The Last Years of Austria-Hungary edited by Mark Cornwall (1989)

Volume 27 of the Exeter Studies in History series, The Last Years of Austria-Hungary consists of seven essays. Of the half dozen books I’ve read on the subject it is one of the most out of date, having been published in 1990. According to Amazon there is a new, updated edition but, like most academic books, I can’t really afford it, at £20, and have no access to an academic library so it remains, literally, a closed book. This old edition was free at my local library.

It has by far the best and clearest couple of maps of the empire I’ve come across – one of the political divisions, one of the ethnic groups.

1. The Foreign Policy of the Monarchy 1908-1918 by F.R. Bridge

I found this a bit of a helter-skelter run through the countless international crises and shifting alliances.

2. The Four Austrian Censuses and their Political Consequences by Z.A.B. Zeman

Quite a technical and specialist essay focusing on the Austro-Hungarian censuses in the period before the war and what they showed about the extraordinary complexity of its ethnic mix.

It wasn’t just that there were various regions which had a dominant ethnic group and that, if you parceled them off, could become independent nations. The real problem was that, in any one of those distinct provinces (Bohemia or Moravia, Galicia or Dalmatia) there were sub-minorities e.g. Bohemia might by three fifths Czech but the German two fifths were not a negligible minority; in Galicia the Polish aristocracy ruled over a Ruthenian (or Ukrainian) peasantry; in the Croat or Serbian areas there were other minorities.

I.e. at every level there was fiendishly complicated intermixture of groups and races, who disagreed among themselves about what attitude to take towards independence, autonomy, union with the country across the border (be it Poland or Croatia or Serbia), and so on.

The central government didn’t have to just deal with a handful of rebellious nationalities; they had to deal with lots of nationalities, who squabbled and argued and allied and fell out with each other according to complicated internal dynamics and/or foreign events (1905 Russo-Japanese war, the empire’s 1908 annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina etc), and were governed by fierce inter-ethnic feuds and rivalries of their own.

Any government which tried to appease the Ruthenian majority in Galicia immediately alienated the minority Polish ruling class, and vice versa.

3. Parties and Parliament: Pre-War Domestic Politics by Lothar Höbelt

This is a surprisingly readable and fascinating survey. A table at the start lists all the parties in the Vienna parliament, and I counted 23, not counting the Romanians, Serbs and Zionists. No wonder the empire became literally unmanageable.

After a detailed survey of all of them (basically, there are eleven or so nationalities and all the bigger ones had two or three, or even four or five distinct parties all competing among each other) Höbelt comes to the conclusion that most of the smaller parties could be corralled or bribed into supporting an administration, but the biggest single stumbling block was the Czechs, and numerous policies were put forward to appease them.

Still, after a thorough review of domestic events and politics, the reader is persuaded by Höbelt’s conclusion that the Hapsburg dynasty was not fated to collapse. It was certainly stumbling from crisis to crisis but it had been doing that for decades; even during the First World War most observers thought the empire would survive.

It was international and foreign events which brought it down.

4. The Hungarian Political Scene 1908-1918 by Tibor Zsuppán (13 pages)

Zsuppán is not a great stylist. His sentences are long and complicated, his points a bit difficult to extract. Take this characteristic sentence:

The Hungarian government’s defeat over the issue of Lajos Kossuth’s citizenship in 1889 and similar events had served to strengthen hope into near-certainty, sapping the ability to govern of the Liberal Party itself (with its emphasis on the maintenance of the Ausgliech), so that by 1904 opposition parties were united in demanding that Franz Joseph concede greater recognition to Magyar sentiment and nationality aspirations in the common army, an important step on the road to independence. (p.63)

But the main problem is he seems to assume an unjustified familiarity with Magyar history, for example casually referring to ‘the two Tiszas’ and ‘Kossuth the Younger’ as if we’re familiar with them and their policies, which I, at any rate, wasn’t. Shame.

Also, maybe because he’s Hungarian himself, he doesn’t give the sense of the backward peasant nature of the country, of the repressive nature of the Magyar majority to their ethnic minority peasants, and their aggressive policy of Magyarisation, which other authors dwell on.

