In 2005, Lee Bul turned her attention to the 'utopian shadows' cast by modernist architectures, from Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, the stage for London's 1851 Great Exhibition, to Vladimir Tatlin's iconic model for the Monument to the Third International (1920).
'Mon grand récit' was the first series to emerge from this shift, central to which is Mon grand récit: Because everything... (2005): a table-top landscape weighed down by cascades of white epoxy and a mash-up of models for unrealised Constructivist buildings and monuments steeped in pink resin. Hovering over the scene, an LED sign fixed to a metal armature quotes fragments from Paul Bowles' 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky: 'Because everything', 'only really perhaps', yet so limitless'.
The series' title responds to Jean-Francois Lyotard's definition of postmodernity as an 'incredulity' towards meta- or grand narratives. By placing 'mon' (or 'my' in English) before 'grand récit', Lee Bul sought 'to convey a slightly ironic, melancholic stance toward that idea', at once recognising the impossibility of grand narratives while upholding the need for stories—'albeit subjective, imperfect, incomplete'—'that can serve as consolation in [their] absence'.1
A sense of consolation feeds into Lee Bul's first solo exhibition in Russia at St. Petersburg's Manege Central Exhibition Hall, Utopia Saved (13 November 2020–31 January 2021). Curated by Sunjung Kim and SooJin Lee, the show brings together environmental installations, architectural sculptures, and design drawings created since 2005, 'to provide a comprehensive view of the artist's journey of inquiry into the history of modernity and modernism.'
Organised with the Gwangju Biennale Foundation as part of the Year of Cultural Exchange between Russia and South Korea, which celebrates 30 years since diplomatic ties between the two countries were established, Utopia Saved also marks a first-time encounter between Lee Bul's works and those by artists of the Russian avant-garde that influenced them.
Among the historical pieces on view is architect Iakov Chernikhov's epic Composition No. 152: 'Factory/City', a fuchsia-toned design of overlapping cylindrical towers from the series 'Foundations of Contemporary Architecture' (1925–1929), and a dramatic 1929 black-and-white photograph zooming in on the wrought-iron lattice of the Shukhov radio transmission tower in Moscow by artist Aleksandr Rodchenko.
The zeppelin appears throughout these historical works, whether a tin model by scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky from between 1912 and 1914, the image of a USSR-V6 dirigible floating over Moscow captured by photographer Yakov Khalip between 1936 and 1937, or the blimp suspended amid hazy strokes in Aleksandr Labas's 1935 oil painting, The City of the Future.