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Introduction Lee Bae Issu du feu 1280x853
Lee Bae, Issu du feu series, 2018 © Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli

An Introduction to the Artist Lee Bae

  • Article
  • PHI Foundation
By  Marie-Hélène Lemaire

Come and discover Lee Bae’s numerous explorations with charcoal in his paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations and video.

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© Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin. Photos: Hongbum An


The artist is well-known for his use of charcoal, which is his chosen material due to its physical, symbolic, and spiritual qualities.

Lee Bae Daegu Art Museum 2014
Lee Bae, Daegu Art Museum, 2014 © Courtesy of the artist


Of South Korean heritage, Lee Bae lives between Seoul and Paris and works in Paris. After arriving in France at the age of 33, Lee Bae rediscovered working with charcoal briquettes and other large chunks of charcoal. He realized that this material had a deep and rich connection to his Korean cultural identity. Charcoal allows Lee Bae to relive memories of soot-based China ink that is used in calligraphy, as well as various construction processes that he experienced as a child. In Korean tradition, when the foundations of a house are dug out, charcoal is the first material that is placed in the hole. This is done to sanitize the area and to protect the ground from humidity and insects. Charcoal is also used in Korea when a child is born: a piece of charcoal is tied to a string and hung on the front door to signal the arrival of a baby.

Lee Bae Processus Issudufeu1 1280x840
Installation view, Lee Bae: UNION, 2021, PHI Foundation. Issu du feu (detail), 2018. Charcoal and rubber band. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay


This sculpture is part of a series entitled Issu du feu (“made of fire”), which includes a multitude of carbonized pine tree trunks that come from Lee Bae’s hometown. When in Cheongdo, the artist carefully selects each pine tree that will then be slowly burned over a two-week period in a large oven made specifically for this purpose. The trees become charred enough that they develop fissures and cracks, but not to the point where they dissolve into ash. Once cooled, Lee Bae places black elastic bands around the tree trunks in order to contain their carbonized form and to keep the charred bark in place. What remains is black matter that is in a state somewhere between integrity and volatility, solidity and impermanence, and that evokes the fragile equilibrium between destruction and rebirth.

Lee Bae Noirlumiere Issudufeu 1280x853
Installation view, Lee Bae: UNION, 2021, PHI Foundation. Issu du feu (detail), 2002. Charcoal on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay


The two dimensional Issu du feu series illustrate the infinite nuances, textures, and densities of the colour black, which possesses a chromatic diversity that is very particular. Black contains all colours, it absorbs all colours. The works that comprise the Issu du feu series also reveal the luminous and shady properties of charcoal and the colour black, creating reflections and iridescence: a shimmering light that comes from darkness. These mosaics are created with shards and pieces of charcoal that are meticulously glued, compacted, pierced, and sanded down by the artist. This assemblage creates a constellation of fragmented bits of charcoal with numerous angles and cuts that absorb and refract light.

Lee Bae Memoiresensorielle Untitled 1280x853
Installation view, Lee Bae: UNION, 2021, PHI Foundation. Untitled (detail), 1999. Charcoal. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay


Untitled consists of a multitude of small forms that are made with charcoal and presented on the wall. Bordering between abstraction and figuration, they are intriguing and mysterious. This work represents another way that Lee Bae engages with charcoal as a material that is linked to his memory. These small forms represent the persimmon, a fruit that is very common in his native village. Thus, these charcoal persimmons, and their distribution on the wall, represent childhood memories. The persimmon tree is evoked by the dispersal of small forms on the wall made of charcoal that recall the distribution of the fruit among the tree branches. The form of the persimmons on the wall could also be reminiscent of a swarm of bees, a group of birds in flight, or even a constellation. It is as if the persimmons, due to their rebirth through the charcoal, have been given a new momentum, a new energy.

Lee Bae Burning house of moon Video 2014 1280x720
Lee Bae, Burning a house of moon, 2014. Production still. © Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin


Lee Bae’s video work, titled Burning a house of moon, represents a traditional Korean ceremony that takes place on the night of the first full moon of the lunar calendar. There are many different versions of this ritual, unique to the various regions of the country. The one that Lee Bae speaks to is the ceremony performed in Cheongdo, his home village. The ritual involves creating a “Moon House” by gathering pine needles, branches, and pine wood and piling them into a stack that resembles a tent. Villagers then write their wishes on pieces of paper that they hang on the pine branches. When the moon rises, the house is set on fire, and the wishes rise toward the sky. It is through this process that wishes are believed to come true. 

In the ancient times, the one way to pass on your message to the skies was through smoke. The using of smoke must have truly come from humanity’s common sensibility. They tried to communicate with nature and spiritual beings in that way. —Lee Bae

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Lee Bae, Untitled series (detail), 2019. Charcoal on mulberry paper. © Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin. Photos: Guillaume Ziccarelli


In the works Untitled, Lee Bae explores gestures and the traces they leave behind. The drawings are so vibrant that it seems as though Lee Bae created them in an improvised and spontaneous manner. But the gestures he makes and the marks he leaves on the paper are actually the fruits of rigorous research and many repetitions, gradually forming a choreography of sorts. Through this process, Lee Bae’s body is infused with the gestures until they become completely integrated.

We must not forget the importance of repetition, of the tirelessly repeated gestures in Korean culture. We enter into contemplation by repeating things, just like monks, philosophers, musicians. But despite this endless repetition, each interpretation is different. It is repetition that allows an artist to bring his creative universe to fruition. —Lee Bae

Lee Bae Issudufeu Installation 1280x853
Installation view, Lee Bae: UNION, 2021, PHI Foundation. Issu du feu series, 2018. Charcoal and rubber band. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay


The exhibition spaces at 465 Saint-Jean Street hold a vast installation consisting of carbonized pine tree trunks from the Issu du feu series. The artist invites us for a contemplative walk through this incandescent forest, silent with cinders. This installation brings to the forefront the embodied nature of Lee Bae’s work, as well as a focus on an animistic understanding of our bodies and their connection to the environment. Charcoal is a material that pulsates with a primordial resonance as it is both made from fire and revives fire. This forest assists us in meditating upon the cycle of destruction and reanimation, of ashes and flames, of life and death. The cracked surfaces of the burnt pine tree trunks bring us into an intimate interconnectedness with nature: through our movements in between the carbonized trunks, our bodies and our spirits become submerged in this dialogue of reciprocity.

Author: Marie-Hélène Lemaire

Marie-Hélène Lemaire is Head of Education at PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art. She completed a Ph.D. in Communications Studies at Concordia University in 2015 that focused on developing a movement-based pedagogy for the guided group visit in contemporary art exhibitions. Using a feminist pedagogy of embodiment, new materialist and poetic inquiry approaches, she aims to privilege and validate somatic and affective engagements with contemporary art. She nurtures a poetic writing practice for developing, facilitating and interpreting curricula for guided visits. She is committed to epistemic justice in the arts.


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