It is exceedingly rare in the contemporary art world to find a piece with such magnitude that actually has a deep, and some would say even a spiritual, meaning behind it. Only the most daring (and the most lucrative) of modern artists can pull off installations of such dizzying magnanimity and scale, and actually make it work (unlike a Sarra-esque curved wall). Here we have another situation where, despite being tainted with the never-ceasing march of globalization, and the global art world being dictated in large part by the colonization of euro and American art elites, a different perspective leads to a very provocative and dare I say, meaningful style of expression; Enter the South Korean art giant Lee Bul, who’s works have led her to a global respect and recognition in the art world. One must not exoticize or fetishize the “great Oriental other” in terms of art perspectives, but one cannot help but conclude that a bit of a distance from the west can immunize the artist from the decadence, drab and chic nihilism, and purposeful malaise that characterizes a lions share of current art trends. Before we jump into it, let me first be clear about the work of Lee Bul. Her art is just as “modern” or rather post-modern as any other global artist, with the usual progressive bonafides about “challenging perceptions” of race, gender, politics, etc. There is never a crop of purely reactionary or “trad” artist anymore, at least not ones that sell that it. Anyways, in spite of the typical banality of leftist politics present in modern art that is attached to a lot of her work, one can find a lot of unique avenues of thought within these massive and intricate installations and use of materials.
As John David Ebert says in his seminal book “Art After Metaphysics”, artists in the post-metaphysical age, that is, the age we are in where metaphysics has been thoroughly debased and separated from public life, each artist is an individual that is charged with the task of finding their own meaning. Each artist is given the monumental task of carving their own path ,and not having any illusions about a recourse to a previous age. The Metaphysical artist must find a new metaphysics, and cut through, not ignore, Reify or historicize post-modernity. Lee Bul is a “postmodern” artist of sorts, but one that is trying, at least in my estimation, to recognize the world of the spiritual, with the age of agonizing self-reflection, and crushing self-awareness.
The message of Lee Bul is a simple one when it comes to her large installation pieces that immerses the viewer within the universe of each unique creation: Art is best when it swallows the viewer whole into its being, and when it is experienced, not merely as a passive viewer. One must walk into the piece, and one must also find their own meaning within them, hence why she is characteristically tight-lipped about each piece, she feels that it is not up to her as an artist to self-analyze each piece, thus giving them added mystery and spontaneity.
Civitas Solis (2014), translated as the “sun city”, or sun-civilization is a giant installation that takes up one whole gallery floor. The room walls are covered in fractured and wavering mirrors, producing one of her famed infinity effects that destabilizes and widens the environment-space, such as the mirrors found in her most famous installation “Via Negativa ll“. The floor is covered in acrylics, fragments and glass shards, and a ton of LED lights that give the room an ominous, yet serene feeling. The lights glitter and flicker with a softness, and the sum total experience feels like a Nirvanic moment, like a “great vehicle passage” when one realizes the cessation of Samsara in Mahayana Buddhism, but in a postmodern form.
Bul tries to navigate an experience space that honors that primordial feeling of liberation and cessation of attachment, with the modern realities of never-ending and perverse self-reflection. Hence Bul’s fascination with glass, mirrors, lights, etc. The experiencer views themselves in a distorted world of pure reflection, similar to how people take selfies in Via Negativa. Despite our narcissism and vapidness, Bul wants us to take ourselves out of our experience of ourselves, but through our experience of ourselves, like the way a Zen practitioner must grapple with their own self before they “forget” or “see beyond’ their own self. In fact Bul’s work is genius in this way, for we are so preoccupied with our own selves, with the “I-Consciousness” in the age of narcissism, that the only way we an ever be pulled out of the self is if you trick people into it through an appeal to their own self-reflection. One must remember that the average NPC loves paying lip service to self-reflection. Think of how in any major coastal city of influence, Yoga, “TM” (transcendental meditation), “Mindfulness” and a litany of other “self-reflection exercises” are so popular among the alienated and detached masses.
In Civitas Solis, Bul imagines a postmodern world of a light-like utopia, where people are still attached to the machinations of technology, but slowly are crawling out of the “danger” as Heidegger says. The ” turning” of En-framing technics is the realization that along with its danger, en-framing technology possesses the way out of this danger. En-framing may have fallen being into a state of oblivion, forgetfulness, and detachment from us as human beings. En-framing creates this catastrophe, but in it lies a potential turn, the inward turn of the oblivion of being into a new form that negates the danger of enframing, producing realms of new and greater significance that en-framing nearly whipped out (religion, art, meaning, etc.).
To relate it to the art of Civitas Solis, the new world created that uses technology, industrial materials, and objects to create a new meaning, a new metaphysics that turns away, yet recognizes the catastrophe of modernity and modern technological domination, like the Taoist concept of “wu-wei” (Room-making), Bul makes a new world for a new reality, since in Heidegger’s view, only Dasein can cultivate an authentic relation to being, we are the “shepherds of being” in a new epoch, when the danger of the ego that drives en-framing comes to pass.
In coming to realize technology has a deeper danger within it, we can see through and beyond it, and cultivate a new relation of being, hence art plays a crucial role in this movement. Bul’s eschatological utopia is an installation that has this vibrant potentiality in it, since it uses technology not as domination, but as a way of seeing a new path of being. The Epoch of technology as en-framing, as a destiny that en-frames and robs the planet of its authenticity and turns everything into stored resources, etc. that will come to and end, but technology itself will never come to an end. Bul reconciles this fact in her work.
The biggest inspiration for the utopian leanings of Civitas Solis is the book “The City Of The Sun” by Italian Philosopher and Dominican Friar Tommaso Campanella. The world of the Sun-City is one similar in character to Plato’s Kilopolis, the philosopher city, but without certain aspects that would violate Christian doctrine (such as mass eugenic breeding events). Imagine if you will, a Marxism before Marx, quite literally a non-heretical “christian Marxism”, where everything is held in common, the dignity of work is held in the highest regard, and the mutual safety of everyone in the walled in city is secured. Everyone has a purpose, great and small, love and sex are held in separate regards, as christian doctrines state, where love between men and women start in mutual friendship rather than base sexual attraction. Everyone has a multiplicity of skills and is capable of self-sufficiency, but are drawn together as a community. The living Christian mythos of the city is with the citizens at every turn, as the gigantic walls of the city are painted with the best artistic representation of the order of planets, the great chain of heavenly being, and at the center is an open cathedral temple, a deterritorialization of sacred space. The cultivation of children are the utmost concern of every citizen in the community, as they all grow up with the “art of memory” and the constant closeness to artistic images and religious symbols in order to bring them closer to their place in the heavens.
Bul transmutes this utopian idea through the lens of post-modernity, giving it an homage in the form of her installation art that brings the same feelings of closeness, the disruption of one’s self-image in the sublime, and the vastness of being brought about by visual effects. Truly, Civitas Solis is a work that is set apart from other installation pieces, and the complex ideas behind it, apart from its beauty, drives home the feelings of self-introspection, oceanic vastness, and fragmentation of being. A fragmentation that tries to resolve itself, and once again find a new wholeness, a new artistic path towards the revealing of being within non-being.