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Seon-ghi BAHK

Seon-ghi BAHK, Hello Museum


1966, Sunsan





Esprit Dior(Installation View_ DDP), 2015

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Seon-ghi BAHK : Disarray of Charcoal and Slices

In defining his works, Bahk Seon-ghi says "Charcoal is wood transformed. Therefore, the material of all my works is wood, nothing else."  Bahk Seon-Ghi continues, “It (my work) is a continuation of endless penance and agony.  What I find most challenging is how to find out a method to visually manifest my thoughts.  The most painful moment is the struggle to find a methodological solution.  Nonetheless, works created after such agony and hard thinking build energy and momentum for the next creation."  This statement tells us what we need to know to understand his works.  The most-talked-about of his works are of charcoal.  Given the seemingly endless pain Bahk undergoes before creating another charcoal installation, the objets or materials used for his work are far too special to be considered universal.  The fact that charcoal itself becomes objects of remarkable artworks makes Bahk's works extraordinary.  Even so, we need not to accord great significance to the conventional concept or meaning of charcoal.  Bahk chose charcoal as an objet for his artwork without attaching philosophical meaning to it.
Bahk was born in Seonsan, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province.  His hometown was a very small hamlet of only a few households deep in the mountains.  Everything around Bahk was nature itself, and the mountains, winds, and trees naturally came to him.  Bahk took especial interest in trees and wind.  He wanted to express nature, which he had seen most closely.  After deeply considering what from nature he should use as subjects for his artwork, he started with trees because they felt more familiar and were easier to depict than mountains or winds, and he finally arrived at the material called charcoal.  And yet, he has not given up the essence of trees, which can be seen intermittently in his later works.  As if proving the theory of Claude Levi-Strauss, an eminent French anthropologist who argued that man cannot help but be influenced by the environment he or she was born into, Bahk has gradually built his theory on charcoal: he started verifying the reasons and meanings why generation of charcoal, that is, wood, became the primary motif for his work. 
It was in the late 1980s that he began working with charcoal full-time.  He was more interested in hanging charcoal than laying it down.  The reason was rather simple.  To hang an objet by a strand allows an artist much greater freedom from constraint in installation work than to attach it to the floor or walls.  By starting with trees followed by two stages of production and installation, Bahk has achieved two objectives.  One was to dominate the space with his work and the other was to find the cycle of nature - generation and extinction - during the transformation process of wood into charcoal while elevating the material as an objet.  With pieces of black charcoal hanging by transparent nylon threads, Bahk's charcoal installation works are acclaimed by art critics and collectors both at home and abroad as pieces of Oriental painting or abstract artwork in spirit. 
Bahk has pursued diversity and open-mindedness as he moves forward.  Rather than adhering consistently to one direction, he engages in several different styles as he unfolds his works.  Of course, the atmosphere and nature of his works differ from each other according to the style of the work.  Bahk's two signature types of works ? charcoal installation and mid-relief sculptures to be hung on the walls ? both impart strong impressions, though their essential concepts are different from each other.  The Point of View series seems like wall-mounted sculpture and feels different from the charcoal installations.  However, Bahk seems to see them as representations of primitive emotions of one man with two faces.  Bahk says definitely that the emotion of a man can never be only one.  And he insists that the emotion is in fact enormously abstract, sensuous and rational.  Accordingly, we can understand why Bahk's artworks are created with two different emotions intermingling.  He says he is working on two different styles at the same time because his work proceeds rather more slowly if he were to adhere to one style. 
