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Chie Matsui
Labor 12 (detail)

Bul Lee
Sorry for Suffering....
You Think I'm a Puppet
on a Picnic, 1990

new york reviews
by joan kee

Chie Matsui
and Bul Lee

at MoMA

Jan. 23-Mar. 25, 1997

In this exhibition, Japanese installation artist Chie Matsui's Labor 39 and Korean performance and installation artist Bul Lee's Majestic Splendor delineate the patriarchal oppression of women in their respective societies. While curator Barbara London deems installation a "liberating" medium for women artists such as Matsui and Lee, their works suggest otherwise by fixating upon the all-encompassing nature of male oppression using objects traditionally associated with married women.

In Labor 39, a table resembling part of a sanmenkyo, a vanity mirror used by older Japanese women, diffuses the light of a suspended lantern into shadows which imply the real discontent lurking within the lives of such women. A photograph of a woman's cavernous open mouth and the red plush curtains that surround the work both seem to swallow the viewer whole. An allusion to oral sex, the open mouth also denotes the woman's passive position in sexual relationships. Matsui thus implies that the traditional Japanese woman was engulfed by her dual roles as ornament and sexual object.

Bul Lee continues this exploration of prescribed women's roles in Majestic Splendor, which consists of 63 Ziploc bags, each filled with gravel, dead fish and beaded decorations used in traditional Korean bridal headpieces. The fish strongly resemble gulbi, a delicacy served to new mothers, which along with the beads and sequins, emphasize the Korean woman's role as wife. Lee also evokes death as the sealed bags are body bags in which the fish become minature embalmed corpses. This combination of death, marriage and the ceaseless repetition of the bags suggests the inexorable nature of male-dominated Korean society. Although both artists fail to propose an alternative to such oppression, they nevertheless succeed in asserting their viewpoints through biting commentary and vivid cultural metaphors. [The work was removed after the opening, over the protests of the artist, ostensibly because of the smell from the decaying fish. For a full report on the contretemps see ArtNet News, forthcoming.]

The Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.