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 ever-growing 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 un-experienced, 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 hyper-dynamic 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 Berlin. However, these artists also maintain very strong connections with their original countries, exhibiting there regularly. Some of them even have a second studio in their hometowns 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 painterly 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, mind-set 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.”
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 unmaterialisable. 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.” 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”, heightened to the tenth 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 opportunity to observe the image, or the concrete, one-off, physical object, as an intermediary between manifold experiences.
Lee Bae in an interview with Henri-Francois Deballieux
Lee Ufan : The Art of Encounter, Lisson Gallery Publication no. 42 (London, 2004), p. 68.
Lee Bae, interview with Henri-Francois Debaillent.
«The foundation reminded me of a monastery» Lee Bae on Fondation Maeght, Saint Paul de Vence
by Henri-François Debailleux
Interview published in the exhibition catalog "Lee Bae. More Light", Foundation Maeght editions, 2018.
© Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence
How did you conceive this exhibition at the Fondation Maeght ?
It is not a retrospective, even if the pieces date from 1990 to the present. What I wanted to show with the sculptures, installations, paintings and drawings here is simply the route I have taken, the evolution of my work. I use both the rooms inside the Foundation and the space outside. In the courtyard, for example, I’ve installed big pieces of charcoal, held together with elastic bands, which have set out like the standing stones at Carnac. I had the bundles sent from Cheongdo, where I was born, near Daegu, in South Korea. They were carbonised in the mountains, in an old kiln shaped like an igloo, built in clay. They were burned for fifteen days at a temperature of about thousand degrees, like firing ceramic, then cooled, also for fifteen days. A month in total. I had them made in Korea, I brought them here as an encounter between the pines of Saint Paul and Korean pines. i like this idea of displacement, of travel, which corresponds to my way of thinking and what has been my way of life for going on thirty years, what with my regular journeys back and forth between France and my country of origin.
How did you approach the Foundation?
I have known the place for many years. This time, I made several visits to prepare the exhibition, so obviously it wasn’t the same, and on each one the Foundation reminded me of a monastery. In the same way as there is always a big statue to fight the devil outside a Korean temple, so there are the Miró sculptures in the garden here, which are signs, icons, as if Miró was the guardian of the Foundation.
For me this place devoted to creation, to art, and to displaying it, is also a place of meditation. One day I saw a Giacometti sculpture outside MoMA. People did their living around it, they worked in the neighbourhood, they drove around it at full speed, hurried and stressed. I felt a kind of aggression, which was underlined by the touch, the way the material was worked with the knife. When I first saw the sculpture at the Fondation Maeght, I had the opposite sensation, a feeling of pacification, of great spirituality, and much more simplicity and sensibility than in New York. The dialogue was totally different and it was definitely the place that instilled that impression and changed my perceptions.
In what way does its architecture remind you of a monastery?
The form of the roofs, with the curved edges, reminds me of temples and the way their roofs rise up and seem to be rising up towards the sky. It’s a comparison that has always struck me. The circulation of the light also reminds me of the light in a monastery. José Luis Sert, the architect of the Foundation, put a lot of work into this. You can sense that he wanted to bring this Southern French light right into the rooms. And light is also very important in my own work because the charcoal reacts to it: first it absorbs it, then it sends it back. Finally there is the setting, the environment, which is very similar. In the same way as the foundation is surrounded by the pines, there is nearly always a pinewood in front a temple. What’s more, it’s a very fragrant wood under which grows - both in Korea and France - a mushroom, the pine mushroom, which has an exquisite taste.
You mention charcoal, which features very prominently in your work. What was it that was originally made you choose this material?
