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For the Mnemosyne Atlas of Lee Bae : Reinventing the Post-Media of Spirituality

Geun-jun Michael Lim, art and design historian

0. Aby Warburg was a seminal figure in the research methodology of contemporary art history. While researching the religious icons of Renaissance art, he developed the unique methodology of Mnemosyne-Atlas. It was an image-database of sorts that juxtaposed various photographic prints of historically related works into a massive diagram, arranged to support intuiting their correlation. Begun in 1924 and left unfinished at the time of his death in 1929, the Atlas was Warburg’s attempt to map the “afterlife of antiquity,” or how images of great power emerge in Western antiquity and then reappear in the art and cosmology of later times and places.
Greek goddess of memory Mnemosyne (Μνημοσύνη) also lent her name to a river in Hades (the Underworld) which flowed parallel to the river of Lethe (meaning forgetfulness). Mnemosyne was bedded by Zeus for nine consecutive days and gave birth to the nine Muses of music and poetry, epic poetry, history, love poetry, music in general, tragedy, dance, comedy, and astronomy. The mythology of the nine muses strongly imply that arts and sciences originate from and by means of memory.
Warburg seems to have considered Atlas a template for exploring areas for infinite renewal. As such, later researchers did not take on the burden of completing what Warburg began. Nonetheless, the motion set forth by Mnemosyne Atlas continues through the modern-day temples of museums where Mnemosyne’s nine daughters are enshrined. Warburg’s deconstruction and reconstruction of images in Atlas is mirrored in art museums and art galleries today by curators who seek to massage history through new and growing collections.

LEE BAE – Gallery2-Joongsun Nongwon(Jeju Island) Installation view

1. Lee Bae (b.1956) is a contemporary artist native to Cheongdo, a city in the North Gyeongsang Province of Korea. He is credited for reestablishing the medium of spirituality through memories of his native city, cultural traditions of East Asia, and the history of contemporary art. His works are often labeled under traditional genres such as painting, sculpture, or installation, but their core identity is in the questions he leaves open-ended, questions that serve as vehicles driven by performative praxis and break the cycle of reduction and diffusion. His works echo post-formalism of 20th century modernism and the historical developments thereafter, but also serve as objects of suspended judgement, questioning the status quo of institutional art. Ultimately, his works aim for artistic transcendence over both modernity and the contemporary.

2. Lee graduated with an M.F.A from the Department of Education, Hongik University in 1982. He presented his first solo exhibition later that year at the Kwanhoon Gallery’s Seoul Annex. His inaugural solo presentation featured a series of 15 landscape paintings on hanji (traditional Korean mulberry pulp paper) with acrylic colors. Lee borrowed the traditional aesthetics seen in Joseon-era minhwa interpreted with modern sensibilities. Modern iteration of traditional colors and shapes filled each frame, visual projection of the artist’s ambition for modernizing traditional Korean aesthetics under a new light.2)

3. After the earliest exhibitions, Lee’s paintings traced a path of praxis, often dismantling abstract expressionism via iterations of facial or physical form. Untitled series of oil paintings between 1986 and 1990, visible on the artist’s homepage are such examples. The colors hark to taenghwa of Korean Buddhist or shamanist tradition, while the deconstruction of form and blunt lines hark to the influence of Jean Dubuffet.

4. Moving to Paris in 1989, the artist entered a period of self-exploration and discovery. He reemerged with charcoal paintings between 1992 and 1993. He lay a white or cream background on the canvas, attaching charcoal to the surface using pine resin, and sanded down the surface irregularities, continuing his exploration of the body as a landscape. (Lee used binchotan between 1989 and 1990, then attached charcoal to the canvas as low relief works sometime in 1992 or 1993) It was at this moment that Lee’s works from the previous decade, defined by numerous colors as a medium of substitution and diffusion at the far end of Korean aesthetics, entered a phase of reduction and convergence via charcoal. (The abstract black-and-white Landscape series Lee began in 1997 and continues today, sometimes titled Paysage, can be traced back to Body from 1992. Body was at times presented in portrait dimensions and introduced as Body Mass.)

