History and Memory Reflected in Bae Bien-U’s Pine Forests

People return to many things—to the scene of a crime, or a disaster, to a site of fondness, or a tender memory. For the past 30 years, Bae Bien-U has been revisiting the same themes and photographing the same expanses of land. Inspired early on by the landscape paintings of 18th-century Korean artist Jeong Seon, Bae is frequently placed in the company of contemporaries like Bohnchang Koo and Kim Jung-man. Among South Korea’s foremost artists, he has photographed vast coastal lines and rolling hillscapes, but it is the pine trees forests of his native home that form the leitmotif of his art. A selection of his most recent pine photographs is currently on view at Antwerp’s Axel Vervoordt Gallery in “Counterbalance.”

For Bae, pine trees have a special significance in Korean society and in shared human experience. They are the stuff of shelters as well as of coffins, refuges in both life and death. In what has been likened to a ritualistic or meditative act, Bae Bien-U captures pines from endless perspectives, throughout different seasons and times of day. In black-and-white works such as snm2a-014h (2014), the trees wend their way vertically to the height of over five feet. Spindly trunks inhabit the foreground, their crowns thoughtfully cropped out of the frame. These wooden stems echo our spines, curving or bowed, as we peer through mist and fog—but to see what? With no sky to look up toward we are always only moving inward, deeper into the hooded forest. A feeling of loss accompanies the promise of return. As Bae’s photographs enfold the viewer, we step in to fill the empty space, the silence, and, for a brief moment, make it whole.

—Amanda Sarroff

Bae Bien-U – Counterbalance” is on view at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp, Oct. 23rd–Nov. 29th, 2014.

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