When I came to Paris, in February 1990, I found a studio in Pantin in an old Seita cigarette factory. I went to buy equipment for my painting in the specialist stores and the prices really surprised me. I didn’t have much money and for me it was horribly expensive, especially the colours. I couldn’t make up my mind. Anyway, near my studio there was a DIY and building materials warehouse where I found these sacks of charcoal for barbecues. I don’t know why, but I bought one of these sacks, and I remembered that when I was a student at the Fine Arts in Seoul, I started out with charcoal, and that it was the same material. I immediately realised, too, that with one sack I had enough to work with for a week, which was economical. I was very happy about that because it meant I didn’t have to limit myself, to stint myself because of the cost of the materials. To begin with, I used it like charcoal crayon. And then, little by little, as my work progressed, I bought a semi-transparent medium as a fixative, in fact the same medium as I use in my paintings today. I dipped the charcoal in it and when I drew it stuck all on its own. I rubbed hard and the charcoal powder covered the canvas, which produced interesting textured reliefs.
After that, charcoal continued to be very important to you, and it still is even today for your sculptures and installations. How do you explain this attachment?
When I started working with charcoal I saw at once that it was closely bound up with my own culture. What’s more, at the time I felt the need to keep a strong connection with my roots, like any unknown artist arriving in a city that he doesn’t know and whose language doesn’t speak - especially one coming from the Far East. I felt like a stranger, very far from home, and for me the charcoal was a way back to the world of Indian ink, of calligraphy, the atmosphere of house building that I had known as a child. In the Korean tradition, when you dig the foundations, charcoal is the first thing you put in, notably for protection against humidity, insects, etc. Likewise, when a child is born, you announce the fact by hanging charcoal from the door on a rope. It is also the centre of that fire ceremony, «Burning the moon house», when, on the occasion of the first full moon, in January villagers build a mound like a house, 20 to 25 meters high, with pine trunks. The members of each family hang up their wishes there, written on bits of Chinese paper, then they set light to the whole thing. So I was familiar with charcoal and its symbolic strength. It enabled me to keep the connection with my past. It was, then, an economic contextual and cultural relation. Afterwards, it was the last aspect, the cultural one, that made me go on working with it, when I could have used plaster or metal. But I wanted to continue with this material which is still very important to me today and allows me to link my origins to the Western world, to show that what might appear to be singular is universal, and that the symbolism of charcoal is legible all around the world. With, of course, its tremendous qualities and plastic, aesthetic possibilities.
What led you to make installations with charcoal in 2000? What did they bring you compared to the paintings?
I started making installations because I wanted to go further in this effort to put the material to the fore, to give and even greater sensation of its reality, of its «physicality». I have never made an installation just for the sake of making an installation, but to liberate the material from the closed and sometimes constricting framework of the painting, the better to play with the space, to create an even stronger physical encounter and confrontation with the viewer. For example, when I set out bundles of bits of charcoal held together by elastic bands in a large space, it is so that visitors can walk around in the middle of this material. In Korea, a great monk once said: «Water is water» and «The mountain is the mountain». For me, it was the same: the charcoal is there, quite simply: it is charcoal. The natural entity. Furthermore, by bringing it into a space and by tying it together, I am drawing attention to my own intervention, I am transposing it. Without transforming it, just by putting it in a different setting, I am creating a link, a dialogue between a natural material and a cultural place.
In 2001 you started working very differently, using binders, acrylic mediums. What brought this change about?
I worked with charcoal up until my exhibition at the contemporary art museum in Seoul. I spent a year preparing for that and when I had finished, I really felt the need to change and to leave charcoal to nature. I had the impression that I was cramping it in my paintings, that I was blocking it, and I wanted to give it back its freedom - symbolically speaking, of course. I still had a lot of charcoal powder and one day I threw it all up into the airs, as if I was doing a happening, a performance. I also took lots of photos of that moment. That gesture had a liberating effect on me. I realised that the material itself, its physical presence, was no longer necessary to me, at least for my paintings, and that all I needed now was its image. When I got back to Paris, in March 2001, I decided to start on a new set of works. As I couldn’t find other colours, or give up black, I kept it, using it this time in the form of carbon (based, it is true, on wood charcoal), but putting it with resin and acrylic medium. I am therefore
bringing together in space two materials, two images, two symbols, with nature on one side and industrial products on the other. I have to manipulate them because I want to give the impression, not that they are just placed on the surface, but that they are coming and actually rising up from the canvas. A bit like the way an image rises up and is revealed on photographic paper. As of that moment I understood that I no longer needed the relief as before, and that on the contrary I wanted the surface to be as smooth as possible, so that the gaze really would enter the canvas and discover it. That’s why there have been no brushstrokes, no gestures in my work since this big change. Everything seems extremely flat. Only later do you see that the cream colour - that wax, candle colour around the black - gives great depth and enables the black to keep its own bulk, and its great density.
