If the work of Sangsun Bae were to be explained in art historical terms, it would be described as demonstrating complete abstraction through the use of organic forms. Likewise, an analysis of the mediums that she uses should be expected to identify the monochromism she achieves through the sole use of black ink as a regional characteristic of Eastern culture, which in turn could be interpreted as reflecting the stoic style of expression tied to Buddhism.
Alternatively, if one were to look at Bae’s work within an evolutionary theoretical framework grounded in Western art history, one may be challenged to identify an element within it that would allow it to be considered as a unique form of art. Yet we are now moving into a time in which there is less and less meaning in thinking about artwork through such insular reasoning.
An artist is one who will extraordinarily inform the public of their foresights into the near future. I only make such a statement now because I have reconfirmed the truth of this fact through examining the work of the artist Tetsumi Kudo, who is often placed in a unique position within the world of post-war Japanese art. Kudo’s work includes pieces that portray organisms evolving under the influence of radiation.
After having witnessed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, we find ourselves in a situation today in which we cannot look at Kudo’s pieces that present grotesque objects/phenomena through the fusing of human parts, fauna, flora, and electronic components within a radioactive sea and avoid thinking about them as extremely charged, accusatory testimonies of the artist rather than as mere fantasy.
As I implied at the start, the aggressiveness expressed outwardly in Kudo’s work is not to be found in the work of Bae. Sometimes, however, when I cast my eyes back again to the images that she stoically continues to draw in monochrome, I feel a strange sensation that brings to mind fetal movement, or the first breaths of life. Bae has explained that she finds the organic lines in her work naturally through the process of giving form to the negative spaces between two posing models.
Just as is true of many organisms on this Earth, there are two types of human beings. By juxtaposing these two types of humans―provisionally called males and females―alternatively in various combinations, Bae gives abstracted forms to them, not in a way that emphasizes their differences, but in a way that sets their lives into harmony. She has continued to use this procedure as a basic element for creating her work.
The act of searching for a basic element upon which to form one’s work is essential to a non-Western artist. While the current that originates in Greece/Rome and flows through the Italian Renaissance and late 19th-century Paris/France before arriving in New York has always been accepted as an inviolable norm in art history, any keen artist must find their own measure for their work in order to establish a standard that differs from the accepted norm.
An example of an artist who did this in post-war Japanese art history would be Jiro Takamatsu, who took the dot, the basic element of geometry, to produce works through focusing on the differences between how a dot is perceived conceptually and how it exists in reality. He went on to produce works along a similar line that played a big role in initiating the unique Mono-ha art movement.
I do not intend to make the assertion here that Bae’s organic lines will also serve a historically important role. It goes without saying that it is essential for one to have a basic element upon which to create work, however, and Bae has at least identified her fundamental element from the outset and has continued to explore it up to this day.
Bae’s lines are often connected to a large black mass. This two-part relationship is particularly prominent in her early works. If one considers the origin of her lines, it is clear that what the black mass suggests must be the earth that gives birth to diverse forms of life. The black mass that started off at the bottom of her paintings has gradually risen up to float within the picture frame, and they even exist at times as multiple black masses that are connected together by Bae’s organic lines.
These pieces appear as though they are broad diagrammatic representations showing the relationship between the planets suspended in outer space and the living beings that dwell upon them. Or, to express this differently, they can be thought of as signifying the parallel relationship between living beings and non-living beings.
In thinking about the origins of art, nobody will argue against the fact that one of its sources is religion. Of course, we could trace its origins even further back to the prehistoric era and draw upon examples such as the ornamental figurines carved by modern man, yet it would be difficult to draw a direct connection between these and religion as we know it.
The link between religion and art was reflected widely across the aforementioned current of Western art. It gave rise to the current of anthropocentrism and led to the rise of abstract art. On the contrary, speaking broadly, cultures in the East have persisted to uphold non-anthropocentric art, which in some sense can be considered to be an abstract, conceptual form of art.
Let us revisit the initial statements of this discussion here. Should Bae’s work really be considered to have emerged through refining this current of Eastern art to its utmost level? Such a question would call for a yes or no answer. Regardless of East or West, the concepts of religion that mankind has created presume an infinite world.
However, now, at a time when the idea of radioactive pollution is no longer just a nightmare, we are brought to the realization that the infinite world expressed by religion is in fact only fantasy, at least to us humans. What Bae’s early work expresses is a world in which the earth and people are tied directly together that looks out on the infinite world presumed by the world of religion below it.
In recent years, Bae has been experimenting with a new style of work. At first sight, these works appear to be structured as figure-ground inversions of Bae’s previous works. But, upon closer inspection, one will be surprised by the transformation that her work has undergone. The white masses that initially appear to be inversions of the black masses are actually constituted by the accumulation of a countless number of lines. Bae’s lines, which represent the relationships between living beings, aggregate to form a single mass or what perhaps is a universe.
Although Bae has not spoken on the subject directly, one can surmise that she has had much to think about following the cataclysmic events that have taken place on a global scale in recent years, and it is likely that she discovered her new style through her longing to express a world view of a higher order. In this way, Bae’s work exists as a presence that seems to manifest a world that we have yet to see.
Chief Curator, National Museum of Art, Osaka