LEE BAE, Issu du feu ch-70, 2003, Charcoal on canvas, 170X260cm

5. Lee’s early charcoal works followed only the logic of substitution and reduction, incompletely recreated or reinvented as a spiritual medium. It was with the Issu du feu (from fire) series in 1999 that Lee was able to introduce it as such. Through the process of artisan-like process of paving and attaching charcoal blocks unto the canvas, then applying Arabian gum rubber to the surface and polishing off the surface to bring forth a new layer (échelle), the artist achieved a deeply colorful black from charcoal. (The motley appearance of Issu du feu became ordinary to Lee’s practice in 1999, and the large rubber-bound charcoal installation series of the same name first appeared in 2000.)
His works at this time found a place of limbo between numerous spectrums. In no particular order they were undetermined between: Post-war modernism and formalism of America and Europe; in and out of the familiar nest of Korea’s sumukhwa tradition and its modernization the countless shades of India ink that embody the vitality and extinction of Far Eastern soul; between the springboard launching from the sumuk spirit and the single brushstroke method and the landing cushion of dismantled orientalism; on either side of The Great, Savory Flavor summary of Joseon and modern Korea’s aesthetics. Most of all, he seemed to have unbound himself from the post-colonial anxiety miring so many Korean artists to step toward universal values where boundaries between the interna and the external became less important.
This post-media re-creation shares four precedents and connections : First is to Yves Klein (1928-1962)’s International Klein Blue introduced in May1960 which was simultaneously an advancement of abstract theory and a leap into the world of non-material. Second is to Lee Ufan, the artist who juxtaposed the cultural time of rusted metal sheet and the natural time of a boulder. Specifically, the connection is with Lee’s Relatum of episthetic escape enabling internal and external bounds, starting with his ideas of ambivalence in 1977. Third is to David Nash’s Nine Charred Steps that featured a partial/total charring of location specific wooden sculpture as reduction to the natural world. Fourth is to Takashi Murakami who sought an answer to Yves Klein’s question as a Ph.D. fresher in 1989.

6. The answer was a lapis lazuli monochrome on four panels of nihonga (日本畵) tradition, pursuing a contemporary invocation and dirge of nihonga. (Takashi Murakami, Colors 1, 1989, lapis lazuli and mineral pigments on washi paper, four panels, each 300x180x5.4cm) Lee further articulated the essence of Issue du feu in 1999, replacing sumuk and reinventing the post-medium. Then in 2004, he introduced another novel medium with the Acrylic Medium series, a seeming semiotic retort to the issues of creedal sumuk ink abstractions as posed by Mungnimhoe (墨林會 “Ink Forest Group” 1960-1964).
Works in the series are created in the following way: Basic form of repeated dots, lines, and strokes are placed on the canvas. Outlines are colored in with an ink mixture of fine-powdered charcoal and acrylic medium, laminated with translucent acrylic medium, set to dry and cure, then the outlines are painted over again, realizing a form of dual semiotic illusion.
In 2019, Lee Bae visited the Beyond Line: The Art of Korean Writing exhibition at LACMA and was so deeply inspired that he set his mind on abstract calligraphy/penmanship for 2020. His newest works of charcoal ink on paper is presented as a series titled Brush Stroke, showing traces of dynamic brushwork dipped in charcoal-infused ink.

