People / Critic

Journey through the Gaps: Moving Symbols of Bahc Yiso

posted 10 June 2020

〈추수감사절 이후 박모의 단식〉(사진 왼쪽) 퍼포먼스 1984 사진제공: 국립현대미술관.

[Left side of picture] 〈Bahc Mo's Fast After Thanksgiving Day〉, 1984, Bahc’s performance in 1984, Image courtesy of Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

“To me, creating artworks is like travelling upside down through the ‘gaps’ massively and endlessly spread between existing meanings and realms."1)

This famous quote from Bahc Yiso(1957–2004) provides a succinct definition for his oeuvre. By avoiding settling for any particular meaning, and rather choosing to reveal and open the gaps between meanings, his work suggests a different mechanism of signification. His legacy in the Korean art world of the 1990s is that he suggested a completely different type of semiotics.

Of course, the typical assessments of his work are true: that he, as an artist based in New York, took the practices and theories that he had learned in the global center of modern art, particularly critiques of modernism, back to Korea from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s; that after returning to Korea in 1995, he suggested the potential for new art through so-called post-conceptualism based on a broad sense of society. But what is more important in Bahc's work is the difference in his 'methods' of conveying meanings. He used so-called 'open' semiotics, different from the modernist abstract paintings that pursued an inner consistency through visual symbols, or from Minjung art that pursued conformity with the external world. He presented another way for visual symbols to be manifested as meanings. In other words, he wanted to reveal the infinite nature of symbols by opening the door of semiotics in an art world which seemed determined to perceive matter through a one-on-one link between signifier and signified.

“Duality and ambiguity, which can mean this and that at the same time.”2) This is the subject of the work that Bahc wrote for his solo show in 1995. His art is a process of exploring the world of endlessly-floating signifiers, denying the self-identity of symbols. This semiotics is adopted to the symbol of the ‘artist’. As seen by his three names which are Cheol-ho (–1984), Mo (1984–1998), and Yiso (1998–2004), his identity was a symbol as light and flexible as the event of death, which passed like a rumour through the world of art. 〈Bahc Mo's Fast After Thanksgiving Day〉 (1984), which was performed right after changing his name to ‘Mo(Translator's note : The term 'Mo' in Korean is used to address someone in public when their first name is unknown)’, was a particularly telling expression of his identity as an artist. He began a fast after being invited to a Thanksgiving feast by an American family, and at noon on the third day of the fast, he crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, dragging a self-made cauldron on a long rope connected to his neck. He embodied the artist in multiple ways; as a social being who is carrying out work in order to make a living, yet who is perhaps not earning enough money, as symbolized in the empty rice pot or through the action of fasting; or perhaps as an artist denying that any of the former description is true; or as an anonymous being, as reflected in his chosen name of ‘mo’. Reminiscent of Nam June Paik, who walked with a violin dragged behind him on the street, this performance of Bahc represents the identity of the artist, hanging heavily between creation and imitation. Bahc practiced and performed the post-modern concept of ‘subject’, which was popular at the time, as he crossed many different realms of meanings.

His life itself is also a model demonstration of the concept of the artist as a multi-layered subject. After graduating from the Pratt Institute in New York City in 1985, he worked as a theorist, an alternative space manager, curator, and educator, and all of these roles were performed under the title of ‘artist’. In this respect, he is reminiscent of Joseph Beuys, and indeed Bahc’s work 〈Capital=Creativity〉 (1986), which echoed Beuys’ words yet in a different order, demonstrated his agreement with the artistic views of Beuys. This piece of work also exemplifies the concept of the artist being not just a creator but an adopter. With the title of his 1986 work, it is not clear whether the artist is ironically depicting the image of the artist in the capitalist era, or if he is truly admitting that as reality. While ‘capital’ is written in gold and ‘creativity’ in black, the equals sign (=) that connects the two words shows that they are the same. The clumsy writing seems almost like calligraphy, while simultaneously invoking the tradition of the Men of Letters, and its mythologies.

