Orient’s post-modern artist embracing classics
Alain Sayag | Head Curator of Photography at the National Museum of Art in Paris
The fifth chapter of one of the most celebrated erotic literature published in England
opens with a story on voyeurism. One day at high noon, a friend of the author, a son of an arms manufacturer, takes him to the basement of his father’s factory.
“He led me under a glass pane…and then I saw a great number of legs moving above. I understood right away. The basement was extended to just below the street, and the light shone in through the glass pavement covering the walkway. For days, we were there appreciating calves and thighs. We could see the ankle bands and the flesh revealed above them well enough, but the rest lay hidden under the shadow…Fortunately, we found a key to the next door, where the light came in through the lattice, not through glass. In that era, women didn’t wear pants, and crinolines were in fashion…So from below, we had an open view of what was underneath the skirts. We enjoyed the view of many pretty buttocks, and sometimes, when the legs were in a particular position, we caught sight of blonde, brown, black hair, and even the vivid rosy flesh of the genitals…We also saw old women, but I won’t discuss them, for we didn’t waste our time
looking at them.”*
Women back then went about with their intimate parts concealed, so one can easily
imagine the excitement that engulfed the two youths. That excitement leads the author to a riotous living, better not mentioned further here.
But what about today, when nude figures are competing to cover up walls of the cities? I can’t say how surprised I was at the sight of a few visitors, suddenly caught up in a frenzy of desire, lifting up the clothes covering Bae’s figures at the opening ceremony of an exhibition in Moscow.** The suddenness of the action and the desire to satisfy curiosity–ere not they of identical nature? Was it not a revelation of phantasm as alive as ever in the heart of man? It’s as though upon looking at Bae’s work, an impulse, profound and inextinguishable, is triggered and through that impulse, what has lain concealed rises violently to the surface in response.***
However, Bae’s works should not be confined to that dimension only. They evoke in me somewhat derisive but subtly allusive manner of the works done by generations of professionals in the academies. One can find the trace in Bae’s countless sketches of David or Ingres. The nude figures ofdifferent protagonists, in appropriate poses, were drawn with great care. In most cases, they were drawn from actual models who took the poses. Then the different figures were gathered in one sketch, and finally, the figures on the paining put on their costumes. In a sense, Bae summarizes this long process in a single piece of work. The sculptural figures, idealized through perfection of photographic reproduction, attain an ideal value contrasting vividly with the imperfect workmanship of a brush that likes to draw intricate folds.
The contrast between the two techniques creates a tension that is once again emphasized by juxtaposition of Western costumes and Asian figures. It is as though the initial conflict between the Orient and the Occident, which is the origin of the Far East modern society, is constantly being replayed.
But at times, this tension is difficult to maintain. Along with Ingres, Sargent, Repin, and Van Dyck, Bae also evokes a more unnatural seduction of Bouguereau or Alma Tadema. What, then, is the measure of this derision? How can we interpret these works in which the sweet languor of a painting that has become distant from us and the severity of the most contemporary photography are in conflict?
An ordinary and banal modern kitchen counter is used as the background of a Baroque flower arrangement or a pile of fruits, and antique tableware. A pictorial citation projects out, masking the cold record of photography– clear symbol of iconography now shared universally, nothing more than a list of meaningless signs. Vulgarity takes over and infuses a new level, a new symbolism, into a work whose ambiguity is at the center of triumphant post-modernism.
* Ma vie secrète par un écrivain inconnu, Paris, Cercle des libraries, 1961. p. 98-99
** On the occasion of an exposition “Petit manege,” organized by Agnes de Gouvion St. Cyr with the works of Fonds
National d’Art Contemporain, Moscow, April/May 2004.
*** To be more precise, Bae’s works are always composed of a painting on clear plastic sheet covering up part of a