Let’s hear it again for the welcome return of the Hayward Gallery who have followed their Andreas Gursky exhibition up with this exhilarating survey on the work of pioneering Korean artist, Lee Bul. I’ve a lot of love for Lee – her works are dynamic, and her shows always such an energetic collision of ideas, and that palpable sense of chaos her works can bring fills the Hayward galleries wonderfully.
Whopping foil zeppelins share space with dismembered cyborgs, chandeliers of cut steel and chains dangle above a sea of light bulbs. Deep pools of dark blue ink fill bath tubs surrounded by broken tiles, and delicate silicone hands laced with butterflies challenge racist notions of ‘exoticism’ and ‘orientalism’ in Korean women.
Lee has a fascination for landscapes – human and urban – and that fascination is clear in each and every element in this show. But more than this, she transforms the very galleries themselves into new, curious landscapes that brim with plastic torsos, flashing neon signs and karaoke pods thereby creating a whole new landscape in itself. As I walked through these packed galleries, I felt Lee was as much a creator of worlds as she is a challenge to the one she inhabits.
This is a fascinating show. Perhaps not every idea works, but it’s the energy and the fever of all these ideas colliding in the same space that inspires me. Lee Bul is an artist who never tires of challenging everything she sees around her.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum from Lee Bul’s chaos is the emotional tenderness of Howard Hodgkin’s Last Paintings at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill. There is an undoubted added weight to this collection that comes from knowing that Howard died not long after completing these but, even that aside, they are wonderful explorations of colour and abstract forms; a sobering reminder of what was lost, yes, but also a terrific testament to the man’s unique vision and talents.
Howard’s large Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music, 2011–16, is the biggest painting on display and it remains as lively as when I saw it in his Portraits show at the NPG last year – the sprinkling of bright musical notes evident in the short, quick brushstrokes in the top left side, moving to more reflective tones and longer, more sweeping brushstrokes across to the right side.
This painting aside, pretty much all the other works are new to me. There is such variation though in emotional tone. Yes, there is the intense beauty of Elegy, a sea of blues, and the mournfulness of the greys and blacks in From Memory, 2014-15. But there is vibrancy and life in here too. Indian Veg, 2013-14, is a triptych of delights, and it’s impossible not to be swept up by the intensity of hot oranges and yellows in pieces such as Through a Glass Darkly, 2015–16, and Music, 2014-15.
I loved this show. Such a joy, and such a reflection on the emotional journey of the human experience. But what struck me most about these paintings though was Howard’s brilliance with colour. When we think of artists who were masters of colour, we tend to think of the likes of Matisse, Hockney and Van Gogh and I couldn’t help feeling, as I wandered the rooms, that Howard has been criminally overlooked in that conversation. I genuinely can’t think of a contemporary artist whose use of colour excites and challenges me as much as his.
This week’s read was Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima and it was an unsettling read, I must say, but one that has really left its mark on me. There’s a touch of the Hedda Gabler to this novel that follows a Japanese woman’s descent into isolation and wayward behaviour following her separation from her husband. The mood is tense and dark, an atmosphere which is exacerbated by her ever-increasing dereliction of duty to her three-year old daughter that remains in her care.
This book was originally published in twelve parts in the Japanese literary monthly Gunzo, between 1978 and 1979, each chapter marking the months in real time. It has been translated and published in the UK following Yuko’s death two years ago and now we have the opportunity to realise how far ahead of its time this writing was.
All that guilt, anger and remorse of single mothers at their most intense can be found on these pages – the fears of a life now totally orientated around their child, a freedom vanquished. Added to that the cutting observation on the man who can leave and move on, but how a mother remains a mother every minute of every hour of every day. There’s a curious mix of fury and emotional numbness here. At times I found Yuko’s writing distant, and at other times so insightful I caught my breath. The result is a piece of work that feels more relevant than ever.
Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery, runs to 19 August. Admission £14.50.
Howard Hodgkin Last Paintings at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill to 28 July. Admission free.
Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima. Published by Penguin Classics in April 2018. RRP £9.99.
All Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery installation photos by Linda Nylind.
Howard Hodgkin Last Paintings: Image(top): Over To You, 2015-2017. Oil on wood © Howard Hodgkin Estate. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates. Images(middle): Through a Glass Darkly, 2015-16. Oil on wood © Howard Hodgkin Estate. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates; and, Elegy, 2014-15. Oil on wood © Howard Hodgkin Estate. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates. All courtesy of Gagosian.