Installation view of BAE BIEN-U’s “分合 PARTMEET” at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong, 2016. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery. 


Bae Bien-U

Axel Vervoordt Gallery
Korea, South Hong Kong

One would think that the work of a photographer who has captured the same location for the last three decades would become redundant or tiresome. However, renowned South Korean photographer Bae Bien-U proves that endless beauty can be found in even the most repetitive of subjects. In his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, entitled “分合 PART: MEET,” Bae presents five new black-and-white photographic prints from his “Sonamu­–Pine Trees” series (2015), returning to his favorite subject of the pine trees found in the forested mountains of Gyeongju. The tightly-cropped images of ghostly trees, so emblematic of Bae’s work, prompt the viewer to join in the artist’s exploration of the relationship between the life forces of humanity and nature.

The exhibition title, as well as the displayed works themselves, embrace the simultaneous connection and separation between humans and the natural world. The two Chinese characters in the name, fēn (分) and (合), symbolize “separation” and “incorporation,” respectively. The images all feature closely-framed shots of the trees, where each focuses on tree trunks that either grow toward or away from one another, with the silhouettes of other pine trees fading into the foggy background. In traditional Korean culture, the pine tree is often utilized in rituals as a conduit between heaven and earth, acting as a vessel of vitality. Bae’s photographic method, which takes static and slow-growing organisms and infuses them with life and motion, harnesses such organic force to activate the gallery space.

BAE BIEN-USNM3A-028 – Sonamu Series, 2015, gelatin silver print, 120 × 120 cm. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Out of the five prints in the show, only one, SNM3A-028 (2015), captures trees growing in opposite directions. The negative space in the center of this photograph pushes the visual energy of the entire show toward the four other images, where branches appear to meet in peaceful coexistence. The symmetrical separation of the pine trunks in SNM3A-028 is mirrored in the exhibition space, which is divided into thirds, with two prints on the side walls, and one hanging in the center of the gallery. The photographs, each measuring 120-by-120 centimeters and 1:1 in dimension, originate from 6 × 6 negatives, marking the first time since the 1980s that Bae has deviated from panoramic images. He uses the historied ratio of 1:1 in the format of his prints, which, for him, symbolizes the opening of one’s life to mystical experiences and an aid for viewers to connect with untamed environments.

The eery forest landscapes create a sense of calm and serenity. In closely examining the large-format prints, the intricate details of each crack in the bark and fallen pine needle become visible, allowing viewers to momentarily transport their minds to the quiet woods of South Korea. This escape, however, is quickly interrupted by any intrusion into the gallery space, whether it be the muffled cough of a fellow visitor, or the sounds of the footsteps of a passerby, which could quickly pull viewers back into the frenetic reality of Hong Kong. This fleeting sense of peace, this temporary connection with Mother Nature, embodies Bae’s conceptual foundation of the short time that humans have to experience life and its natural wonders.

BAE BIEN-USNM3A-030 – Sonamu Series, 2015, gelatin silver print, 120 × 120 cm. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong. 

BAE BIEN-USNM3A-027 – Sonamu Series, 2015, gelatin silver print, 120 × 120 cm. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Embracing the concept of opening one’s life to unseen connections, Bae’s photographs—where the entirety of the trees that are featured is impossible to see—are reminiscent of windows, inspiring a desire in the viewers to adjust their angle of sight to try to glimpse the hidden remainder of the woodland canopy. Thus, a portal into a pine forest in Korea is opened, where viewers are not only able to voyeuristically observe the wilderness, but to also experience the quiescence of the forest itself.

Bae Bien-U’s “分合 PART: MEET” is on view at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong, until July 16, 2016.