Bohnchang Koo: Shades of Being

© Bohnchang Koo ‘BM 07 BW’ The British Museum, London 2006 from the series ‘Vessel’

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

William Blake – Auguries of Innocence


What is the purpose of existence? The pursuit of meaning in its most fundamental form has troubled and beguiled artists and philosophers for millennia. For many thinkers it leads in one of two ways: out into the vastness of cosmology or inwards to the intimacy of individual being. The former finds us but a speck in a timeless infinity, the latter the perceptual centre of a personal universe.

For the Korean artist Bohnchang Koo, the personal pursuit of meaning began with images evoking genesis and Nature. But these were not the grand narratives of cosmogony. His was an equivocal demiurge racked by indecision, at the mercy of Fate. Choreographing symbols imbued with a fatalistic aesthetic, these early images gesture towards the ultimate precarity and transience of being.

His later work, which followed a significant creative hiatus, grew from a shift of gaze and perspective. He left behind the enormity of meaning to consider the slightness of being. As his focus became more precise, his images became lighter, airier, softly neutral. Dust collecting on a wall, the impressions made by household cutlery in a storage box, and, most significantly, the imperfections of traditionally made white porcelain vessels. Forms rendered in the softest of greys amid fields of impure white. Minimal, flawed, restrained.

It is in these humble objects and forgotten spaces, in the interplay of colourless light and shade, that Bohnchang Koo finds a creative vocabulary through which to consider the nature of Being. Of being introspective, of being impermanent, of being imperfect. But also of being part of a culture that, despite political and commercial colonisation, runs like mycorrhizal filaments beneath the surface, sustaining. At least for now. Wraithlike, the uncertainty of his earlier work still haunts the later, a reminder that while porcelain is enduringly hard, it is also fragile.

Alasdair Foster


Alasdair: When did you begin to make photographs?

Bohnchang: Initially, I studied business administration. But I could not be happy as a businessman, even though that was what people expected of me. I escaped to Germany and, reaching Hamburg, I began to realise how stimulating I found the visual world to be. As a child I had enjoyed painting. I had a school friend who knew a lot about photography and later my class teacher gave me a good mark for my photographs. In a way, these were all just coincidences, but that is what led me to go on to study photography.

I would like to start, appropriately enough, with the series called ‘In the Beginning’. What ideas were you exploring in this work?

I think our lives are continuous moments of decision. The difficulties and agonies of being human. I wanted to render those moments visually. Perhaps this work described my own uncertainty. As Shakespeare put it: to be or not to be…

The work is constructed in an unusual way.

When I made this series one could not get large sheets of photographic paper. So, I used 11×14 or 10×8 paper [28x36cm and 25x20cm] which I stitched together with a sewing machine to create a sheet about 130x90cm in size. In Korea, we have patchwork wrapping cloths called Bojagi (보자기). In the past, these were made from remnants of cloth and pieces of recycled clothing. With this in mind, I hoped that my sewn papers could suggest a sense of history.

Of all your work, it is the series that most clearly uses the visual language of gesture and symbolism. What did you want to communicate through those visual tropes?

The globe is a symbol of something desired but unobtainable. Many of the hand gestures suggest indecision. The empty hands reflect the way that, in the end, we own nothing.

In ‘Goodbye Paradise’ you contrast large blue prints of animals, birds and fish with small display boxes containing images of butterflies and dragonflies.

The blue prints look like cyanotypes, but they are in fact photograms made on C-type photographic paper. The images were taken from old zoological illustrations using 11×14 [28x36cm] paper from which I then made a negative. Those images were subsequently printed together on a large roll of paper. I used masks to create the red dots, which symbolise each animal’s fatal wound.

The boxes containing images of insects are reminiscence of displays in a natural history museum. I printed the images of butterflies and dragonflies using Japanese rice paper coated with photographic emulsion. Again, there is a sense of loss. These tiny creatures face many threats: natural disaster, human-made pollution, and over-cultivation of the land. In the earlier work, men hung suspended in empty space. Like these insects stuck with a pin and encased on a box, it seems there is no way out.

I think there is an anthropomorphic aspect to this. I remember a collector who bought my butterfly box later wrote to me to say that it helped save her from depression and loneliness. She said that she felt a sense of comradeship with those insects in their sad situation.

Those series are your most figurative. The later works move to a more minimalist sensibility and an interest in colourless tonality. Perhaps we could begin by talking about the series simply called ‘White’.

I worked on the theme of Life and Death for a long time. It was a time when my father had a serious illness. He died in 1996 and, with that sense of closure, I was able to accept the law of Nature that nothing is forever. We come and we go, and I should accept this simple truth.

For many years I could not make a new series. Then, one day, I observed the way dust had collected on an old wall. It opened my eyes to the beauty of emptiness. Slowly, I began to make the photographic frame more spacious and its content more minimal. ‘White’ is one of the series from that time.

The series ‘Vessel’ is for me perhaps your most quintessential as an artist. What is so special for you about these white porcelain pots?

The white porcelain vessels were made and used in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty [1492–1910]. There was a period of white porcelain in China, of course, but in Korea this spanned much longer, almost six hundred years. The white ware reflects Confucian values of frugality, humility and practicality. There should be no extreme desires. The rules of Confucianism do not permit the expression of emotion, requiring moderation at all times. White porcelain was made by hand and much of it, while functional, has an imperfect symmetry. In these qualities of modesty and pragmatism they are emblematic of the Confucianism of the Joseon society and, I believe, they reflect our collective soul. I decided to begin photographing White Vessels.

