One of the most memorable images in the 4482 exhibition on the South Bank last October was a large, carefully staged, meticulously lit photo of a scene from a fairy tale. An elaborate coach looks as if it could turn into a pumpkin at any moment. It’s certainly not going anywhere, despite the alert coachman sitting up front, because no horses are harnessed to it. A footman studies a glass slipper lovingly placed on a scarlet cushion. And gazing out of the picture at the viewer is an immaculately dressed woman in a fine wig. Her face and chest is carefully made up in ceruse, giving an authentically “pale and interesting” complexion to go with the timeless, vaguely Georgian period costume.
But if you look at her hands – muscular, suntanned and masculine, one of them incongruously holding a small, unusual-looking twig – the logic of the composition begins to fall apart.
Bae graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2007. His work has been shown in a number of exhibitions including International Discoveries at Houston Fotofest (2007) and The Third Lianzhou Photo Festival in China. Bae is currently holding his first solo show at Purdy Hicks, behind Tate Modern.
The exhibition is based around a series of works from his graduation work Existing in Costume, in which he poses in women’s dress from a number of periods in British history. Each costume was meticulously researched and the relevant accoutrements added such as wigs and jewellery. Some of the images are thrown off balance by the addition of a small Korean object, such as a beer bottle or fan – a token of home and the familiar.
When I was in Korea, I had an admiration for Western culture,” explains Bae. “After arriving in England, I started to realise that as an Asian man, there were many restrictions on entering Western culture. First of all, I felt that Western society had a sense of superiority over the East. Secondly, I felt that Asian men were not attractive to Western women. In addition, I believe that there is an unintentional stereotyping that the East has a feminine image.”
Bae’s art explores the process of trying to become accepted in another culture. “I try to become British just as a child pretends to be a mother by dressing in her clothes and making up with her cosmetics. The attempt to become British is to me what a child tries to do in dressing as an adult.” The gaucheness of the child’s effort to seem grown-up is intentionally present in Bae’s attempt to pass himself off as an English noblewoman of times gone by.
In most of the photographs Bae stares out at the viewer, his face sometimes expressionless behind the makeup, sometimes stern, his head held almost disdainfully erect. In one more thoughtful portrait, his adopted persona comes across as more vulnerable, his head tilted to one side, his gaze pensive and averted, with only his face made up. This is possibly the most enigmatic photograph, while undoubtedly his most timely is a portrait of him looking remarkably like Golden Globe winner Kate Winslet. Long golden-flowing locks, and slightly more delicate, sophisticated makeup adorn his face, but once again the massive hands rest awkwardly on the silver-gowned lap.
Existing in Costume runs at Purdy Hicks, 65 Hopton Street, Bankside, London SE1 9GZ until 7 February. Well worth a visit.