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BAHC YISO, Capital=Creativity, 1996, acrylic on paper, 50 × 81 cm. Courtesy National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul/Gwacheon/Cheongju. 

Memos and Memories

Bahc Yiso

Also available in:  Chinese

In his MFA thesis, completed in 1985 at New York’s Pratt Institute, Bahc Yiso (1957–2004) recounts a parable about a group of four blind men. Each man “felt the different parts of the elephant and all four came up with different conclusions,” he wrote. “One blind man was not more right or more wrong than the others.” 

Known at different points of his life as Bahc Yiso, Bahc Cheol-ho and Bahc Mo, Bahc defies easy characterization. In addition to being an artist, he assumed the roles of curator, director, critic and, later, professor. “Memos and Memories” at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon provided an intimate portrait of the late artist, gesturing toward his multifaceted practice so that visitors, like the blind men, might piece together the parts to form some semblance of a whole.   

Conceived after the artist’s family donated 21 volumes of his archives to the museum in 2014, the exhibition centered on Bahc’s notes, sketches and other ephemera. These materials were interspersed throughout a chronological display of Bahc’s art that began with his graduate work at Pratt and ended with pieces created in the years leading up to his untimely death at the age of 46, such as his contributions to the Korea Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, which included mini-models of national pavilions installed outdoors that stood in contrast to the stability and grandeur of the surrounding national pavilions. Yet it is his earliest explorations in New York that capture with clarity and incisiveness the “mixed feelings, ambivalent emotions, hesitation and inconsistency” he once described as being at “the heart of matters of human existence.” 

Bahc moved to New York in 1982. A series of letters sent to his parents in Korea, though full of assurances that “there is nothing to worry about,” betray a young artist short on money and struggling to find his footing. Bahc’s economic situation informed the four-day performance Mo Bahc’s Fast After Thanksgiving Day (1984), represented in the show with a text-based score and a photograph of the artist walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, dragging an empty rice pot behind him. 

Many of Bahc’s early works used cheap and widely available materials such as paper and cardboard. In Capital=Creativity (1996), a take on Joseph Beuys’s Creativity=Capital (1983), the two reversed words, rendered simply in acrylic on paper, underscore Bahc’s critique of the excessive influence of money in the art world. After an internship at Artists Space in Lower Manhattan, Bahc founded an alternative space in Brooklyn, called Minor Injury. In a 1988 interview, he was quick to dismiss other art spaces that “seem to be more content to act as mediators between the avant-garde and the commercial system.” Minor Injury, which operated from 1985 until 1989, offered a platform for “artists who, for whatever reason, have not adapted to the existing system in New York.”

America isolated Bahc not just financially but culturally. “The language barrier is a great inconvenience—I can roughly understand, but the details and subtleties are utterly impossible,” he wrote in a letter to his parents upon arriving in New York in 1982. Bahc’s works from the period reflect the difficulties he encountered as an expatriate in the United States. One of the standout works in the exhibition was Learning American (1993), a single-channel video recording of a program titled “Practical English Through Music.” Featuring a woman performing a sing-along of potentially useful English phrases such as “Hello, someone’s breaking into my store” and “Oh my! Call the police” while a man strums a guitar, the work lampoons the earnestness with which Korean immigrants studied the English language and American customs, as well as the oddity of the assimilationist products available to them. 

Bahc returned to Korea in 1994, where he taught at the Samsung Art and Design Institute, among a number of other institutions. Though he is perhaps best remembered today for introducing postmodernist discourse to a younger generation of Korean artists, “Memos and Memories” made a compelling case for Bahc’s nuanced artistic practice—one that continues to be relevant 15 years after his death. 

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