Yi Gu never ruled, but his heritage and circumstances were too tied to the country of his birth to make living there a possibility once the royal family were displaced. After studying in Tokyo, he spent his college years in the USA, studying architecture at MIT and eventually marrying an American woman. After decades in and out of his home country, he hoped to return permanently to Korea in 1996, towards the end of his life. Unable to adjust to a country so different to the one he had known as a child, he flitted between Japan and Korea before dying in 2005 at the Akasaka Prince Hotel: the building which had once been Kitashirakawa Palace, and the place he’d been born 73 years earlier. Gu’s erratic trajectory ended where it began, and the circle closed; his life serves a neat analogy for the artist’s response to a state in political flux, zooming in on one life amongst millions to illustrate a shared experience and hinting at the (thinly) veiled threat which hovers anew across South Korea’s border. .
Mikhail Bakhtin, who gives Bul’s piece half its title, argued that identity is not fixed – rather, it is defined by our relationship to the world around us. In a cave-like sculpture whose surface alternates between the jagged forms of mountain rocks and utilitarian military architecture, Bul invites us to be influenced by an environment composed of fragments; the visual and tactile come from the South Korean landscape she remembers from her home town, bunkers against rugged ranges. The aural component is delivered by headphones, which process the sounds of our own footsteps (or any noises we might make, in Bakhtin’s bunker) and deliver them through filters recorded at sites of interest from Yi Gu’s life: the place where he was born and died, Disneyland, the Monsanto House of the Future. Bakhtin’s formula is hijacked, disrupted and transferred from one person to another like a recipe for a salad applied to a casserole. We are made of what we have seen and where we have been; now you are made of what made Yi Gu. The inside of Bunker is mosaiced in shards of mirrored glass, reflecting back bits and pieces – rather than the whole – of what you are, or he was.