Before, the grounds of your canvases were indeed wax-coloured. For some time now, these grounds have been very white. Where did this development come from?
I wanted to consolidate, to make the black form stand out, to accentuate its density so that it looks as if it is hanging in space. For that, I had to increase the contrasts and therefore go from the cream colour of the wax to a more pronounced white.
At the same time - and it is not a contradiction - I wanted to give my black forms more lightness, more fluidity, and the white allows this, whereas the cream colour tends to surround, to enclose more. The contrast between form and ground is now stronger. Their encounter, their frontier, creates a new vibration and the reflection of the black in the white gives the black even more depth. Because of course, that is what matters to me in this idea of contrast: giving the black maximum density, giving the black body, because black is still my subject.
How do the black forms come into being?
When I get into the studio in the morning, I have no idea what I’m going to draw. I have no precise subject in mind and in fact my aim, at that particular moment, is not even to find an image. My work is an attitude first of all and it is this attitude that will generate forms. I therefore start off quietly with a brush and Indian ink and I draw on sheets of paper. I don’t know what form is going to come out of me, out of my head, of my body, and every day the result is clearly different, in keeping with the different internal and external elements, both my mood and the weather outside. The working process is based on memory, rather as if I was writing notebooks. Every morning I do about twenty, maybe thirty drawings. Then I look at them and I choose the ones
I like. I never make figurative images because my forms are above all the reflection of my mind, of my sensibility, of my body, of the way all this works together. My approach is therefore not theoretical, it is more the consequence of my own culture, of my education, of my childhood, of my experience, of what is going on today - in a word, of my life. This form can come from nature, from the objects I live with, from my body, from my mental images - in fact, from everything around me, even if you can’t exactly define anything. I want the forms I paint to be as natural and as spontaneous as possible. I leave things open, I don’t want to get into a specific figure that could prove restrictive. That’s why I prefer abstract forms, with no narrative aspect, no anecdote, so as to go directly to sensation. When I find the right form, it is really through this that I can give black a body, inscribe this black body and make it live in the white spaces of the painting. It is very important that the surface of this black body should be extremely smooth because in that way it takes on the look of a skin, the skin of paintings as well as human skin. That’s what enables me to make it into what is essentially a zone of energy, purity and spirituality. That is why, to repeat myself, the form comes above all from an attitude.
Why do you repeat the chosen form of paper so many times before painting it on the canvas?
Because I wanted each form to result from the work of memory by my hand with the brush, the ink, the paper. And to achieve that, the form has to be repeated many times. I often say that this way of working is fairly closed to that of pianists, who play first of all with their fingers. That doesn’t mean they don’t play with their head, but that it’s a mixture of the two and it’s often the hand that starts, the hand that has fully memorised the score. In the same way, I often make a line with the brush and I realise that it’s the hand that knows this form by heart from having repeated it. As if my hand was in advance of my head.
What is your relationship to calligraphy?
None. There were never any connections between my work and calligraphy. When I was a student, I did do a bit of writing using a brush with a very long, very soft hairs, but that didn’t last long. For me, calligraphy is something that I can’t manage, it’s an extremely difficult practice, which combines both intellectual concentration and physical control, spiritual energy and bodily gesture. You have to keep training in order to have the right technique, it’s long and complex. I have never tried to work and express myself in that way.
You have always stuck with black and white.