Of all Bahk's sculpture works, his mid-relief sculptures hung on the walls and sliced sculptures irregularly partitioned are most popular.  The true form of one of Bahk's mid-relief sculptures can only be seen from one specific angle.  Bahk divides his sculptures by slicing them.  That is, Bahk leads viewers to think about his work instead of only seeing them.  When looking at a sculpture, most viewers see them from one point.  They feel uncomfortable if the sculpture looks distorted from that point, so they eventually move to the point from which the sculpture looks right.  Here, sight is nothing but a mere medium, and the viewers observe the artwork from their own fixed perspective.  Bahk wants the viewers to get out of the box, so he attempts to transform even the part that can be seen in perfect form by slicing the entire sculpture.
Now, let's turn to 'visual perception' to which Bahk take great interest.  He left an important message on visual perception.  "Art is visual perception.  It is self-evident that an artwork can remain fresh and everlasting when the spirit of an artist can be found by sight," wrote Bahk 15 years ago, and from this belief started all of his artworks.  It is also interesting to see how Bahk became engaged in mid-relief work.  Bahk was most interested in relief work during his stay in Italy as a student.  Thinking outside of the box, Bahk created mid-relief sculpture by removing the walls behind relief when he was studying in Italy.  Sculptures do not have a single perspective, but Bahk's sculptures come to have point of view and perspective because they were derived from relief.  Therefore, we can see the frame of an exact form rooted in our concept only when we see a sculpture from a certain point.  The essence of Bahk's three-dimensional works is based on his intention to go beyond changes in viewpoints and bring visual splits of the object by slicing existing work.  Bahk sliced a sculpture, which enables viewers to enjoy play of viewpoints, in order to cause optical illusion.  The objets sliced are familiar things which we can see around us, such as an apple, a cup, a pen, a drawing compass, and a bag.  These objets are compressed in white to emphasize changes in viewpoints.  Using such rhetorical expression, Bahk waits for his audience to experience a joyful disorientation brought about by visual fabrication and calculated optical illusion.  These works look like compressed sculptures.  In that Bahk's works confuse and disturb the viewpoints of the viewers by applying the concept of three-dimensional viewpoint to a sculpture, they are as fresh as sculptures hanging on the walls that have been produced by many artists since Cezanne.  In particular, Bahk's sculpture produced by painterly technique excludes texture by removing volume and mass typical of conventional sculpture, and splits the piece, which looks perfect when seen from only one point, in order to cause optical illusion. 
Bahk Seon-ghi has received international attention as a sculptor for his works with 'charcoal,' an unusual material to use in sculpture.  Bahk has resisted conventional sculpture and has worked on installations with charcoal and mid-relief sculptures for more than 17 years in search of nature within human emotion.  Bahk, therefore, considers wood to be an object for contemplation and an artistic objet which he has encountered at the last step of generation and extinction.  Mid-relief works also make the viewers fall into a delusional shaking domain of three dimensions beyond simple materiality.  Any shape of Bahk's mid-relief works can be read even in the distance.  Bahk is truly an artist of magic.  He shows us a rich three-dimensional world of art philosophically and visually, rather than by direct expression or reproduction.  In this respect, I think Bahk's works can be seen as artworks that have solved the inherent expressive limitation of sculpture.  Bahk Seon-Ghi, an artist who grasped an experimental moment of wood and transformed it into charcoal, is surely compelling us to see art, and sculpture in particular, from an entirely new perspective.
"Without doubt, the most important value in an artwork is depth," says Bahk Seon-ghi.  The most fundamental reason viewers stay in place in front of his work is well expressed in Bahk's monologue: "I want my audience to experience the joyful disorientation brought by visual fabrication and calculated optical illusion."