LEE BAE, Drawing-86, 2020, Charcoal ink on paper, 162X130cm

7. Lee has found a means to be unbound to the categorical definition of Korean or Oriental painting while maintaining distinct resonations to spirit of contemporary sumuk. The next step. forward may hinge on Lee’s ability to land the new series’ metamorphic connection to his previous works. Creative methods follow new mediums, each subsequent series advancing in freedom, heralding new dynamics between each series. How does Lee plan on engaging these changes? (Note: Lee’s autonomy as an artist is often in conflict with the autonomy of his works. Greater autonomy of his works will lead the artist’s autonomy to new heights and dimensions.)
8. Revisiting and exploring Lee’s oeuvre requires clarification of certain points. The historical identity that dominates his work lies within meta-abstraction, that is abstraction post-abstraction embodied in the era of the re-established image. Methodologically, this is in the experimental realm of expansion-replacement and media appropriation to non-artistic materials. In all of contemporary art, Cai Guo-Qiang (蔡国强) and Lee Bae are the only artists to successfully re-mediate the sumuk tradition sans India ink. (Note: Li Keran (李可染) and numerous subsequent artists have partially re-mediated sumuk with materials other than India ink, but very few have sought an reinterpretation of the tradition itself.) It is worth noting that Lee’s works have consistently sought an organic re-mediation of painting, sculptural installation, and performative praxis. His works echo with Daniel Buren’s stripe patterns of institution critique and relational aesthetics, also comparable to Hong Seung-Hye’s pixel works that touch upon diverse issues including post-minimalism and relational aesthetics.

LEE BAE, Landscape ch-171 2003, Charcoal on canvas, 73x92cm

9. Lee Bae’s reinvented charcoal ink, analogous to dark matter (matière noire), is the conduit by which painting, sculpture, time, and space become, and transcend. When the sculptures of time and the paintings of space interface on new planes, a meta-perspective of understanding the relationship between humans and nature in the age of science and technology will also be derived. Lee’s dark matter thus becomes a looking glass, a magic crystal, a spyglass, and a watchtower that glimpses into a better tomorrow. It becomes the allegorical cave, the mist-shrouded temple, the city of sunlit shadows and resonating silence (墨陽靑陰) where power and order springs forth.


1) Dong-A Ilbo (October 16, 1982) introduced it as Lee’s sophomore solo exhibition.

2) From the late 70s to the 40th anniversary of the liberation in 1985 (revisiting Korea’s modern history), there was a boom in rediscovering traditional Korean culture. The colorful abstraction movement during 1957-1965 had a vague intent of seeking ancient archetypes in Korea’s past relics or ruins. From late 1970s onward, the movement moved away from the antiquely aristocratic seohwa (書畵: traditional literati calligraphy-cum-paintings) style and toward subversive social criticism rooted in the archetype of the people’s aesthetics.

The three major influences to the rediscovery and reinterpretation of traditional minjung was: the 5000 Years of Korean Art, the Korea-Japan cultural exchange that led to the rediscovery Yanagi Muneyoshi’s folk art, and the popularization of Mr. Chang-gi Han’s worldview through The Deep-Rooted Tree.

In the midst of such historical trends, Korean painter Hwang Chang-Bae (1947-2001) pursued the contemporary reinterpretation of Korean traditional paintings via media expansion and acceptance of minhwa’s painterly techniques.

3) Post-medium collectively refers to media that is (to be) recontextualized into aesthetic media when traditional aesthetic media are nullified by technological change. This is rarely a singular or specific medium, as the purpose of investigation is to critically explore the post-medium condition.

The term “post-medium” was coined by French philosopher Pierre-Felix Guattari in Remaking Social Practices which he wrote for French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique in 1992, a few weeks before his tragic death. In his last written work, he notes that the “current crisis of the media and the opening up of a post-media era are the symptoms of a much more profound crisis.”

Soon after, art critics and theorists including Rosalind Krauss began to discuss the state of contemporary media with focus on post-medium, and by the noughties, discussions on the subject had grown sufficient to be considered a theoretical discourse.

In her lecture A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition delivered in 1999 as part of The Walter Neurath Memorial Lectures, Dr. Krauss discussed the post-medium in earnest, touching on the changing landscape of medium. The pamphlet based on the lecture was published January 1. The lecture itself was a watershed moment that broke the gridlock of “old media art” versus “new media art” and moved forward with exploring the meaning of reinvented aesthetic media.