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Exhibition visit: Bae Chan-hyo – Punishment, at Purdy Hicks

Tomorrow is your last chance to see the first public showing of Bae Chan-hyo’s Existing in Costume series, this particular project bearing the subtitle Punishment. Earlier in the series, Bae has focused on fairy tale characters, or aristocratic western women, each time with Bae dressing in immaculate costume to pose for his self-portrait.

Existing in Costume - Henry VIII, (2012)
Existing in Costume – Henry VIII, (2012)
C-print, Edition of 3 180 x 230 cm, Edition of 5 153.1 x 120 cm, Edition of 7 102.2 x 80 cm

In Punishment, Bae chooses to focus on characters from English history – mostly those who met grizzly ends, usually by being beheaded. The exception in more ways than one is King Henry VIII (1491-1547), who dished out rather a lot of such punishments. Dressed as the portly king Bae looks strangely out of place: underweight and undersized, his legs seeming to dangle from the throne and his body not even having the bulk to make an impression on the royal cushion.

But dressed as other prominent characters from English History, Bae looks much more comfortable – if indeed one can use such a word to describe portraits of people about to meet their end. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489 – 1556) is deathly pale, the cruxifix on his chest beginning to burn in ghostly flames; Ann Boleyn (1501 – 1536) almost looks as if she has just returned from the dead, a livid scar on her throat could make you think her head has just been reattached. Other historical characters portrayed are Mary Queen of Scots (1542 – 1587), Guy Fawkes (1570 –1606), Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565 – 1601), King Charles I (1600 – 1649). All portraits have in common meticulous attention to detail in respect of costume and location, supporting characters looking on in grief (often female models dressed up as male characters, one or two were present at the opening of the exhibition) and a strange disembodied arm entering the picture stage left either threatening or offering a supporting hand to Bae who is playing the main character.

Witch Hunting (2013)
Witch Hunting [Triptych] 2013
C print, 230 x 540 cm

The work which dominates the show – Witch Hunting – is somewhat different. Posed outside a snowy Berkeley Castle in January 2013, the work (which was printed with amazing speed in order to be ready for the exhibition which opened in February) has no central historical character. Instead, Bae stands to one side, dressed as a 1930s socialite, gazes out of the right hand side of the triptych, disconnected from the action in the centre of the composition. The whole work, a massive 540cm long, has a surreal feeling, with the models frozen in melodramatic poses while in the centre it looks like a monk is about to be put to the sword. It’s a work which asks a lot of questions, and makes you want to return to pay it another visit.

But you only have another day, because the exhibition at Purdy Hicks closes on 23 March 2013.

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