Best known for art that engages audiences physically and directly - outlandish street performances; installations of decorated rotting fish; interactive sculpture; an 'Art Toilet' - the surprise in Lee Bul's latest work at Artsonje is that it is formally cool, static and synthetic. The parameters of the main installation of six sculptures are set by four smooth white, silicone figures which hang headless from the ceiling: Cyborg W, 1-4', (1998). Inspired by the Korean variant of Manga animation, Lee's cyborgs present an image of a female body designed to fit the fantasies of their target market - east Asian adolescent males. Waists are minuscule, breasts and buttocks pert. Hands and feet are finished off with vicious clawed gloves and heavy moon boots. Parts of svelte limbs are exposed between enormous kneepads and armour plated hotpants, or epaulets and elbow bracelets. These young women from the future are both sexually predatory and girlishly petite; both mechanised fetish and living doll.
Despite this frenzy of imagery, Lee's cyborgs feel classical and austere. By exchanging two dimensions for three and by scaling the images up to human stature you might have assumed they would have a greater potency. But their physical presence is drained of colour - they have the deathly inertia of Charles Ray's recent 'unpainted' crashed car. What could have been the collision of flesh and machine instead has the dry chic of minimalist product design or the cool stasis of ancient marble sculpture. The latter is in part suggested by their quadrant formation reminiscent of temple columns, but more particularly they hark back to what we now have of ancient Greek statues: each cyborg is missing not only a head, but an arm and a leg. Short-circuiting Manga fantasies with castration fears of the body-in-pieces, she presents her sci-fi sexual athletes dismembered and lynched.
Two very different bodily crises take centre stage: Monster Pink and Monster Black (both 1998). Capable of standing without support at about human height, a naked, flesh-coloured structure and a (presumably) clothed black and purple sequinned variant struggle under the weight of what appear to be writhing tangles of limbs, parasites and entrails. They resemble ancient matriarchal goddesses from some obscure shamanist cult. Their progeny, however, that would normally be a sign of centralised power have suffocated and all but cannibalised the body of their host, as some climbing plants eventually kill off and replace a supporting tree. Midway between the organic and the anthropomorphic (gourd-like roots and melted doll parts), the two creatures display a grotesque disregard for the boundaries that conventionally distinguish life as plant, animal or human.
From a distance the pink beast appears the more corporeal, while the black one has the carnival appeal - a clutch of innards in high drag. Its purple section is covered with an especially ornate sequin shaped like a flower bud. It articulates a kind of trunk topped with a spindly black neck that tapers to a point. Beneath, its opulent outpouring gives it the sense of a horn of plenty. Each little root, creature or limb that makes up the much larger lower part of the sculpture is clothed in its own sexy black stocking. It's here that these beasts slip from theory's grasp. Lacanian horror gives way to grotesque laughter reminiscent of the funky bar scene in Star Wars populated by sassy, bizarre aliens. Together the two beasts seem to represent the opening and final stages of a striptease. As viewers we're easy, amused to have been seduced by such unlikely sex objects.
On the way out you encounter a less assuming sculpture - Plexus (1997) - a leather clad torso that has been split down the middle and hinged open to reveal a sequin swarm of blood, veins, insects and cables. Forests of cheap jewellery spout out of the open neck and severed upper arms. Strands of necklaces have begun colonising the exterior of the body, attaching suction pads like glittering stethoscopes. As beautiful as a nest of dragon flies the sculpture pushes far apart the abjection of bodily referent from the artificially ornate language employed to encode it. Fusing the elements of endoskeleton, clothing, skin and interior evident in the main installation, Plexus compresses their cyborg and shamanist referents.
Bul's fusion of myth and tradition with technological visions of the future is an apt image for the heady, contradictory time warp that is life in Seoul at present. Shamanism (whose priests and participants today are 95% women), and the female cyborg (in spite of its more dubious manifestations), offer dramatically empowered feminine archetypes for a society that has only recently begun shedding the masculinist ideology of Confucianism.