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Lee Bae PHI 012 min
Installation view, Lee Bae: UNION, 2021, PHI Foundation. Lee Bae, Issu du feu, 2018; Issu du feu, 2002. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin Gallery © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Memory: a Landscape of Moments, Each a Smoldering Ember

  • Essay
  • Visual Arts
  • Media Arts
  • PHI Foundation
By  Vania Djelani

Lee Bae’s UNION examines the natural order of life cycles that further draws on the concept of phenomenology. Through the idea that consciousness can exist beyond the human body, permeating an object’s direct experience, UNION ties in the relationship between all things—whether living or not, artificial, or conceptual. In the context of memory, the exhibition can be seen as an attempt to preserve and record instances of this material existence.

“Lee Bae accelerates the life of trees in order to repeat, reproduce, and expose their cycles.”

Throughout the installation, Lee Bae addresses his own reality in relation to the material realm, as well as traces of existence in the natural world. In recalling both the physical imprints and mental impressions left by a given act, circumstance, or experience, UNION can be seen as the imaginative landscape of memories. With his Issu du feu series (2018), human-sized trunks are placed sporadically throughout the show, immersing visitors into a unique environment. As the objects were constructed under particular conditions, from being carefully selected and placed in a custom kiln for a controlled burn, Lee Bae accelerates the life of trees in order to repeat, reproduce, and expose their cycles. It simulates the collective phenomena of a given place, and addresses what could be left behind in the material world when a life is no longer present to display its narrative.

Lee Bae PHI 107 min
Installation view, Lee Bae: UNION, 2021, PHI Foundation. Lee Bae, Untitled series, 2019; Issu du feu series, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin Gallery © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

The urge to withstand the natural progression of time is as apparent within his Brushstroke series (2020). As Lee Bae uses controlled and repetitive movements to activate the muscle memory necessary in making his marks, the works serve as a documentation of a specific lived experience. It is one that the artist can recreate at any given moment, and comes from an understanding of how his body reacts to external forces. It addresses the transformative power of a motion in intentionally triggering a sensory experience. The entirety of UNION relies on the heavy loom of time over life, focusing on endurance as playing a key role in the stages of being and becoming. The show becomes more than situating art under the artist's intent, or as objects that intrude our spaces and alter our experiences and instead, we become the intruders to the space Lee Bae’s work momentarily inhabits.

Lee Bae PHI 036 min

As a traveling exhibition, both the show and the objects it consists of, relies on the act of being displaced. They are dependent on a recognizable absence. Much like a memory, they are further bound by material and sensorial traces, as opposed to the chronological experience of time. The aesthetic simplicity of Lee Bae’s UNION presents no sense of a temporal bearing, allowing visitors to move freely throughout the exhibition—wandering forwards, backwards, or staying still. The objects animate the spatiotemporal location, allowing them to develop their own narrative, separate from the artist and the visitors. UNION waits for us to be pulled into its lingering presence, just as a memory waits to be rediscovered.

This article is the result of a collaboration between the PHI Antenna blog and Quarantined museum. In May 2021, PHI launched a call to authors to write an essay on the theme of memory, in connection with the exhibition Lee Bae: UNION, presented at the PHI Foundation from February 24 to June 20, 2021, or the Parallel Lines itinerary, presented at the PHI Centre from February 24 to June 13, 2021.

Quarantined museum is an initiative of the Musée d'art de Joliette. It is a space of virtual exchange where the public is invited to react artistically to a new theme each month and take part in a virtual exhibition. The Musée d'art de Joliette (MAJ) team and special guests share their views and discoveries regularly throughout the month, nourishing this place of exchange with their insights in connection to the chosen theme. The creativity of the entire community is at the heart of this virtual space.

Author: Vania Djelani

Vania Djelani completed her BFA in Art History & Studio Arts at Concordia University. As an artist and writer, she is interested in the way materiality can be manipulated to construct a sense of identity—in exploring subjects like race, class and gender. Further informed by studies around material culture, she examines how objects can play a central role in understanding culture and social relations.

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