Yes, because they are not identifiable like other colours; they are not narrative, they do not refer to anything other than themselves. In the East, the great calligraphers paint bamboo with Indian ink and nobody asks them why they paint these green stems black. In our culture, if they painted them green that wouldn’t evoke a real bamboo. My approach is rather similar and if I use black and white, it is in this spirit and not with some kind of minimalist intention (even if, it so happens, I do greatly appreciate minimal art). At the same time, black is full of colours, it absorbs all the colours. When I was making my pictures with charcoal, I would burn it, scrape it, polish it to make it shiny, reflective, to create a moiré effect, precisely in order to bring out its chromatic aspects. Also, charcoal comes from fire. Normally it never dies and therefore it too is always a potential generator of energy. Charcoal is in fact the last material remaining when all the others are dead, are burned. It remains essential. When everything else has gone, the purity of its matter remains. This aspect has always reminded me of Suprematism, of Malevich. When I look at one of his paintings, I see an image of purity, of crystallisation. Asian culture loves to master the mind and sets great importance by spirituality. It also leaves room for intuition. In the same way, I always try to combine different aspects: the mental and the sensorial, lucidity and intuition. You can do all that with black.
«My external memory»
by SIM Eunlog
«Giacometti’s sculpture at the MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) looks like portraits of modern urbanities, but a similar sculpture by Giacometti at the Maeght Foundation appears like a spiritual entity, devoid of corporeal traces». So goes Lee Bae’s response to a question on his impression of the Maeght Foundation, the venue of his solo exhibition «More Light» (03.25 - 06.17), pointing to the fact that Giacometti’s work reveals a new facet upon being situated at an unconventional location, away from the white cube space for an urban exhibition hall. The Maeght Foundation sits atop the Colline de Gardettes in Saint-Paul de Vence, about 25km away from Nice. The soil, reddish in its hue under the bright sun of southern France, is teeming with the vitality of spring. In the middle of a city, a traditional Korean house merely serves as a reminder of the past, but when it is located in the mountains, it appears as a temple or a small hermitage. In a similar way, Lee explains that the Maeght Foundation, blending in with the pine forest rather than skyscrapers such as the MoMA, «possess a sublimity which belongs to a monastery, while in fact being an art gallery.» As contemporary artworks, unlike their modern predecessors, are exhibited in consideration of their contextual connections to the exhibition hall’s surrounding or the vicinity of the art gallery, the character of this exhibition may be deduced from the artist’s impression of the locale.
In line with the Maeght Foundation’s resemblance to an artistic monastery, elevated beyond its state as an art gallery through its sublimit, Lee prepares for this exhibition with reverence, as if he had become a monk, stepping beyond his role as an artist. The altitudes, the pine forest, the reddish hue of the soil and charcoal, all serve as reminders gesturing back to the memories of a «special light» that had long remained forgotten. In this exhibition, the aura is restored, as art transcends its «exhibition value» and invokes its «cult or ritual value». This, because «the aura originates from the ritual value of art». Lee Bae has been retrieving from charcoal, the substance in which all lights reside, the specific lights that befit the site of an exhibition. For this exhibition, «More Light», he presents us a long-forgotten sacred light of art, the aura which he has extracted from charcoal.
Moon House Burning (Video) / Cheongdo, Dried Persimmon (drawing)
Upon stepping into the exhibition hall, viewers are greeted by the video Moon House Burning and Cheongdo. Dried Persimmon. First, Moon House Burning, captures the traditional Korean ritual of setting a hay-made or wooden Moon House on fire on the first full moon of the lunar year, when the moon appears the largest in size, portraying the flames in their grandeur, carrying people’s wishes all the way up to the moon. This important spiritual ritual in the agricultural age, reflecting people’s desire to chase away evil spirits while wishing health and rich harvest for the year, has become today a festival in Cheongdo, Lee’s home town each household has to provide a set amount of pinewood for the «Moon House Burning» event. The charcoal left over after burning the Moon House (potential form) is taken back home and used for various ends (present form). It is buried underground when building houses to prevent moisture and vermin; used as antidotes when making the essential ingredients of Korean food such as soybean paste and soy sauce; or hung on the doors of houses with new-borns to protect them from evil. In this way, charcoal has been understood to harbour a divine force that protects humans from harm. With its significance and symbolism, it becomes an artistic material for Lee Bae. Its potential energy, nesting the power of fire, unfolds in various forms through the artist’s touch.
