Cover South Korean artist Lee Bae (Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli, courtesy of the artist and Perrotin)

The South Korean artist's career has been defined by his unyielding use of charcoal and his monochrome artworks. He talks to Tatler Hong Kong about his love for the medium and material as well as his new exhibition in Hong Kong

Cheongdo-born, Paris and Seoul-based artist Lee Bae has a stellar list of solo exhibitions to his name but there's nothing quite like his relationship with Perrotin. The South Korean artist is having his fourth solo exhibition with the gallery titled Paradigm of Charcoal. Visualising his decades-long affinity for using charcoal as his chosen artistic material, the exhibition celebrates his experimental, bold and contemporary approach to monochrome.

This monochromatic practice has blurred the lines between drawing, painting, sculpture and installation—a work on full display in his exhibition. His use of charcoal—a deeply-rooted material in Korean culture believed to possess the power to keep out evil forces—connects him with his heritage. Trained under Dansaekhwa artists such as Park Seo-bo and mentored by Lee Ufan, Lee has honed his own craft while deepening the artistic nature of Dansaekhwa.

His Brushstroke and Untitled series all offer mesmerising, powerful and energetic imagery that employs charcoal and reinterprets classical practices of Korean calligraphy. Tatler Hong Kong talks with Lee about his new exhibition in Hong Kong, his love for charcoal, monochrome and how his experience living in Paris, Seoul and Cheongdo shaped his artistic practice.

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Tell us more about your new exhibition with Perrotin.

The first show with Perrotin in Paris 2018, was titled Black Mapping. The second [one] in New York in 2019, [called] Promenade, third in Tokyo [in] 2020, and the latest exhibition, Paradigm of Charcoal at Perrotin Hong Kong.

Particularly for this exhibition, I thought about [what] I think on the Covid-19 pandemic as an artist [and] what role artworks can take in this situation. The exhibition was held during the time I was thinking a lot about it. With the new works from the Brushstroke series, I wanted to show active energies to people who are down, and it is said that charcoal can absorb viruses and bacteria.

I sincerely hope that the charcoals can cease the Covid-19 virus. Also, we will soon reach a future that requires us to create new paradigms, and art will also need to make an effort in creating a new paradigm.

Are there any pieces from the exhibition that we should pay attention to?

In making the Brushstroke series, I specifically thought about the location of the exhibition—Hong Kong, the centre of Asian culture, and the place where East and West meet. While working on this series, I tried to think about my favourite work of Bada Shanren (also known as Zhu Da). The powerful rising energy of the brush from the bottom to the top, or the intuition presented by how the whole space (blankness) transforms into a lake by a single dot of ink.

Could you tell us more about your affinity for charcoal? Why have you insisted on using it as your artistic medium during your entire practice?

I started working in Paris in 1990. Back then, I was trying to figure out what I can do to create an image of myself as an artist. As I encountered charcoal, I suddenly realised that I came from the vast world of Asian ink painting. Through charcoal, I hoped to portray myself as an artist who came from the culture of calligraphy.

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You’re based in Paris, Seoul and Cheongdo, how do you balance your time between these three places?

I spend half of the year in Paris and the rest in South Korea. Usually, I’m in Paris during winter and work in Cheongdo during summer. I make a lot of charcoal from spring to summer. I have my charcoal kiln in Cheongdo so I often stay for a long time in South Korea due to the charcoal production time. It takes around one month to produce a batch of good charcoal and I make these myself, so I must stay.

Why was Paris the ideal choice to move to instead of staying in South Korea?

As a foreigner in Paris, it feels quite empty, lonely, somewhat depressing, and melancholic, so it’s good for an artist. Also, Paris has a lot of aspects that bring inspiration such as the density of air, the brightness of light, the size and proportions of cafes, and such.

You spend time in both Korea and Paris. Do you combine the two cultures when creating an artwork?

When I’m working in Paris, I try to avoid displaying aspects of myself that are too Korean or Asian. I always make an effort in trying not to confine myself to the Korean framework.

How has your experience in these three places shaped you as an artist as well as your creative practice?

My parents' grave is on the back mountain of my home in Cheongdo. When I’m here, I always end up reflecting on myself and think about who I am. In Seoul, I tend to think about my identity as a Korean artist.

Paris is somewhere that always keeps me awake when I’m there —new encounters, languages like French, German, Dutch, that I cannot fully comprehend, the difficulty of expressing myself, and the coexistence with the things I dislike. All three locations have an important effect on how I live as an artist.

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How has your creative practice evolved over the years?

The biggest change is that I started working and exhibiting with Perrotin. I evolved as an artist by working with this gallery. My artworks are collected by international collectors and are introduced in all of the famous art fairs around the world, making my name recognisable in the international art scene. I also had more institutional exhibitions such as in Guimet Museum in Paris, Fondation Maeght, Phi Foundation, and more.

Has it been hard to create art during the pandemic or has it stayed the same for you?

For me, I could not travel much due to the pandemic so I stayed a long time in one location. This allowed me to spend more time and focus more on my work, and gave me some time to reflect on myself.

Like many post-Dansaekhwa artists, you see your practice as a representation of your consciousness. Can you talk about that?

I didn’t particularly work towards or have in thought about [being a] post-Dansaekhwa [artist]. As my teachers were all great masters of Dansaekhwa, such as Park Seo-bo, Ha Chong-hyun, Lee Ufan, I have naturally encountered contemporary art through Dansaekhwa.

Based on my experience, Dansaekhwa seeks spirituality. It was created by artists in search of their dignity, intuition, and transcendence for the highest ideal. It’s like how the scholars and literati of Asia polish their character through literati paintings or the Four Gentlemen. I have been affected by such a way of life.

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Where do you look for inspiration?

It depends. I usually wake up every day at around 4 am and start working at 6 am. I always work with a regular routine at specific times [just] like a present-day salaryman. I try to look for inspiration within this repetitive daily routine. Recently, I’ve been inspired to some extent by ancient calligraphies.

To you, what’s so appealing about monochrome?

In ink painting, we use black ink and a brush to draw a green bamboo as if it is flowing with the breeze. We draw a thin, long line of black ink as if it is travelling across the space, to present an elegant orchid. As such, I believe that the attractiveness of Dansaekhwa is not in describing an object but building up spirituality and bodiliness into a scene.

What do you want visitors to feel when looking at your artwork?

I hope that people feel the spirituality of Asian culture through my works. Also, I hope that they sympathize with the contemporary characteristics of our age.

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Lee Bae's exhibition, Paradigm of Charcoal runs from August 7 to September 11 at Perrotin Hong Kong

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