A Sculpted Utopia: Building Ecological Awareness Through Contemporary Art

Written by Aurora Markel

Earth's future has become an increasing concern in the world of contemporary art throughout the 21st century. As the climate crisis rises, ecologies suffer and the human population continues to disregard the future of the planet over economic gain, this is where contemporary ecological art serves an essential purpose. Where political contemporary art can increase political engagement, ecological art specifically seeks to preserve and revitalise what should be our immediate concern, the future of our planet.

Female Korean artist Lee Bul explores the theme of ecological futures in her work through the idea of the Utopia, and the imminent human destruction of it. Born in 1964 in South Korea, Lee Bul started working in the late 80s, and soon became the most prolific contemporary artist in Korea. She exhibits globally, including showings in New York, Tokyo, Toronto, and Seoul. Ocular magazine article 'Lee Bul's Utopian Encounters with the Russian Avantgarde' written by Stephanie Baily declares Bul's work as ‘powered by utopian dreams and social critique.’ Her unique use of materiality presents the extreme strive for perfection through sculptural form, one that ‘examines our flawed pursuit of perfection, be it improving our bodies, or remaking society’ (Bailey 2020, p. 1). While Bul is known for a large exploration of feminist themes, this essay will focus on her iconic body of sculptural work that examines the flawed human condition; our destiny to look for perfection and strive for utopia and fail.

Bul’s most recent exhibition ‘Utopia Saved’ (2020-2021), took place in Russia, and featured works inspired by Russian architecture, and the Russian Avant-Garde. 'Utopia Saved' was a major solo exhibition located in Menage central exhibition hall in St Petersburg. The artist's work was presented alongside work of the Russian Avant-guard that inspired it, making this exhibition an iconic event for both Russian's contemporary art scene and Bul's career. Consisting of sculptural landscape work and installations that present the idea of the utopia in different forms; utopias of the modern world, utopias of the past, refracted utopian ideals from the perspective of the artist and the utopia of the Russian Avant-guard, taken from Russian technologies and architecture on display.

Lee Bul is not particularly interested in perusing utopia or suggesting utopian ideas through her works. Rather, she is curious about exploring the ideas surrounding utopia and modernity, as they connect to the reality she feels through her skin (Bailey, 2020 p. 2).

This article excerpt discusses why Bul explores themes of Utopia and modern futures, not at all expressing pursuit of Utopia herself. Instead, she is merely presenting and exploring this human desire objectively, and its repercussions on the future of the earth.

A significant portion of this exhibition features these sculptural works; lonely, desolate landscapes that represent the idea of the Utopia. Large-scale installations such as ‘Mon grand récit’, because everything…’ (2005), a sculptural work made from materials including wood, paint, glass crystals, synthetic beads, aluminium, epoxy resin, lights, stainless steel and silicon rubber that depicts an all-white landscape that appears destroyed, as vibrant orange paint drips over the edge. A neon LED sign reads the words 'Because everything', 'only really perhaps', ‘yet so limitless’, fragments text excerpts taken from Paul Bowles' 1949 novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’, a novel that follows American travellers and the ways they apprehend foreign cultures. This use of fragmented text may be alluding to a broken or destroyed future, connotations of uncertainty and societal changes. In further discussion of the purpose of dystopian art, Bailey goes on to write

this all too human ambition feeds the marvels and tragedies of utopian visions. Those desires to harness nature, to claim victory over it, seem to have a tendency to bring about downfalls (Bailey, 2020, p. 1).

This ecological awareness is increasingly present in both Asian and global contemporary art, however, it has been present in Asian arts and culture for quite some time. This strive for progression and ecological desperation is especially present in Japanese art and films. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction in Japan often speaks on the destructive nature of human beings, the consequences of technological advancement and the overarching idea of the strive for a perfect world. Animations such as Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Nausicaa Valley of the Wind’, ‘Pom Poko’, and ‘Princess Mononoke’ all present us with characters who fight for the preservation of nature. When films such as these become a part of popular culture, cultural ecological awareness increases

Japanese Professor, editor, and ecology writer Kozo Mayumi’s 2005 article in Ecological Economics, ‘The ecological and consumption themes of the films of Hayao Miyazaki’ explains the depth and urgency present in these films. Mononoke provides critical viewers with a world in that an environmental problem has begun to impact people disproportionately (Kozo 2005), introducing the idea of the ‘political economy of the environment’ (Kozo 2005, p. 2), which exposes the privilege those who have the means to destroy the environment possess. It is often the privileged and wealthy who are the most ignorant to their impact. Set in the industrial ‘Iron Town’, the film exposes the greed and destruction of industrial advancement and disrespect for the Earth’s beings. The failure and destruction of Iron Town, caused by the greed of its people closely resembles Lee Bul’s artistic intention through her ‘failed utopias’ (Bailey 2020).

With a similar theme, ‘Nausicaa Valley of the Wind, 1984, presents a character who works in tandem with the wind rather than attempting to harness it, in a world where planes and warships are advancing, and the air is contaminated with toxic spores (Loughrey 2020). Through this, her hang glider is a symbol of coexistence with nature. An article titled ‘What Studio Ghibli has to teach us about climate change’ (Loughrey 2020), reiterates the importance of developing ‘technology in ways that show benevolence and care towards the planet.’ Furthermore, Miyazaki’s ideology helps to bring environmental problems into focus (Mayumi 2005). These films are targeted at children, and the ‘brilliant artistic depiction’ (Mayumi 2005), not only grip the attention of young people, but the emotional message lingers long after viewing. People who grow up watching these films will have an environmental awareness that is important for future generations.