Höbelt gives you a very good idea of what was distinctive and odd about Cisleithana, whereas Zsuppán treats Hungary as if it were just another country when, plainly, it wasn’t.

He concludes by saying the final few decades of Hungary-in-the-empire revealed three irreconcilable forces:

  1. determination to retain Ausgleich Hungary within the Monarchy, best for Magyars, and assuming the non-Magyars would realise it was best for them, too
  2. growing nationalist feeling that Magyar interests weren’t respected in the union, with a long shopping list of grievances
  3. pressure from the various non-Magyar nationalities who, despite the aggressive Magyarisation of the elite rulers, refused to give up their culture or identity

Zsuppán doesn’t mention the things which all the other historians mention about Hungary – namely the obstinacy of the Magyar ruling class, their aggressive Magyarisation process, the fact that even the Emperor Karl realised Magyar obstinacy was the single largest obstacle to reform of the empire and then, after the hunger winter of 1917, Hungary’s refusal to part with its agricultural produce, adopting a policy of feeding its own population while the civilians of Vienna and Prague literally starved.

5. The Southern Slav Question 1908-1918 by Janko Pleterski

Better written than the Zsuppán essay, this is still a confusing read because the situation was so confusing. There were half a dozen or more Slav ‘nationalities’, and each of them contained various political parties from out and out nationalists who wanted independence to conservatives who wanted to remain within the Empire. Following the changing policies of up to twenty different parties is confusing, and that’s before you factor in the sequence of events in the Balkans (the pig war of 1906, Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913).

Slowly there emerges from the maze of complexity a spreading feeling that a joint South Slav state was required and in 1915, in response to Italy joining the Entente powers, a Yugoslav Committee was set up. The essay turns out to be focusing on the policy of the independent Serb nation positioned just to the south of the empire, its politicking inside and outside the empire, until the assassination of the Archduke gave the hawks in the Hapsburg government the pretext they needed to crush this running sore just across the border. But it didn’t turn out to be as easy as they expected.

6. The Eastern Front 1914-1918 by Rudolf Jeřábek (14 pages)

This is an excellent essay on Austria-Hungary’s part in World War One. It is clearly written and packed with information and insights.

It summarises the erroneous assumptions which led Austria-Hungary to disaster early in the war, catalogues the litany of military disasters which undermined the faith and belief of all the empire’s subject peoples, describes how the Austrians begged for help from the Germans and spent the rest of the war resenting them, and gives shocking figures about the empire’s losses and casualty rates.

The fundamental fact of the empire’s war was that its military machine under-performed in every area.

This was compounded by strategic errors, starting right at the beginning, when Chief of Staff Conrad thought he would be able to take out little Serbia and still have time to move his forces north to Galicia to face Russia, based on the assumptions that a) Serbia was feeble b) Russia would be slow and cumbersome to mobilise.

Both proved to be wrong. Serbia inflicted repeated defeats on Austria’s armies, and the Russians – it turned out – had learned a lot from their defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, and had expanded their railway network behind their border, and so mobilized much faster than either Austria or Germany anticipated. Hence the Germans being pushed back into Prussia in the north and Moltke making the fateful decision to transfer corps from Belgium to East Prussia. Hence a string of defeats and humiliations for the Austrians.

Jeřábek shows how the Hapsburgs spent significantly less per capita on their army than all the other great powers. This was partly because of the stalemate and blockage of the parliament or Reichsrat in the 15 or so years leading up to the war.

There was also the problem of managing a multi-ethnic army. The essay is brimming with just the right figures to inform and make its points. Thus Jeřábek shows that of every 100 soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian army, 25 were Germans, 23 Magyars, 134 Czechs, 9 Serbs or Croats, 8 Poles, 8 Ruthenes, 7 Romanians, 2 Slovenes and 1 Italian.

Jeřábek documents the appalling, mind-boggling losses, especially around the battle for the fortress of Przemyśl in 1915. Like Verdun on the western front, it became a catchword, a symbol, both militarily and politically, the morale of the army and the civilian population dependent on its survival. The campaign fought around it, the Carpathian campaign from January to April 2015 resulted in terrible casualties. The 2nd Infantry Division which numbered 8,150 combatants on 23 January was left with just 1,000 by 2 February, seven thousand casualties in a little over seven days! Most were lost to frostbite and starvation. On 23 March Przemyśl was abandoned and 120,000 imperial soldiers surrendered to the Russians.

