Bae Bien-U 2002 Artsonje Exhibit Catalog

The best kimchi I have ever eaten was in Yeosu nearly a decade ago. Dolsan Gat-Kimchi is made with mustard leaves and is amazing–or at least the batch I had at a local Yeosu seafood (obviously) restaurant was sublime. What does this have to do with photography? Nothing. It’s just a lead in for the fact that Yeosu is Bae Bien-U’s hometown.

Bae has been discussed previously on this blog. And, he will be discussed again, eventually, as I have a third book of his work on my shelf awaiting a review and he is one of the most iconic figure in Korean photography.

The subject of this review is a small perfect bound exhibition catalog published in conjunction with an exhibit at the Art Sonje Center in 2002. It’s focus is not on Bae’s pine trees but rather is on four other series of photographs: Seascapes, Mountainscapes, Skyscapes and Rockscapes. These are series that I am less familiar with–and probably for good reason. This isn’t a masterful book, but an interesting one nonetheless.

The book opens with an essay by the Kim Sun Jung, the chief curator at the Art Sonje Center at the time of the exhibit. Though I don’t often do so, I want to start by pulling a couple of ideas from Kim’s essay and expanding outward from there. Kim begins with a reading of Bae’s pine trees as marking a distinctly Korean approach to landscape rather than a Western one. She contends that his more recent projects have come to wrestle not only with what is truly “Korean” but also with the photographic relationship between light and time. She notes that László Moholy-Nagy was an early influence on Bae instilling a sense that “time does not simply pass, but rather, appears to metamorphose depending upon the condition of the light.” She closes with this thought: in Bae’s photographs “fleeting moments are expressed as an extended duration.”

Bae’s pine tree photographs are timeless. They exist in an indeterminate time. The photographs might have been taken an hour ago or a hundred years ago. The royalty of Silla might have been alive when they were made. The four series of photographs from this exhibition and catalog do not share this same timelessness. Instead, as Kim notes, they are timeless in the sense of containing a duration. They are not of a moment but rather of a span.

The seascapes in particular are marked by this this extended duration. Like many of his photographs, Bae has used a longer shutter speed. The water is smoothed. Read across the panoramic frame, the photographs are like abstract timelines. One image includes the sparks of light from fishing boats off shore breaking the horizon and flaring on the dark water. Distances are hazy. Time is vague.

Kim refers to Thomas Ruff and Hiroshi Sugimoto in the essay. I would suggest another Western photographer as a point of comparison: Michael Kenna. Kenna’s ethereal extended exposures have a similar durability but the time span is extended to an extreme and his photographs have a specific spatial setting that often includes man made referents. In comparison, Bae’s scenes are placeless and fully of nature. There is nothing that suggests that people exist anywhere outside of the frame (excepting the photograph with the lights of the fishing boats–and these call to mind another Western photographer: Gregory Crewdson. Stay with me. Crewdson’s very un-Crewdson like fire fly photographs have that same light piercing the dark quality. It isn’t perfectly analogous but there’s a visual kinship.)

One more photograph from the book that stands out for me is from the mountainscape series. A peak in the distance; moon-lit clouds above; foothills below it. A hard horizon. The horizon is a dark morass with a valley or meadow just visible in the gloom. This valley or meadow echos the mountain in the distance. There is no detail (there may be in a photographic print, but it is lost in the book’s printing). The tone is reductionist; it focuses the attention on the core aspects of the landscape: background, foreground, horizon and their inter-relation. The atmosphere holds everything together. The image is dreamlike–not quite resolved.

The best photographs from these work are as deftly made as Bae’s pine trees, but the bulk of this work is lacking. The sky-scapes are weak compared to Stieglitz’s Equivalents made decades earlier or even Boomoon’s On the Clouds made roughly concurrently. The rock-scapes are stilted and leave me cold–there is little sense of extended time or Bae’s atmospheric use of light.

As an object, the book leaves much to be desired. Everything about it is OK, little is good. It is interesting primarily as an artifact of the exhibit and as a marker in Bae’s career. It presents work that was a risk. What does a photographer do after making work as good as Bae’s pine trees?

Bae Bien-U
Published by Art Sonje Center, Seoul
Designed by UHUHBOO 2D
Translated by Doryun Chong
Printed by Print Line, Seoul