Viewers are therefore cleansed by the flames of the Moon House as they enter the exhibition space.
Several pieces of Cheongdo. Dried Persimmon, all of the same size (51x54cm), are displayed as a single large work on a wall. These drawings depict shrunken and dried up persimmons in meticulous pencil strokes. The persimmon is desiccating and shrinking under the effects of time, atmosphere, and humidity. Each of these portraits of the persimmon bears a distinctly original character and form. The drawings show the drying process without following a chronological order. Tracing the movement of external forces at work, pencil lines are brushed over or around persimmons, as if depicting the movement of the wind. Lee sprinkles persimmon vinegar on these drawings and produces yellow stains that evoke the traces of time, offering an intentionally designed coincidence that fast-forwards time. Rather than following
other painters such as Cézanne in drawing apples, Lee chose to draw persimmons because it is a common sight in his hometown Cheongdo, where the landscape abounds with persimmons trees. Though he could have drawn a fresh fruit, he prefers the desiccated, as it gestures to a return to Nature, containing a wealth of expressions, like an old human body engraved with the vicissitudes of life. When fresh fruits are the subjects of a painting, the artist’s narrative (authorial intent) comes to the fore, whereas a portrait of a dying persimmon lets the fruit speak for itself. As a persimmon deteriorates, it acquires a greater abundance, like the ruins of an ancient castle. The small and finite persimmon disappears, surrendering itself to the infinite and vast Nature. The sight of charcoal, persimmon, and all finite things vanishing and returning to Nature is as beautiful as it is sad.
From the Fire ( Issu du Feu)
What comes «from the fire»? At first, I simply thought it to be charcoal. But then, among the works in Issu du Feu (From the Fire) there is one which surface is covered by pieces of charcoal, a sculpture in which blocks of charcoal wood are weave loosely together with black rubber bands, and an installation work looking like a cluster of round heads equipped only with language ability. All these disparate expressions across painting, sculpture and installation are grouped under the same title Issu du Feu. What is issued from fire is ultimately a vital material, a potential form rather than a present form. Lee plays with this potential form, teasing out varied present forms. Here, potential form is not equivalent to the seeds of a persimmon growing out of its hidden state to become a full-fledged fruit. Rather, the potential form is revealed only when the artist persuades, battles with, or pacifies the charcoal, turning its invisibility into a visible present form. In other words, the unpredictable potentials of a block of charcoal (potential form) are revealed in their materialized forms as painting, sculpture, and installation (present form) of Issu du Feu.
The painting Issu du Feu looks like a section of a huge bundle of tightly bound charcoal, smooth as if sliced by a sharp implement. In fact, the piece was created by aligning cut charcoal on the canvas, which are then grafted and polished. Hundreds of wood grain and growth rings made by Nature and time fill the canvas, refracting light in various directions and in multiple angles. Charcoal, which seemed to be simply black at first sight, gives rise to a myriad of optical expressions like an encyclopaedia of light. This piece, evoking a wide range of images in the viewer’s minds, sensitively reacts to the entire spectrum of light, from the faintest to the brightest, to the subtlest shades and to people’s shadows.
At first sight, the work might recall Pierre Soulage’s Outrenoir due to the predominance of black with light floating about the canvas. However, the difference quickly becomes apparent because of the different materials (Soulage’s oil painting vs. Lee Bae’s charcoal) and techniques. Soulage’s light has an orderly behaviour which can be controlled by the artist, whereas the light in Lee’s work is a pattern arising from Nature (wood grain and growth rings). Lee’s works, spread across various subject matters, conjure up new colours from charcoal’s blackness - a colour that encompasses all others (the colour wavelengths of the visible ray). The same kind of inclusiveness also applies to the ink of traditional paintings in East Asian countries: as ink is made of charcoal, both share the same origin. Asian people, when observing ink-painted landscapes, appreciate the different colours implied in the black ink according to their temporality and spatial specificity. Lee is presenting something similar through charcoal.