〈Non-traditional〉 (1988) is another example of Bahc playing with the convergence of contemporary Western conceptual art and traditional Asian calligraphy. It speaks to the myth of tradition through his writing style, but also through the direct meaning of the title. As the writing in the artwork is suggested in the context of Western culture of the time – conceptual art – it reveals the limitation of a collision of cultures and the logic of power operating in that same collision. The calligraphy was nothing more than abstract lines for people in the West at the time, as well as being something ‘non-traditional’, in other words, an Asian tradition that had been incorporated into the territory of contemporary Western modern art. According to Bahc, it was not truly a tradition but rather just the skin of a tradition. 〈Simply Weed〉 (1988) shares this same sarcastic view of tradition. The painting imitates the traditional orchid, but with the artist's awkward brush strokes it becomes, as the title implies, nothing more than the movement of brush, a shell of the literati paintings.

왼쪽 위 〈자본=창의력〉 종이에 혼합재료 50×86cm 1986아래 〈비전통적〉 캔버스에 아크릴, 페인트 90×175cm 1988오른쪽 〈이그조틱-마이노리티-오리엔탈〉 컬러 사진, 에나멜페인트 76×61㎝ 1990.사진제공 월간미술

Upper left Bahc Yiso, 〈Capital = Creativity〉, 1986, mixed media on paper, 50×86cm Lower left Bahc Yiso, 〈Non-traditional〉, 1988, acrylic paints on canvas, 90×175cm Right Bahc Yiso, 〈Exotic-Minority-Oriental〉, 1990, color photograph and enamel paint, 76×61㎝. Image Provided by Monthly Art

〈Exotic-Minority-Oriental〉 (1990) is a more concrete demonstration of issues of identity. Consisting of awkward handwriting and portrait photos, it arranges stereotypical images beside corresponding words. While the words and the images seem to correspond to Koreans, they appear as a simple composition of abstract shapes and images to those from different cultural backgrounds. This exposes the communication barrier between different cultures. In addition, the correlation between the words and images has its own internal dynamic. The images linked to the three English words transcribed in Korean were in fact selected from the perspective of Western mainstream culture. The artist wanted to say that the meaning of a symbol can change depending on the standpoint of the subject: in other words that the power logic works on all symbols.

Before returning back to Korea in 1995, Bahc’s interest had been mainly focused upon the issue of identity. This was during the time that he was running an alternative art space called Minor Injury (1985-1989) for immigrant artists, and also while he was organizing Across the 《Pacific: Contemporary Korean Art and Korean American Art》 (1993), an exhibition that introduced contemporary Korean art in the United States. This seemed to be a natural step for an artist who had left his home country to study abroad. The environment of New York, where many immigrants come and go, became fertile soil for Bahc to ponder his diasporic identity, as seen in the following:

“In a world which is becoming increasingly a place of migrants, I don’t feel that I left where I was and I don’t feel that I am where I am.”3)

For Bahc, identity was the revelation of a relative position, not the absolute root of existence. It was not something that ‘exists’ innately, but something that is ‘revealed’ through in the dynamics of relations. His works, including 〈Speaking English〉 (1990), which transcribed English words into Korean, and 〈Untitled〉 (1994), formed of a concrete boat that symbolized a desire to leave which could not be manifested in real life, are the outcomes of his journey to find his identity. 〈Homo Identropus〉 (1994), which is referred to as the last piece of his work in this particular journey, is the portrait of a human being who is wandering around, searching for an identity. The person sitting on the central line of a table tennis table is one who is on the border, who cannot belong to here or there, but who nevertheless attempts to find an identity. This is a symbol of absurdity, as well as being his self-portrait.

왼쪽 〈호모 아이덴트로푸스〉 종이에 아크릴 콜라주 76×56cm 1994 오른쪽 〈유엔탑〉 합판, 나무, 종이박스, 아연 도금 철판, 건축자재 쓰레기, 스티로폼, 드로잉 1997. 사진제공 월간미술

Left 〈Homo Identropus〉, 1994, acrylic collage on paper, 76×56cm Right 〈UN Tower〉, 1997, veneer, wood, cardboard box, galvanized steel sheet, construction waste, polystyrene, drawing. Image Provided by Monthly Art.

