journey through the Tonga Room of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The people dancing could be anyone, anywhere-the netherworldish space of metropolis lounges is both glamorous and pathetic, allowing its occupants temporary reprieves from their everyday lives. The lining of the second pod, Live Forever II, is a rich fleshy orange, colored to accommodate the play list's theme: love songs. While singing to Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive or the Cure's Friday I'm In Love, the accompanying video, entitled Amateur (Lee reminds us of the etymology of amateur: one who loves) follows the adventures of a group of adolescent Korean schoolgirls in the woods. Although this pod allows its visitor to ponder and pine over love in systematically stereotypical ways, it also points to the deeper anxieties surrounding the fetishized Asian female body. While the girls frolicking in the woods offer no evidence for a sexualized reading, we are reminded how deeply engrained such a reading is. Indeed, through the figure of the adolescent girl, Lee focuses precisely on a body that should be seen as simply exuberant-but one that, like her earlier cyborg sculptures, wears a trace of spectatorial desire that is impossible to ignore. Live Forever III, the third pod, lined in cool silvery-blue leather, shows as its visual text a video titled Anthem. The images are of a high-speed journey through a six-lane freeway in Seoul. An air-tight, alienated exploration of a megalopolis by way of its highways, Anthem's accompanying soundtrack offers the Talking Heads' Life During Wartime and David Bowie's Space Oddity, if you hadn't already guessed.
What is perhaps most captivating about Lee's profound ability to highlight manifestations of human desire is that she goes right to the unexpected source. As adolescents ourselves, most of us spent ample time finessing earnest (and typically far from accurate) impersonations of popular performers. And, who doesn't have a road-trip soundtrack engrained devastating (and magically) onto their mental topography, ready to be trigged by a long-forgotten refrain at the least expected moment? Although karaoke bars sell themselves as sites for recreational diversion with friends or co-workers, it's also possible to view karaoke as the most conflicted of activities: if you don't have a phobia of being watched, you're sure to have of phobia of not being watched. Lee's insistence that we re-evaluate our notions of public and private, past and future, individual and social, even entertainment and politics, is one that hands us over our own complex brand of pleasure-whether we name it Carly Simon, Roy Orbison, or, maybe, most appropriately, Nirvana.
- Johanna Burton, Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo Curatorial Fellow
The newly commissioned works and this exhibition were created by the artist in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Art Institute. Support was provided by the Korea Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and Mr. and Mrs. James E. Douglas, Jr.
The New Museum's presentation of Lee Bul: Live Forever is supported in part by the Korea Arts and Culture Foundation.
The New Museum has received important stabilization support for 2002 operations and programs from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Booth Ferris Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Nonprofit Finance Fund, the Andy Warhol Foundation, Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, Philip Morris Companies Inc., and the Peter Norton Family Foundation.
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Lee Bul: Live Forever