Like Issu du Feu, Landscape also includes painting, sculpture, and installation. The painting version of Landscape consists of charcoal powder thickly caked unto the canvas using medium to create shapes that look like geometric forms and bodies. The materiality, volume, form and mass of this work are all overwhelmingly powerful despite its two-dimensionality. By using charcoal instead of other, lighter or more easily manoeuvrable materials that could create similar effects, Lee marks his piece with his signature. The sculpture Landscape comprises half-burnt logs of wood bundled up in lozenge shapes. The unburnt lower ends are sharp while the charred upper ends are flattened out to create a flat back surface, like a table or like the black section of the painting Landscape. The installation Landscape sits in an exhibition hall that has a labyrinthine stained glass. The lump of charcoal, spread across the floor, are comfortably lying about as if sunbathing in the spectrum of colours showering through the stained glass. Whereas the sculpture Landscape builds a tension with its geometric, ordered, and dense form, the installation version dissipates that tension. The diversity of Landscape series is such that its title seems insignificant, except for its contemplative and categorical connotations.
Such is Lee Bae’s vision of the essence and materiality of charcoal. Oscar Wilde said that there was no fog in London until Whistler started painting it. Likewise, there was no charcoal in Korea until Lee Bae began using it. While charcoal used to be a common object that could be found anywhere, Lee Bae himself seldom saw charcoal in his bucolic hometown of Cheongdo. It was in Paris that he found it, in the form of a packaged product sold at a supermarket. His discovery was like the unintentional recollection of memories invoked by Proust’s madeleine. Memory, rising out of a scent that coils around one’s nose, revives in turn the taste, touch, and other related sensations. The charcoal in Paris was the mnemonic material that gestured back to the charcoal in his hometown and his motherland Korea. Thus, having recovered his memory in the supermarket of an unfamiliar city, outside rather than inside himself, he is now expressing the intersection of the human affect and the natural materiality of charcoal through art. Memory, as noted above, has become a tool that connects one to an imagination that lies outside of oneself through sensory experiences. While it can refer to past temporalities, in the ordinary sense of the word, it can also include sensory, environmental, and spatial factors. As his works present new discoveries regarding charcoal, and novel ideas on its materiality, Lee Bae is known as ‘the artist of charcoal.’
Lee’s most recent productions do not bear titles. Drawn with acryl medium and charcoal with large blank spaces, these works appear to be very simple at first glance. A few thick lines awkwardly sit on a white canvas, looking like calligraphy, a meaningless and simple form, or even some kind of sign rather than a form. The hesitant lines appear as if they have failed to express something. There is also a form that looks like a large drop of black ink fallen on the surface, which, upon closer observation, turns out to be a meticulously brush-painted form instead of a product of coincidence as in Jackson Pollock’s dripping technique. These untitled pieces are described in various ways: «something that looks like a bear’s paw, a semblance of Bernar Venet’s sculpture, a likeness of bamboo, or a huge drop of black ink.» Viewers are left to freely interpret the work with their own perspectives and impressions. A prolonged look at his paintings reveals that, in fact, they contain more than simple brushstrokes, gesturing to a formality and harmony, but nonetheless denying perfection. The subtle feeling of ambiguity that emerges from this intentional imperfection is the result of effort and endurance over long periods of time. Lee says that he does not have any special source of artistic inspiration. Are his paintings, then, the result of unconscious and spontaneous bursts? I asked him about his routine in Paris in order to gain hints from his working process.
