The Hayward Gallery opened 50 years ago in 1968. Its recent refurbishment by Feilden Clegg Bradley was so sensitive to the original building that visitors probably don’t even realise it happened, having kept the essential character of the brutalist concrete architecture intact, cleaned it up and restored blacked-out roof-lights to allow more (controlled) daylight into the top galleries.
South Korean artist Lee Bul was born in 1964, four years before the gallery originally opened, into the dictatorial regime of General Park Chung-Hee which suppressed civil liberties but was instrumental in dragging South Korea from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one with a growing economy, until his assassination in 1979. Lee’s childhood however was unsettled as her parents fled persecution from the regime and moved from home to home. Did this impact on her early work, for which she chose to use materials which were easily available, such as fabric and foam, and explored transmutations of the human body into cyborgs and monsters? ‘The body is a battlefield where political and societal issues collide’ (Lee Bul).
This summer, 30 years of her work filled the different spaces of the Hayward Gallery, against the backcloth of the board-marked concrete columns circulating around the open central staircase which allowed different views back down into the ground floor spaces, so you could see Lee’s hanging organic sculptures both from below and above, and in a couple of cases, also at direct eye level. One gallery upstairs had a silver airship filling the space, reflecting on the technological innovation of airships in the early part of the 20th century which came to an end with the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, while the other had a fragmented mirrored optical installation, covered with text from Julian Jayne’s book on the ‘split consciousness’ of early humans, inside which visitors suspend reality, with other works in front of windows giving views back out to the Brutalist architecture of the South Bank and a link to some of Lee’s more architectural works.
Downstairs, the last gallery was full of studies and models, some architectural, leaving you wondering what would have happened if Lee Bul had been an architect, rather than an artist.