A Few Observations on the Art of Lee Bae
For some time now, the Saint-Etienne Musée d’Art Moderne has been showing a strong commitment to contemporary art from the Far East, especially Korea, Japan and China. This artistic discourse does not necessarily, or primarily, reflect the evergrowing geopolitical, economic and cultural significance of the industrialized high-tech countries in that part of the world, but has far more to do with a deep, fundamental, cultural and human interest in the meeting and crossover between the so-called Western world and Oriental cultures. This encounter, operating on a cultural, civilizational, mental/historical, political and economic level, creates new hypotheses, new forms of a yet unexperienced, fluid global community, in which deep-seated, essential moral concepts, symbols, ideological and philosophical structures, world views, life styles and communications systems are simultaneously changing. Albeit perhaps latently and with some resistance, they are also overlapping and melding with other models in a perfectly supple and flexible way. In this sense, the hyperdynamic high-industry societies of the Far East could almost be viewed as the workshop of a new, global, technical world community, still managing, despite the myriad outside influences, to retain their key moral concepts, life style models and cultural way of thinking.
Nearly all the artists who have been shown in this series of the Saint-Etienne Musée d’Art Moderne over the last eight years live a partly or wholly nomadic life between Europe, North America and Asia. Some of them have had protracted stays in Paris, New York and London that have turned out to be decisive for their artistic activities and aesthetic vision. Lee Ufan, Park Seo Bo, Chung Sang-Hwa and Hwang Young Sung represent the “Old Masters” generation consisting of young rebels, nearly all of whom went abroad back in the early 1960s, mainly to Tokyo and Paris, to establish themselves in the radical, new, ever-changing, hitherto inconceivable cultural environment that was rebelling against old models and seeking new paths. Some of them, such as Chung Sang-Hwa, spent a long time abroad, only to return much later, while others, such as Lee Ufan, built a life and work structure amid an international network that numbered several studios in various cities, including Paris, Tokyo and Seoul, constantly wavering between countries and continents.
Many representatives of the younger generation of artists, for example Kim Sooja, Soonja Han, Yang Pei Ming and Lee Bae, or the even younger group comprising Hiraki Sawa, Kei Takemura, Mamoru Tsukada, Shigeru Ban, Seulgi Lee, Ae-Hee Park, Nakhee Sung and Hye-Sook Yoo decided to settle primarily in their newly adopted countries, in cities such as New York, London, Paris or Berli n. However, these artists also maintain very strong connections with their orig inal countries, exhibiting there regularly. Some of them even have a second studio in their home towns and work in intensive collaboration with galleries, museums and universities in their homelands.
It is difficult to fully apprehend the artistic activities of Lee Bae outside of this dense, exciting and often contradictory historical, socio-cultural context. His stance may be understood within the framework of the artist’s discourse, wherein the Korean perspective of present-day realities and human competencies, man’s position in relation to nature, materiality, time and also history – in the sense of activity, change, human intervention and the traces it leave behind – have an immediate impact on his paintetly techniques and fundamental aesthetic directions.
This complex, unambiguous, yet by no means anecdotal, or nostalgic, relationship with the complexity of the Oriental, or more specifically, Korean, mindset and positioning in the real processes and contexts of present-day realities, can be seen very clearly in a statement he made during the long conversation between the artist and Henri-François Debailleux. When the latter asked if there was a link with traditional Oriental calligraphy, one that necessarily implied a certain relationship to the Korean art tradition, Lee Bae, with absolute clarity, gave a response that sheds much light on his entire aesthetic conception and artistic activities: “I don’t think of it and I never refer to it in my pictures. My way of painting is more of a kind of performance. So, when I work with a brush and with my body, I work with time. This is the most important thing. Gesture is time. As I cannot do any retouching, go back over anything, as I just make one pass at each production stage, this is a way of keeping time, suspending a moment within the space of the canvas. And for me, the best way to preserve that instant is to inscribe and pin down my forms in a space that resembles wax.”1
This statement not only explains his radical rejection of any formalistic, nostalgic, superficial connection to traditional Oriental calligraphy, which, for the European observer, who is possibly unconsciously influenced by a rather mundane cultural cliché, might appear credible, but also conveys his sound, complex vision of time and his own position. He considers it possible to preserve an ephemeral, past, ever-changing, fleeting moment in time, a moment that is never-to-return and unavoidably lost, and he achieves this through his physical work, his bodily input, his performance-based gesture as an artist.
His visual figures are not calligraphic, as in taking the form of legible text, or anecdotal script that is empathetically abstracted, yet still referential, and more or less perceivable from its content, but a visual concretization of the preservation of a fugitive moment in time, visual materializations of past temporal states, and therefore materializations of the unmaterializable. The performance, the bodily input, the powerful, fundamental, physical presence of the artist, through his work with his material, namely wax, is therefore not an emotionally conditioned, dramatic, egocentric execution of an act of writing, nor is it an act of description through some kind of symbolic system, albeit it be abstracted, empathetic, emotional and subjective. It is not a personal message, but an attempt to preserve a sensation, an experience of the sequence of time, or of the temporal, ephemeral, dwindling state of provisionality, within a material permanence.
Thus Lee Bae’s work connects not with traditional calligraphy, but with an Oriental approach to time and the human capability to render the sense of the past into one of the remembrance of the past, of the provisionality of our existence. And in so doing, he creates his own, authentic, unforgettable artistic territory.
In this connection, it may be said that Lee Bae is a genuine disciple of Lee Ufan, not in any way from a formalistic point of view, but from the point of view of the artist’s skill and capacity to incorporate various territories and systems that are external to the image by means of the creative process, the physical input that Lee Bae calls performance. As Lee Ufan puts it: “The body mediates between the inside and the outside, and can arouse us to the possibility of a more open situation.”2 That open situation refers to the problem of time, the artist’s efforts to give material form to the permanent provisionality of the temporal process and the immateriality of the time experience, through his bodily input, his physical work, and even to channel it through suggestion and evocation.
Thus the juxtaposed surface formations are not dramatic, emotional, subjective gestures that convey immediate emotional states, or subjective experiences of reality, but curious, material objects, inside of which one-time, long-since vanished temporal events have become frozen. These physical, material formations conceal within themselves the temporality, the provisionality, the unstoppability of events, and therefore also an immateriality, an experience of temporality, of past states, an experience of permanent provisionality.
The heightened sensuality of the physical phenomenon conveys to us an experience of immateriality, an immateriality whose material manifestations, and therefore the visual, sensorial shape created by these wax objects, in turn convey not that which is personal, private, or psychological, but that which is material, non-intentional, un-intentional. The personality is concealed within the silence, it completely holds itself back, allowing its presence to be perceived only indirectly, only in the realms of memories and imagination, that is if it reveals itself at all in the overall experience. Again, this is a discreet, latent continuation of the Oriental world view. Lee Bae creates material shapes, which, in a concentrated, radicalized, sensorial form that expands the evocative potential of the image to its maximum level, preserve the realities and constellations of an earlier status in time and thereby contain the permanent provisionality in another state. Through the highly poetical, “evocative power of the medium”3 heightened to the nth degree, the temporal experience of permanent provisionality is taken to another level, a level upon which immediate realities are contemplated and distanced, in order to create an oppotiunity to observe the image, or the concrete, one-off, physical object, as an intermediator between manifold experiences.
- Lee Bae in an interview with Henri-Francois Debailleux (published in this catalogue).
- Lee Ulan: The Art of Encounter, Lisson Gallery Publication no. 42 (London. 2004). p. 68.
- Lee Bae, interview with Henri-François Debailleux