He arrives at his studio at 9AM and sketches with ink until 11AM or 11:30AM. He immerses himself in the act of drawing itself rather than sketching a specific object or following a given theme. He produces about 20 to 30 sketches in this manner. After lunch, he lays out the sketches, selects the ones he likes, and transfers them unto the canvas throughout the afternoon; with the aim of preserving the traces of his brush drawings, the investment of time and the physical presence of his body. The actions and attitudes embodied by the artist in the morning are thereby fixed on the canvas in the afternoon. Looking more closely at the paintings, motifs seem to be smeared like ink spreading on Chinese drawing paper, as if a shadow were lying over them, or like blurred photographs. The motifs seem to be sitting all the way at
the bottom of the canvas, and at the same time, floating on the surface. This effect is created by drawing the motif in charcoal powder mixed with medium, then covering it with a layer of medium alone, and once dried, retracing the motif, and adding another layer of medium, repeating this process three times. As a result, his work acquires temporal and spatial strata. Spatiality and blank spaces are not represented through perspective on a two-dimensional plane as one would ordinarily see in painting. By representing space through the insertion of a transparent layer of medium between two repeated motifs, Lee physically introduces three-dimensional space into the flat place, venturing into the terrains of sculpture or architecture.
Unplanned and unexpected forms and shapes emerge in Lee’s morning routine. At times, he encounters completely unexpected motifs, and at others, he re-encounters forms that look like those he had created in past years. Besides the ‘conscious memory’, there is also a ‘memory of the body and its action’ that cannot be consciously captured. The body remembers things that the mind does not retain, hosting a wealth of memory fragments. Lee Bae’s untitled pieces presents these fragments that were contained in the body, and his work is the process of constantly refining them. ‘Bodily memory’ gives rise to that which was hidden behind the conscious through the repetition of attitudes and processes. Lee asserts that ‘contemporary art does not originate from inspiration, but rather from an attitude or a process’. Whereas artists in the past gained inspiration from a special sensorial experiences or travels, they now build their artistic world by regularly reiterating a specific act within a fixed framework of time.
In Korea, Lee Bae is often characterized as a «post-monochrome» painter. Perhaps this owes to his capacity to use charcoal instead of oil or marble as his main materials - in other words, his openness toward approaches that are different from the conventional means adopted by most monochrome painters. Moreover, Lee Bae establishes attitude and process as his own, unique aesthetic principles.
Pine Garden, Pine Charcoal
The final destination of the exhibition is the pine garden. Lee Bae saw, or rather, discovered pine trees in Saint Paul de Vence. Just like he discovered charcoal in Paris rather than in his hometown, he discovered pine trees in Southern France. While he has been using charcoal made of various kinds of trees throughout his career, the pieces in this exhibition are exclusively made of pine charcoal. Lee remarks that pine trees, baked in an enclosed space at a temperature of 1000C to 1100C is «a suitable material for artistic manoeuver» because they acquire an optimal degree of cracking while retaining their shape. The original form of the pine trees dissipates in the process of its transformation into charcoal, becoming properly abstract, losing all its secondary attributes. The green and brown colours of the pine tree are homogenized into black, as it becomes a black charcoal, natural and familiar enough to be embraced by everyone. The pine trees at Maeght Fondation reminded Lee of the sacredness of Korean pine trees. In the old days, pine trees were deemed sacred by the Korean people who called it the «three of the world» and the «three of the cosmos» (see Seongju Puli, a folksong of the southern region). In France, Lee retrieved a memory he had lost in Korea, and this has become the basis of his work in Cheongdo. He is attracted to the natural bends and curves of the pine trees at Saint-Paul de Vence, as opposed to the geometric lines of the trees in the Versailles palace garden. The tree’s curves are the memories of another space, yet another external memory that visually indicated the wind, sunlight, and time flows of a specific region. Upon being exhibited at the Maeght Fondation, Lee’s pine charcoal pieces transcend their status as mere material and become sacred. Like Giacometti’s sculptures which are devoid of all superfluity and stripped down to their bare soul, Lee Bae’s pine trees are burnt down to their charcoal essence, all traces of colour, form, and materiality gone up in flames. The pine trees in Saint-Paul de Vence reminded Lee of the ritual value of Korean pine trees, and the aura arising from the «ritual value» baked in Cheongdo has now been brought to the space of this foundation. Through these artistic endeavours, Lee is presenting a new dialogue between this and that, here and there, present and history, the secular and the sacred.