Why did you want to photograph them?

I wanted to capture the essentially Korean aesthetic sensibility of their modest simplicity and the sadness of their destiny.

The Japanese colonisation of 1910–1945 had marked the end of the Korean Kingdom. During the occupation, many of these historic ceramic vessels were exported or stolen. For the Japanese, used to everything made perfectly, it was the very imperfection of the vessels that made them desirable. As a result, many examples of Korean white ware are now in collections held in other countries. I visited many important museums both inside and outside Korea in order to photograph these vessels. In this way, I could at least bring their spirits home to Korea.

The large spherical vessels are very distinctive, for example ‘EW 01 BW’ [above left].

This kind of vessel is called a moon jar, because its shape and milky colour reminds us of the full moon. Moon jars are especially loved by Korean people. The full moon is associated with a kind of fulfillment, happiness. And, with its large scale and generous shape, it suggests it could contain many possibilities.

Why do you think this connection to Joseon white porcelain is so strong in Korea?

Chinese ceramics are generally glamorous and big. Japanese Vessels are perfectly designed and crafted. For me, the Korean white porcelain is like a woman without cosmetics – modest, natural, timeless. I think Koreans enjoy these ceramics regardless of their defects. They are a reminder of a time of stillness and spaciousness before the Japanese colonisation, the Korean war and the subsequent focus on modern industrialisation during which our traditions have been lost.

For me, the feminine white ceramics are like the women of the Joseon Dynasty who must hide their faces in public. There was no place for showiness, beauty could only be recognised by those who properly understood it. It is that understanding that I seek through my photographs.

I am a person who does not talk much, preferring to keep my words in my mind. Perhaps the character of these white vessels is like my own.

In the series ‘Objects’ you photograph what appear to be the impressions made by household items pressed into stiff fabric or paper, again white. What ideas are you seeking to express through this work? To me they speak of memory and perhaps the death shroud.

Yes. Correct. Memories and the death shroud. I am a little bit nihilistic. Just as my earlier work drew on themes of indecision and emptiness, so this work presents empty boxes which once contained objects but now have nothing left. I am thinking of my own life too. The meaning of Being. What traces and impressions our lives might leave…

[Left] © Bohnchang Koo ‘Object 04’ 2003
[Centre] © Bohnchang Koo ‘Object 05’ 2004
[Right] © Bohnchang Koo ‘Object 25’ 2016

I remember a conversation we had maybe a dozen years ago when you were speaking of the essential sadness of Korean culture. Something that lies under the surface, not immediately apparent but always there.

Your memory is correct. In my opinion, through its long history, Korea has struggled between two powerful countries, China and Japan. Our cities were invaded by those countries and later, in 1950, we had a war between the north and south. After that, we were under a dictatorship until the late 1980s. In these times we had many sad songs and poems. Of course, we have a dynamic business ethic and perhaps this is an attempt to forget those agonies. But, for my generation and that of my parents – who experienced the colonisation, war and dictatorship – I believe sadness and melancholy persist below the surface.

You have exhibited in many parts of the world, does the response to your work change from one culture to another?

I guess people who love stillness and the beauty of quietness can be found all over the world. I don’t think the response changes from country to country so much as from one kind of person to another, regardless of where they live.

In 2006, I had a big exhibition of the Joseon White Vessel series in Seoul. After that, white ware images became a popular theme for other artists and also for the public. As a result, the Ministry of Korean Culture began using Joseon white porcelain to promote tourism. You could say that I created a New Wave of Joseon white ware in Korea.

So, now it is possible for me to have this work exhibited in major museums overseas such as the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Philadelphia Museum, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, something that would never have happened before. I feel proud that, because of my photographs, there has been a re-evaluation of the importance of Korean cultural heritage.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of making these images?

I think it has helped me better understand the meaning of life and the value of being. Encountering the world through the lens and making images has allowed me to express my feelings. I discovered what it was that I could do, and that gave worth and purpose to my life.

© Bohnchang Koo ‘In the Beginning 10-3’ 1995-1996

Biographical Notes

Bohnchang Koo was born in Seoul in 1953. He has a B.A. in Business Administration from Yonsei University, Seoul (1975) and a Diploma in Photography from the Fachhochschule, Hamburg (1985). He was a professor at Kyungil University (2010–2018) and Kaywon School of Art and Design (2000–2001) and a visiting professor in Central Saint Martins at the University of the Arts London (1999). His work has been exhibited in many prestigious venues nationally and internationally including Samsung Rodin Gallery, Seoul; Kukje Gallery, Seoul; Goeun Museum of Photography, Busan; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts; Camera Obscura, Paris; and Kahitsukan Kyoto Museum of Contemporary Art.

His work is held in many public and private collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of Fine Art, Houston; the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea; and, in Seoul, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, and the Museum of Photography. Bohnchang Koo won the Lee Myoungdong Prize in 2000 and the Gangwon Documentary Prize in 2003, receiving the DongGang Photography Award in 2014. In 2013, he was the curator for the China and the ‘Far East’ section of Photoquai – the fourth World Image Biennale presented by the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. He currently lives and works in Seoul.

[photo: © M.G. Lee]

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.