Continuing with the theme of ‘working in tandem with the wind’ (Loughrey 2020), Lee Bul’s sculptural series ‘Willing to be Vulnerable’ (2015), was a homage to modernity at a monumental scale (Bailey, 2020). Bul’s sculpture of a dirigible, inspired by the LZ129 Hindenburg, is an installation made with materials such as metalized film and aluminium foil, held shape with an air blower. The use of materiality here is juxtaposed; a thin balloon filled with air to represent a massive man-made airship, and ironic considering the fate of the actual Hindenburg which crashed in 1937, and ‘consumed by fire in seconds’ (Bailey 2020). Again, the idea of humankind’s attempt to harness nature leading to our demise is present in this work. Curators of ‘Utopia Saved’ Kim and Lee, state ‘Willing to be Vulnerable’ are shown with fans that ‘blow air into the exhibition space, causing the lightweight materials and surfaces to continually flutter’, likening the movement to ‘the vulnerable skin of the small living creature’ (Bailey 2020). This work expresses the idea that perhaps as indestructible humankind believes structures to be, new technology is just as vulnerable as humanity itself. It symbolises both the fragility of human life and the destruction that is born of desire for societal progress.

This desire for progress emerges further through Bul’s work with the female form, as she not only sculpts perfect landscapes, but perfect human bodies. The pursuit of perfection has been presented through the cast silicone sculpture works ‘Cyborg W1-W4, 1998. The all-white mannequin-like figures hand from stands, suggesting connotations of a work in progress, or an unfinished project. All the figures appear feminine in form, with dramatic curvature, wide hips, and long legs. However, they all have no head and are missing limbs. They are white and clean, however incomplete. These unfinished bodies express a way that women are often viewed as society and technology advances; beauty ideals change quickly, new technology allows humankind to become more invested in the pursuit of perfection, and society leaves behind trends and moves on to the next. Standards are never stagnant, and the constant desire for more leaves us unsatisfied and unfulfilled. This installation rounds off a study of Lee Bul’s utopian body of work perfectly, as it concludes that while humankind is aware that nothing may ever be enough, it is out innate condition to strive for a Utopian society, so we will always continue to look for it.

Bul’s body of Utopian-themed work and Miyazaki’s films can both be looked at as a study of the human condition. Bul’s lonely, desolate landscapes reveal the imminent failure of the strive or a perfect world, and animations like ‘Mononoke’ and ‘Nausicaa Valley of the Wind’ expose the ecological damage that the selfish need for technological advancement imposes in pursuit of this perfect world. Comparing the works raises the question: is a perfect world for humans always going to be at the expense of our planet? There must be ways that humankind can improve society by ‘working in tandem’ (Loughrey 2020) with our environment. This is where ecological art is important, in its promotion of discussion surrounding the ecological future of our planet. Artists such as Lee Bul are essential in the contemporary art scene because these works allow us to look at this flawed pursuit of perfection objectively and notice that the harnessing of nature will eventually lead to destruction.

Figure 1. Lee Bul, ‘Maquette for 'Mon grand récit’, 2005, plaster, steel mesh, wood, silicone, paint, crystal beads, aluminium rods, stainless steel wire, foamex. 62.8 x 121.8 x 102.8 cm, image sourced from Ocula Magazine <https://ocula.com/magazine/features/lee-buls-encounters-with-russian-avantgarde/>.

Figure 2. ‘Iron Town’ from Princess Mononoke, 1997, DVD, Studio Ghibli Films, Japan, Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, image sourced from youtube.com <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OarSETy7HqU>.

Figure 3&4. Nausicaa Valley of the Wind, 1984, DVD, Studio Ghibli Films, Japan, Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, image sourced from nausicaa.fandom.com  <https://nausicaa.fandom.com/wiki/Mehve>.   

Figure 5. Lee Bul, Willing to Vulnerable, 2015, Metalized film, transparent film, air blower, 300 x 1700 x 300 cm as installed, image sourced from pinterest.com  <https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/784470828819957394/>.     

Figure 6. Lee Bul, Cyborg W1-W4, 1998, Cast silicone, polyurethane filling, paint pigment, image sourced from The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/may/28/cyborgs-gorgeous-art-lee-bul-south-korean-artist-seoul>.

Bailey, S, 2020, ‘Lee Bul's Utopian Encounters with the Russian Avantgarde’ Ocula Magazine, <ocula.com/magazine/features/lee-buls-encounters-with-russian-avantgarde/>.
Mayumi, K, 2005, ‘The ecological and consumption themes of the films of Hayao Miyazaki’ Ecological Economics, vol. 54, <www.researchgate.net/publication/4841310_The_ecological_and_consumption_themes_of_the_films_of_Hayao_Miyazaki>.

Murray, S, 2008, ‘Cybernated Aesthetics: Lee Bul and the Body Transfigured’ PA: Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 38–50. <www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.rmit.edu.au/stable/30133339?seq=8#metadata_info_tab_contents>.

Sherwin, S, 2018, ‘Floating cyborgs and a mutant octopus … the grotesque, gorgeous art of Lee Bul’ The Guardian, 28 November, viewed 31 March 2021, <www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/may/28/cyborgs-gorgeous-art-lee-bul-south-korean-artist-seoul>.

‘Utopia Saved by Lee Bul at Manege / November 2020’ 2020, purplehaze, viewed 31 March 2020, <purplehazemag.com/2020/09/18/utopia-saved-by-lee-bul-at-manege-november-2020/>.

Loughrey, C, 2020, ‘What Studio Ghibli has to teach us about climate change’ gamesradar.com, 31 January, Viewed 1 April 2021, <www.gamesradar.com/studio-ghibli-netflix-climate-change/>.