The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is taking part in the 9th edition of PhotoEspaña (the International Festival of Photography and the Visual Arts) with an exhibition devoted to the photographic series Pine Tree and Wind of Tahiti, by the Korean Bae Bien-U. The exotic natural world of the Far East enters the Museum with 14 large-scale photographs by one of the leading names among avant-garde Korean artists, Bae Bien-U (born Yosu, South Korea, 1950). The series Pine Tree brings together works executed in the early 1990s, in which the artist transforms forests into living creatures that unite earth and sky or uses them to represent individuals or social groups. In contrast to the mystical effect created by the ethereal light in these black and white images, the series Wind of Tahiti reveals Bae Bien-U’s skill in the use of colour which he acquired during his stay in Tahiti in 2002 to 2003.
In both cases, the artist’s intention is to champion the presence of nature in a world increasingly defined by technological change. To do so, he makes use of various artistic devices. Going out to take photographs on misty days, Bae Bien-U uses lengthy exposures to achieve the sensation of a longed-for eternity, while in his trips to the remote beaches of the Far East he seeks out the brilliance of the reds, blues and yellows of the coastal vegetation in a deliberate contrast to the pallor of urban iron and concrete.
Pine Tree: living trunks of flesh and blood
Bae Bien-U devoted at least two years of his life to visiting Chongmyo, a sacred and hereditary royal city of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910). Chongmyo is Korea’s ancient gateway onto the world and was declared Cultural Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO in 1995. Over the course of those two years the artist absorbed and assimilated the solemn atmosphere of the rituals and the beauty of the numerous Buddhist temples and tombs of the Koguryo. During this period Bae Bien-U had the time to travel along the South Korean coastline to reach Gyeongju, comprehending as he did so the “hard beauty” of the pine tree. The connection between the pine tree and the Korean spirit was revealed to him through the paintings of the Choson Dynasty artist Chung Sun. In the long trunks and rough texture of the pine tree, Bae sensed the collective spirit of the Koreans, a people who have survived numerous foreign invasions.
For Bae, the forms and outlines of the pine tree offer an image of absolutely spirituality. While their strong, straight lines reflect the “solemnity and resolution of the Korean people”, the curving lines symbolise their “resistance in the face of a turbulent past”.
This mystic character is emphasised by the purity and integrity of the images, which recall Oriental ink paintings. Bae captures nature in black and white in the simple manner of a traditional woodcut. To achieve this effect, the artist has looked at the work of great artists of the past such as Edward Weston, who offered him a different way of looking at nature, and Làszló Moholy-Nagy, whose work is represented in the Museum’s Permanent Collection, and from whom Bae learned a new concept of light.
The large scale of the photographs and the frequent use of a horizontal format help to create the sensation of entering into the depths of a forest. It is not by chance that the artist aims for this effect, given that 65% of Korea is covered by tree, with 6.42 million hectares of great pines that can reach heights of 40 or even 50 metres, soaring up towards that physical and metaphysical sky. For this reason, Bae Bien-U preferred to photograph the woody hills of the suburbs around the old city of Gyeongju rather than its urban architecture. Ultimately, pine tree form part of the Korean popular imagination.
From black and white to colour: Wind of Tahiti
A very different type of nature is to be seen in the series Wind of Tahiti, but one which also has connections with the Oriental pictorial tradition. Bae Bien-U here photographs a type of vegetation imbued with colour and dynamism, landscapes that bring to mind Gauguin’s paintings created during his years in Tahiti.
The series Wind of Tahiti is also an example of the universal interpretation that can be applied to Bae Bien-U’s photographs. The Tahitian landscape is certainly exotic, but the sensibility that these images convey relates to a timely, even immaterial beauty. They represent more than just the place in question; they are the lines and colours of emotions.
Bae Bien-U (born Yosu, South Korea, 1950)
Born in Yosu, South Korea in 1950, Bae Bien-U is a self-taught photographer. In 1975 he graduated with a degree in Fine Arts from Hong-ik University in Seoul and in 1978 obtained a Masters in Fine Arts from the same institution, specialising in graphic design. In 1998 he was awarded a research grant to work at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. He currently teaches photography at the Arts Institute in Seoul.
Bae Bien-U is considered one of the most important representatives of the new generation of Korean photographers who combine photography with other media. In company with other avant-garde artists he has organised the Horizontality exhibitions which have proved controversial in more traditional photographic circles. Bae Bien-U is also one of the most internationally known Korean photographers. Since 1982 he has taken part in numerous solo and collective exhibitions and his work has been exhibited world-wide, from Tokyo to New York, Japan, Paris, London, Milan and Frankfurt.
Quotes by the artist:
“While some Korean painters are well received in the West, photography has yet to gain recognition. To appeal to foreign viewers, Korean photographers should develop their own aesthetics and not copy Western trends”
“The oldest picture in my memory is a crayon drawing, which was hung on the back wall of the classroom when I was in the second grade of elementary school, that showed a low tiled house crouching under a big tree on a hill, with the sea visible in the background. I seem to have lived my whole life with this image stuck in my mind. It may even have been this image that influenced my interest in such subjects as the sea, pines and rock formations”.
Coreana. A quarterly on Korean Art & Culture