Sci-fi and the human drive for self-perfection fuel the South Korean artist provocateur’s monstrous creations
Lee Bul’s earliest memories are defined by dust. In a military town outside Seoul, where she lived aged 11, many of the trees had been cut down for fuel, while, under the dictator Park Chung-Hee’s modernisation programme, new roads were begun and abandoned. The inhabitants of her neighbourhood’s cheap and fragile houses came and went: soldiers, farmers who worked the fields surrounding the haphazard development, and “wanderers”, such as Bul’s parents. They were leftwing activists whose home was routinely searched by the police for banned books and needed to live in a place where people weren’t too fussy about their neighbours.
While the world outside was dry, however, home was a Technicolor Oz. As political dissidents, her parents couldn’t attend group gatherings, even at work. Compelled to labour from home, sometimes with neighbours, her mother made handbags from glass beads. “There was another landscape inside our house,” she recalls. “One room with women working with beautiful colours.”