The new German Chief of Staff Falkenhayn sent no fewer than eight German divisions and German generals took over command. Humiliated, the Austrians struck out on their own with the Rowno campaign of 26 August to 14 October 1915, to free east Galicia which turned into a disaster with the loss of 230,000 men.

According to Jeřábek, this was a decisive moment, not only in the morale of the army and indeed of the high command; but it crystallised Germany’s feeling that the Hapsburg army was useless and, crucially, Austria-Hungary’s reputation in the Balkans suffered a decisive blow.

The Carpathian campaign had annihilated the pre-war generation of officers and NCOs. As they were replaced by non-Germans discipline and effectiveness suffered. Entire regiments of Czechs went over to the Russians without fighting (as did some Polish regiments), creating the enduring legend of the Czechs as the traitors, as the ‘gravediggers’ of the empire.

But the defections weren’t as important as the simple losses. During 1916 the Austro-Hungarian forces lost 1,061,091 officers and men.

The February revolution in Russia didn’t end the fighting, in fact it led to the last great Russian offensive, the Brusilov campaign ordered by new liberal prime minister Kerensky, which was at first dramatically successful leading to a massive incursion across a 300 kilometre front which pushed 65 kilometres into imperial territory. However, the Germans, as ever, reinforced their weaker Austrian partners, and led a counter-attack which completely expelled the Russians from imperial territory.

The political ramifications were enormous because the utter waste of life incurred in the Brusilov campaign broke the Russian army, leading to widespread revolts, strikes, and desertions. Along with mounting food shortages resulting from the disrupted harvest this set the scene for the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in October 1917. As soon as they could the Bolsheviks signed an armistice with Germany and Austria-Hungary which led to months of tortuous negotiations and then the final Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

In quick succession in early 1918 the empire signed peace treaties with Ukraine (February), Russia (March) and Romania (May). But they still managed to be at war with Italy, a conflict which also produced appalling losses.

In the last few pages, with the fighting on the Eastern Front over, Jeřábek switches focus to explain how the devastation of the richest food-growing areas of Hungary and Ukraine led to mounting hunger in Austria (Hungary kept its food for its own citizens).

A feature emphasized in several of these books is the importance of the prisoners of war held by the Russians who were allowed home after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Hundreds of thousands of working class men had come into close contact with the Russian revolution (‘Why are you fighting for rich kings and aristocrats, comrade?’) and brought these attitudes home. From April onwards there was a series of revolts and mutinies.

But as the Mason book explains, quite possibly the Hapsburg empire could have staggered on and survived the war, except for one final decision. Since the old emperor Franz Joseph had died, his successor the 29-year-old emperor Karl had been trying to extricate Austria-Hungary from the war. Since February 1917 Karl had engaged his cousin Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma to negotiate a separate peace with the Entente. By March 1918 the prince had extracted from Karl a written promise to persuade the Germans to give up Alsace-Lorraine which he could show the allies. But the letter was leaked and published and the Germans went mad with anger, the Kaiser summoning the nervous young prince to Berlin where he was given an imperial dressing-down and forced to tie the empire’s destiny ever-more closely with the Reich.

This was the straw that finally decided the Allies that Austria-Hungary couldn’t be trusted or negotiated with, was a mere vassal of the Germans, and persuaded France and Britain to acquiesce in President Wilson’s call for the empire to be replaced by free independent nations.

That decision by the Allies – the decision to consciously support the independence movements and deliberately break up Austria-Hungary – rather than any of her military failures or the nationality question as such, was what doomed the empire to dissolution.

7. The Dissolution of Austria-Hungary by Mark Cornwall (23 pages)

Cornwall gives an excellent overview of the reasons for the dissolution, referencing all the essays preceding his.