With this work as a turning point, Bahc’s interest then expanded into projects such as the 〈UN Tower〉 (1997), which referred to a sense of the futility of human desire entangled with the creation of that monument. Displayed at the second Gwangju Biennale, the piece was an installation that expanded the tower downwards into a negative shape, drawn on matchboxes of the same name. As the audience passed through the tower, they saw boxes containing the waste produced from the making of the tower and hexagonal columns made of stacked, flattened boxes. The empty UN tower, resembling the shape of an obelisk, symbolized a human desire to realize great history, and the futility of that desire. According to the artist, the boxed tower is a " lame and sarcastic statement about the masculine will to do 'something serious and noticeable'". He wanted to reveal “the wide gap between the existence and the absence of a monument as a symbol of the winner's writing of history”4), the symbolic space. The theme of the monument was continued in 〈World's Top Ten Tallest Structures in 2010〉 exhibited at the Korean Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Bahc carried out research on the world's top ten tallest structures and created a model of the future contender for tallest building in the world, made of cylindrical PVC, and models of the nine runners-up out of white clay, placing them all on a pedestal. The figures, roughly made of sloppy and cheap materials, show the endless chain of phallic desire to rise vertically against the horizontal earth and the vanity of history this desire has created.

Bahc’s skepticism made no exception for art itself. 〈Something for Nothing〉 (1998) was his answer to what art is, and an answer which matched his attitude. He put two large rubber basins at each end of the wooden bench, which was roughly made and intended for a construction site, piled concrete on one side of it, and drew a line with white gesso on the surface of the pile. It is a parody of an artistic practice and a parody of the resulting artwork. The material, which had only been moved from one side to the other to create different shapes, is an embodiment of the artist's words: "The desire to 'create something' may end up being wasteful and vain."5)

Meanwhile, Bahc’s vision also expanded in a direction which set out to encompass nature and the universe. For example, 〈Big Dipper in Eight Stars〉 (1997-1999), which reproduced the night sky by attaching star stickers to a black wrapping sponge, represented the general themes of eternity, hope, and ideals. As the artist explained, the 8th star is his own star, one of wishful thinking and hope, and it intrudes upon the traditional constellation,6) symbolizing the artist himself in the universe and questioning the meaning he has given to such a space. Star motifs are also transformed in Bahc’s various later works, such as in 〈Eight Direction Beauty〉 (2002), which “asks about the meaning of creation and exhibition7) through a screen that expands the Big Dipper; and in 〈Your Bright Future〉 (2002) and 〈Gwangmyeong Shopping Center〉 (2003), which transformed the motif of starlight into artificial lightings and eventually into the connecting passage of social message.

During the later period of Bahc Yiso's life, natural and space motifs stretched into ontological questions, as evident in his work. 〈Blackhole Chair〉 (2001) causes the viewer to imagine the exact moment of being sucked into a black hole, while 〈Sky of San Antonio〉 (2001), a real-time projection of the sky sent back into the exhibition through outdoor cameras, reminds one of humanity’s existence in the time of nature. 〈Fallayavada〉 (2003), which was created in 2006 after the death of the artist, is a looping reel of recorded images captured by a video camera attached to a parachute, which was dropped by an aircraft, projected on the floor of a gallery, which resembles the Colosseum. Like Bahc’s remark that the "futility of life seems to have something to do with the speed of falling"[8) this work is a powerful symbol of the universe as a moment of infinite width which can be cut through vertically, as well as the transition of human existence into dust in the boundless universe.

'Futility of life' was actually a summary of Bahc Yi-so's lifelong oeuvre. The axis that penetrates his work is a kind of Taoist scepticism, as shown not only in the content of his work but also in the methodology, which deliberately excluded as many artificial aspects as possible. He deliberately avoided achieving a perfect finish, choosing ordinary and day to day materials such as wood, concrete, polyethylene, cardboard boxes, and waste materials, and decreased the artistic process to a minimum. The 'poor' materials and scarce processes are reminiscent of Arte Povera. However, Bahc also made even the meanings of his artwork 'poorly', through his unique narrative of cynicism and humour.

왼쪽 〈호모 아이덴트로푸스〉 종이에 아크릴 콜라주 76×56cm 1994 오른쪽 〈유엔탑〉 합판, 나무, 종이박스, 아연 도금 철판, 건축자재 쓰레기, 스티로폼, 드로잉 1997. 사진제공 월간미술

Left 〈Something for Nothing〉, 1998, concrete, rubber containers, gesso, wood, 120×70×400cm Middle 〈Big Dipper in Eight Stars〉, 1997–1999, sponge, bricks, stickers, aluminum foil, needles, 210×117×39cm, private collection. Photo courtesy of Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea Upper right 〈Eight Direction Beauty〉,2002, Acrylic on canvas, 130×210cm Lower right 〈We Are Happy〉 (2004) 7×42m. Image Provided by Monthly Art