Jong-geun KIM (Art critic, Adjunct Professor of Hongik University, Director of K-artist Project)


A Passage to Architectural Structure and Conceptual Existence

Endowing a specific meaning to the space with charcoal suspended by nylon threads, Seon-ghi Bahk simply stuns us. His works exists beyond the boundary between past and present, transience and permanence, reality and illusion, being and non-being, East and West.
The material, charcoal, springs from Korean traditional use of charcoal as a symbolic as well as an everyday tool of purification. In making soy sauce, one of most common preserved sauces, pieces of charcoal and red chilies bounded by straw ropes are placed inside the earthenware to prevent the sauce from spoiling and to enhance its taste. Also, until quite recently, a straw rope intertwined with charcoal was hung across the gate of a house to announce a newborn. Charcoal was symbolically used to frighten away evil spirits and to allow the purified to enter. This use of charcoal has slowly faded away today but is receiving renewed interest. Charcoal! , in our bio-environmentally sensitive age, is being used to purify water and air, eliminate odors, and absorb harmful electromagnetic waves.
His choice of charcoal as both materials and medium for his work is not the   symbolic refection of this usefulness of coal piece. Moreover, as he has been featuring on restructuring architectural structures, alluding a lump of carbon to a purification symbol would be absurd. Nevertheless, his work alludes to a purifier - the coal pieces intertwined in straw ropes - whether he is aware of this or not. In that respect, charcoal ceases to be a mere piece for drawing the space black or white, and it becomes a symbol of his attending to mental sanitation - purging the inner space of his work.
However, as his pursuit comes largely from architecture, we need to look at his work from a different view. He has been working in Milan, the most modern city in Italy. Even to the eyes of a stranger, Milan is a city that combines tradition,  post-Gothic architecture, with modernity. Also Milan is a city of creation in that it leads the modern fashion and design world. This panoramic experience is silhouetted in his work. As such, his work becomes an odd but very unique mixture of the old and new Milan, mingled with his trust for charcoal as cleanser, though perhaps at an unconsciousness level. In short, identity is not pr! oduced through experiencing the outer world; rather it is a created through the realization of his own shadow.
Seeking the answer as to his choice of charcoal, a very fragile material, I was at moments reminded of a modern art movement in Italy, 'Arte Povera'. This might be an art critic's inescapable fallacy of comparison, but his suspended charcoal appears to be affined with Jannis Kounellis' making flowers from coal. Seon-ghi Bahk, however, made this suspicion null. He has told me that he dose not see himself in a particular artistic tradition: " I knew the artists affiliated with Arte Povera well, and some of them have already attained eminence from the art world, and I am too young just blindly to follow them. I choose my materials because they have a ce! rtain degree of reality". My intention is not to line him up with the artists of the Arte Povera movement, but to show that he has an attitude not unlike Joshep Buoys and Jannis Kounellis who opposed the fine-arts canon by using tasteless or cheap materials such as coal and fat. The works of Buoys and Kounellis, though made of conceptual strength, will eventually be deco! nstructed - the fat could melt in higher temperatures and the coal wil l eventually turn into ash. In contrast, Seon-Ghi Bahk starts from the opposite - fragile material becomes strong one. It is this difference in position and directions that shows his originality.
The nylon threads are as important as charcoal in Mr. Bahk's work. One ply of nylon barley exists but many strands, even when overlapped, go beyond their roles of fixing and supporting charcoals. Harmonized with the black charcoals, nylon threads activate the space. The very existence of layers suggests to us to feel that  the charcoals are fixed in firm construction rather than they are floating in the air. Made from these materials, the pillars and quadrilaterals are highly transparent but we should not miss to see the mass and volume of them. The work has the harmony and order of Greek architecture but lead us to see the rich! shading of  Korean ink paintings of  water and mountain. Depth of gradation is achieved through overlapping and displaying charcoals with nylon threads. One ply of nylon threads is hardly visible but many turn the space into a flux. The construction itself seems to stand in solidity yet it is in a fragile state that demands us to imagine that the pillars as not finished forms but as being 'under construction'. This concept of the unfinished is intentional. As he explains, his work intends to express "the essence of materials ".
This is another way of saying that transience and permanence are inseparable. However, the focus on transience is what allows permanent solidity to emerge. This comes close to the meaning of a blank space in Korean ink paintings of water and mountains.

Another theme is existence and its surroundings. Charcoal exists not only as  a burnt relic, but as a by-product of plants. Similarly, the geometric shapes: quadrangles, circles, and pillars, installed in the space are as much real as they are illusive. The installation space, occupied by a colonnade of pillars that stop functioning as pillars is, where dark lumps emerge into reality, at the same time the space gets a site-specific meaning from these illusive pillars. Strolling and observing inside the space, the viewer can discover, beyond the firm non-being, the fragility of being that can easily vanish.! It is in this interplay between being and non-being that a satisfying tension is established and developed, leading us to think about the essence of existence beyond or under fragile forms. Seon-ghi Bahk's simple and structural work at this site-specific installation goes beyond a physical existence, the impermanence of human material culture, and shows us a passage to conceptual existence.


Tae-Man CHOI (Art Critic)