Retrospectives galore, old faces aplenty. It’s been a fascinating few months at Ikon Gallery, currently in the middle of its 50th anniversary celebrations.
But don’t, for a moment, expect the gallery to be standing still, resting on its laurels, taking its audience for granted.
One of the joys of returning there every few months is to wonder what its director Jonathan Watkins has been up to next.
Where has he been? Who has he met? And what kind of rabbit will he be pulling out of his international hat?
As ever, the gallery’s latest exhibition has been years in the making in as much as he’s known South Korea’s Lee Bul since the last century.
“I’m a slow fellow sometimes,” he quips. “We met in the 1990s, but this is the first time I’ve worked with Lee Bul.
“Now it feels like a huge privilege to be bringing her work to a British audience.
“To be creating a milestone in British art history.
“I could go on about the philosophical implications of the exhibition, that it’s so cool, challenging and seductive.
“In Seoul, from the late 1980s, Lee Bul had her studio on the top floor of a concrete office block.
“A very regular building, box-shaped, with a structure articulated by right-angles and elevations of windows in grids, it was a typical outcome of the military dictatorship that held sway in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953 until 1987.
“Functionalist, but dysfunctional, Lee Bul’s studio was unheated, completely unsuitable for the freezing winters of Seoul and below were floors and floors of deserted office of a national mining association, long gone.
“Lee Bul, I think she’s a genius.
“She is determined to pull meaning into play, without apologising for any inconvenience, confusion or jaggedness, and this comes along with the viewer as much as any artistic intention.”
On the face of it, Lee Bul is a slight, diminutive figure. She’s wearing a black suit offset by her Asian skin, grey hair and silver-rimmed glasses.
On foreign soil such as ours, Lee Bul is businesslike. Efficient, ultra-polite – all the things you might expect.
But, unlike some artists, there’s no awkward seriousness.
Half a world away from home and a childhood in which she could never have imagined the present, she’s comfortable, warm-hearted and blessed with a sense of humour.
English might not be her first language, but she dispenses with her translator after one question.
I tell her I’d overheard one of Ikon’s stars of the 1960s referring to her exhibition as not just being one of the highlights of its half century, but THE best.
Her reaction, an endearing mixture of pride overcome with humility, tells you all you need to know about Lee Bul as a person.
Born in 1964, she studied sculpture and graduated from Hongik University in 1987, the same year that South Korea’s military dictatorship ended.
The country might not have been as repressive as today’s North Korea, but there were few of the freedoms we take for granted today.
Living in Seoul, she dismisses the Olympics and World Cup as things that didn’t interest her.
But burning away inside her brain was a desire to explore the world through art.
If Jonathan had acted on his instincts earlier, the Ikon wouldn’t now be opening her UK debut with Via Negativa, a stunning piece from 2012.
It’s an almost endless maze of mirrors set in a hall that’s not much bigger than the average sized living room.
When you look at the legs holding the exhibit up, there aren’t many.
But when you walk through the passages, and look around yourself at head height, it’s as if you are staring into a kind of fractured infinity.
A place to see the world in a broken light. Somewhere new to try to take the ultimate multiple-selfie.
The end of the maze isn’t obviously the end. It’s a chamber with two-way mirrors, creating endless self-images.
So you turn back and see your original journey in a whole new way.
But, hey... nobody wants to leave a maze the way they came in. A maze is to there to be solved. To be conquered.
So you turn around again to try to find the end – and again the journey seems different.
Parallel two-way mirrors seem to have multiplied behind your back and there are more reflections aplenty.
Look down towards your feet and you’ll see the legs of your fellow travellers in different sections of the maze.
Look up, and you’ll see further than the height of the ceiling you know exists outside of the exhibit.
And then there are the walls of light bulbs resembling some kind of other-worldly superstar’s make-up mirror.
Via Negativa is described in the official guide as “a labyrinth that confuses our sense of space through faceted and highly reflective surfaces... an analogy for the human mind”.
Jonathan describes it thus: “The ‘infinity room’ is the end of an extraordinary journey, suggesting a kind of enlightenment that cannot simply be shared. Above all, we haven’t come here to find a big idea with which to subjugate others.”
Lee Bul says: “I think it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable and self-conscious... seeing their fragmented selves.”
Via Negative feels as if it might have been designed on a computer screen, but no.
“It was all done with drawings,” she smiles.
“I have very few dreams and wake up in the morning with empty paper.
“I wait for ideas, and might have a cigarette, and then start drawing.
“I like to draw clearly from my imagination and to create details almost as if they are real.”
Not many sheets are crumpled up and tossed straight into the bin.
“I’ll pint them up on the wall and then go back to them later to see what’s there,” she says.
“When I was young, I was brought up in a very left wing house,” she says.
“My parents have really tried to change in society in their own way, although they were kind of late.”
Lee Bul might have had a career as a teacher, but the call to draw was overwhelming.
“I was very young, 19, when I decided I wanted to be an artist but why I came this way, I am not sure.
“I learned and watched other artists.”
She also feels privileged to have seen both sides of life in South Korea, where modern industrialisation and commercial life has developed at breakneck speed.
“It was madness, all very fast in such a short space of time,” she admits.
“It means I can see the whole picture of everything.
“Sometimes this process takes 100 years. When I have questions, it’s about the whole subject.”
What this means, in essence, is that we all live in a much more democratic world.
Because the world is now so fast moving and so complex, with new apps, software developments and technologies constantly challenging and changing everything we do an almost weekly basis, Lee Bul believes it’s too much for any one person to get to grips with.
“Everything is very pragmatic. Nobody can figure it all out.”
Her vast, two-floor exhibition includes drawings and sculptural pieces as well as large scale installations.
After Bruno Taut (Devotion to Drift) (2013) was inspired by modernist architect Bruno Taut and his glass architectural fantasies.
Suspended elements allude to impoverished South Korean female workers who earned their living by making beaded necklaces until the 1980s.
Mon Grand Recit: Weep Into Stones... (2005) is a “grand narrative” designed to illustrate how chaos can exist in worlds designed for order and stability.
The dark, mountainous island created for Bunker (2007 / 2012) interprets the thoughts of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin whose theories about the evolving, social nature of language lead us to fragmented narratives.
Undulating plywood floors fixed to metal frames are on IKON’s first and second floors.
Lee Bul says they are there be walked on – the lack of a sign to say that you can was deliberate.
In conjunction with Ikon’s exhibition, the Korean Cultural Centre UK in London ( www.kccuk.org.uk ) is simultaneously presenting a new version of the work until November 1, also titled Diluvium.
So, with two exhibitions in the UK at once, what is it like to be able to see your artworks in another country?
“If someone wants to show my works, then I’m very happy with that,” she smiles.
“My interest is about the human, not just Korean.”
* Lee Bul’s exhibition is open until November 9 at Ikon Gallery, 1 Oozells St, Birmingham, B1 2HS. Admission free. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-6pm (closed Mondays except Bank Holidays). Tel 0121 248 0708 or visit www.ikon-gallery.org