There are potentially quite a few reasons, and historians have been arguing about them for 100 years, but the most basic one is that Austria-Hungary was always a second division power. From the Congress of Vienna until the 1848 revolutions it was able to mask this fact because other nations were weak (France) or didn’t even exist (Germany and Italy). After 20 years of instability it reinvented itself as the Dual Monarchy with Hungary, but what started out as a strength slowly mouldered into a weakness, because the Germanic minority who ran Austria and the Magyar minority who ruled Hungary proved absolutely unable and unwilling to cede any power or rights to their minorities even as the latter grew more and more restive and disillusioned.

The essays have shown how Austria-Hungary spent those fifty years looking for stable partners and allies and kept returning to an alliance with Russia, despite tensions in the Balkans. According to Cornwall it was the abrupt Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 which irretrievably ruined the diplomatic relationship with Russia. From that point the empire cast around for a stable ally and, although their interests in fact diverged quite a lot, in the end Germany was the nearest thing to a stable ally and support she could find.

By the time war broke out Austria-Hungary spend less per capita on its army than any of the other major powers, and also had created an officer class notorious for its insistence on traditions and fancy costumes, who turned out to be useless in the field, right up to their commander, Conrad, who made a series of terrible decisions. And these disasters in turn weakened the army, the first six months of the war decimating the old officer class and majority of the NCOs who are the backbone of any army.

This military weakness turned out to be crucial because it meant that over the course of the war Austria-Hungary had to rely more and more on the Germans and, when it was revealed that the new emperor, Karl, who came to power in November 1916, had almost immediately started secret negotiations with the allies in which he had promised to persuade Germany to cede Alsace-Loraine, the Kaiser summoned the young puppy to Spa on 12 May 1918, humiliated him and tied the empire’s military destiny inextricably to Germany’s. In the same month he was forced to sign a number of treaties which bound the two countries closer economically and militarily, forcing the empire to bow to Germany’s plans to create a unified Germanic Mitteleuropa.

And not only that but the German and Magyar ruling class wanted it that way. They saw the swirling currents of nationalism all around them, sedition and left wing demagoguery encouraged by the emperor at home – and realised their best chance of keeping things the way they were and holding on to their entrenched privileges, was an evercloser union with Germany. Thus the combined German parties in the parliament compelled the prime minister Seidler to announce in 16 July 1918 that ‘a German course’ would be pursued in domestic affairs. In every way the ruling class tied itself to the Reich, and left its opponents of all stripes little alternative except to consider dismantling the entire edifice.

The Allies decided to promise the nations of the empire their independence. So the nationalities question was a real question, and the incredibly complex cultural and ethnic conflicts of the empire were real, and they did prompt soldiers, entire regiments even, to desert, and nationalists to lobby at home and to publish incendiary manifestos abroad – but none of this would have mattered if the Allies hadn’t decided to use it as a tool and to dismember the empire for good.

Details

Emperor Karl was weak and young. He was determined to gain peace at any price which made the old Kaiser loathe him. He lost a golden opportunity to reform the Dual Monarchy when he unhesitatingly took an oath to the Hungarian constitution when he was crowned.

Restoring the Vienna parliament in May 1917 sounds like a good liberal thing to do, but all that happened was it became a talking shop and sounding board for unpatriotic nationalist grievances.

Karl also passed an amnesty for political prisoners, which sounds nice, but the army was convinced this persuaded many soldiers to desert, confident in the idea that they, too, would be pardoned.

The Austro-Hungarian high command gambled on a) Serbia being easy to defeat and b) Russia being slow to mobilise. Both assumptions (like Germany’s assumption that they could defeat France in 40 days) turned out to be wildly wrong.

Chief of Staff Conrad comes over as an idiot who combined personal pessimism with a determination that the Austro-Hungarian army should shine – and so ordered it into a series of military catastrophes. The Austro-Hungarian army lost every campaign it undertook unless it had the Germans there to help it.

Cornwall makes the neat point that, with the ascension of Emperor Karl, his liberal laws, and the general disrespect the army came in for, in Austria-Hungary the military was losing influence, at exactly the moment that the opposite was true in Germany, where generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff were establishing what was almost a military dictatorship.

Conclusion

If there’s one big thing the reader takes from these few books, it is that the Fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is a big complex historical event which is almost as over-determined as the outbreak of the war itself. Half a dozen attractive hypotheses and theories present themselves and historians will spend the rest of time inventing and reinventing and proposing and demolishing them.


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Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


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