“I am more interested in the fragility of an artwork, its inefficiency and difficulty in communicating, and this is because I barely believe in the possibility of clear expression and communication between people.”9)

As such, Bahc Yiso was a conceptual artist who doubted the process of signification of 'concepts'. His work, which was a mix of artistic practice, writing, and social activities, evokes the 'social sculpture' of Beuys. But his narrative of conveying concepts is different from that of Beuys. Unlike Beuys, who used a straight-forward approach to reach his conclusion, Bahc used a circular method that endlessly swerved a conclusion. The skepticism of doubting everything penetrated every artistic narrative he created. That he chose to consistently leave the process of signification open rather than closed, is a positive outcome of his skepticism. His artistic narrative, which casts off the anchor of the symbol trying to settle in a single meaning and leaves gaps between all potential meanings, converts the impossibility of communication into 'open semiotics'. This also reveals the intersection with the Taoist attitude of embracing everything by doubting everything. Bahc's work shows the point where deconstructionism comes into contact with the Taoist ideas, and in this regard, it can be seen as an oriental version of conceptual art.

When we heard about his sudden death in the fall of 2004, 〈We Are Happy〉 (2004) – another work completed after his death – was installed at the Busan Biennale. The artwork, reminiscent of his typical semantics, created the sensation that he had been revived. The installation was a reconstruction of North Korea's large-scale propaganda signs on a large billboard in a metropolis, and it evoked biased ideology, post-industrial society and human life, all to ask the question, are we really happy?

"While contacting, overlapping and finding the gaps between various values of happiness and misunderstanding in order to touch the hearts of the audiences, I am still trying to show there is happiness somewhere regardless, as a disturbing message of hope."10)

In this note, which seems almost elegiac, we can envision Bahc Yiso, as a Taoist deconstructivist floating above the concept of happiness.

Has Bahc, who said “I want to be a strong wind,”11) become a real wind and flown away to the universe and to the boundless world of symbols? He left us, as a breeze, in the blink of an eye. However, his legacy still drifts through the artworld today.

“As time goes by, future generations will understand his existence as a historical event in Korean modern art,”12) said Lee Young Chul, and he was right. Bahc Yiso, who came and went from the 1990s like a force of nature, is still alive in both our mind and in the work of other artists.

1)Bahc Yiso, 「About Artworks」, 2000, n.p.
2)Bahc Mo, 「Foreword」, 『Bahc Mo exhibition catalogue』, published by Kumho Gallery and Wellside Gallery, 1995, p. 7.
3)Mo Bahc, In Plural America(exhibition brochure) Hudson River Mueum 1992 p.11
4)Bahc Mo, 「A Kind Description of ‘UN Tower’」, 1997, n.p.
5)Incomplete texts of Bahc Yiso: Jung Hunyee, 「Bahc Yiso’s Happy Vacance」, 『Divine Comedy: A Retrospective of Bahc Yiso』, exhibition catalogue, Rodin Gallery, 2006 p. 28.
6 ) 『Bahc Yiso: Memos and Memories』, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2018, p. 303.
7 ) Artist’s note book vol. 20, 2002.7~2003, p. 65, p. 166.
8 ) Bahc Yiso. 『Fallayavada』, 2003, p. 2.
9 ) ] A text written by Bahc Yiso, 「Divine Comedy: A Retrospective of Bahc Yiso」, exhibition catalogue, Rodin Gallery, 2006 p. 133.
10 ) Bahc Yiso’s 〈We Are Happy〉 proposal: Jung Hunyee, 2006, p. 28
11 ) Yiso Bahc “On ‘To be Creative’” n.d., n.p.
12 ) Lee Young Chul, 「The Artist of Noon: Divine Comedy」, 『Divine Comedy: A Retrospective of Bahc Yiso』, exhibition catalogue, Rodin Gallery, 2006 p. 13.

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Yong Soon Min, Park Sang Yu, aka Mo Bahc, aka Bahc Yiso (1956-2004)

※ This article was originally published on the MAY 2020 issue of Wolganmisool Magazine and is provided by the Korea Art Management Service under a content provision agreement with the magazine.

Nan Ji Yoon

Art Historian

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