Hyongryol Bak: Views Beyond Utility

© Hyongryol Bak ‘Captured Nature – Sea #2’ [detail] 2012

I seek to evoke the vitality of continuously changing natural and human landscapes without defining them.


We are sensual creatures. Our experience of the world is wholly mediated by our perception of the way things seem to be. We must interrogate the world in terms of surface – the way it looks, feels, sounds, smells, tastes… but we aspire to understand not simply the surface but the essence. We seek to understand the nature of being. Yet the nature of being, while fundamental, is also fundamentally abstract. And as such, it is open to be thought about in different ways. As our species evolved and early hominins began making tools, harnessing fire and, in time, developed agriculture and architecture, the environment became reframed as a resource. While, for millions of years, our ancestors lived in balance with Nature, human ambition shifted in modern times from coexistence to dominion. Land was reconceptualised not simply as terrain but in thrall to two dominant organising principles: politically as territory and commercially as property. A domain or asset to be owned, exploited, and bent to the human will.

It is in the space between the sensual and the exploitative that the work of the Korean artist Hyongryol Bak finds its genesis. In his early work he satirises the futility of capitalist notions of property when set against the enormity and mutability of the natural environment. In his later series he draws on our sensual responses to shape and texture to intervene in the landscape in ways that nonetheless avoid direct utility. Waste ground is briefly reformed in aesthetic constructs that echo the shapes of human technological artifice while resisting functionality. Although each temporary construct has a precise organising principle, it seeks to be neither territorial nor proprietary but rather to open up the land to a new sensual awareness. A fresh perspective from which to contemplate the nature of being.

Alasdair Foster

© Hyongryol Bak ‘Figure Project – Earth #59 (1,2,3)’ 2016


What drew you to the themes that you pursue in your work?

I value experience and observation in art. Living in the city, I saw an ironic relationship in the attitudes of people towards nature. My work began with a series of projects in which I chose a natural environment and somehow attempted to conquer or possess it. (As if such a thing were possible.)

Your work involves a number of art practices – performance, installation, land art, and photography. Of these, what is it draws you to photography and how do you use it in relation to the other creative practices?

I make temporary interventions in natural environments which I then record as photographs. These interventions begin with the physical and material characteristics of each natural place within which I then create performances, sculptures, and installations. Since these actions are temporary and the ground is reinstated afterwards, the photograph functions, as with many types of land art, as a record – the evidence of an action. It is ‘indexical’ – it points to an action when the action itself is no longer available – while itself becoming a contemporary art image.

[Left] © Hyongryol Bak ‘Captured Nature – Tree #4’ 2011
[Right] © Hyongryol Bak ‘Captured Nature – Snow #1’ 2010

How did ‘Captured Nature’ begin?

This project is in two parts. The earlier of the two series presents various actions that suggest the dominant relationship humans adopt in relation to nature. We see people trying to control or restructure nature, yet the futility of their activities reveals the irony of human beings trying to possess that which they cannot own. For example, in ‘Captured Nature – Tree #4’ [above left] two people pull in opposite directions on a tree growing in a natural environment. One pulls with black threads, the other with white. It creates a formal and figurative composition that visualises the vain competitive desire to capture and control nature, symbolised here in a single tree.

The word ‘captured’ has various meanings in today’s world. What is it you wish to suggest through the use of this word?

We might say that nature is captured by human beings, removing it from its environment. This might be the action of a hunter, or it might be the more conceptual capture of an environment to be understood as a ‘landscape’. But we also use the term to describe how we take things we find online to store in our personal computer. I thought that the act of indiscriminately and ruthlessly taking possession of images on the Internet was similar to the way we now seek to own nature.

You can see this idea in ‘Captured Nature – Snow #1’ [above right]. The image was shot in an area where it snows a lot. We see people making small round bundles tied with twine, taking possession of the snow. The irony being that the snow will soon melt and trickle away as water. It cannot be owned.

[Left] © Hyongryol Bak ‘Captured Nature – Sea #2’ 2012
[Right] © Hyongryol Bak ‘Captured Nature – Tree #7’ 2012

How did your ideas develop in the second part of ‘Captured Nature’?

In the latter part, I approached the idea of possessing in compositions that involved urban colours, geometric shapes, and perspectives associated with the built environment. In ‘Captured Nature – Sea #2’, for instance, a human-centered view of the sea is expressed in a combination of installation and performance. Transparent acrylic sheets in cyan, magenta, and yellow were installed on the beach. They are all the same size and arrange to set the person looking through the yellow pane at the focal point of the perspective. Thus, the sea is reduced to a mere object within the landscape, viewed from and subordinate to the human point of view.

[Left] © Hyongryol Bak ‘Captured Nature – Earth #9’ 2012
[Right] © Hyongryol Bak [Upper] carving the numerals; [Lower] the site from ground level

You also begin, in this second part of the series, to carve into the surface of the land. For example, in ‘Captured Nature – Earth #9’.

That work was made by carving the shape of each numeral in relief in an area of open ground, removing a layer of earth around them to leave the numbers themselves as elevated sections. Each number was designed to have an area of exactly 3.3 square meters, which in Korea is a land measurement of thirty-six square Korean feet called a pyeong. The work reflects upon the way in which humans reduce land to numbers, as quantities to possess. This more metaphorical composition connects ‘Captured Nature’ with the work that followed in ‘Figure Project’.

© Hyongryol Bak ‘Figure Project – Earth #21’ 2013

Why did you call that next series ‘Figure Project’?

The title has the meaning of a figure-study, a study of forms. In this case it juxtaposes the forms of nature and the forms which humans keep creating within it. The land here is waste ground awaiting development. It is untouched land that has not been shaped to a human use or aesthetic. My method is to create geometrical and stereotypical forms using threads and by cutting into the surface of the land. It is a metaphorical approach that suggests the imposition of the human, urban forms of straight lines and rigid shapes onto the organic earth.

The point of view also changes from eye level to looking down from above.

Most of the work is taken with a large film camera from thirty or forty metres up, using a sky crane. Looking down on the land from above creates a relationship where you can view the land ‘face-to-face’. You can see the countenance of the land in a new way. From this perspective the carvings into the land and the threads stretched across it appear like engraving or embossing.

These works are not all of the same scale. Some are very large while others are quite small. Seen from above it is not always easy to see which is which.

[Left] © Hyongryol Bak ‘Figure Project – Earth #72’ 2017
[Right] © Hyongryol Bak ‘Figure Project – Earth #70’ 2017

What happens to the land after you have taken the photograph?

These are temporary interventions. After recording it with a photograph, I make sure to return the ground to its original state. The threads are removed, the dug ground is filled in. Nothing is left of the intervention other than the photograph. This reflects the approach made by many land-art projects in the 1960s and 1970s, which were by their nature temporary. I do not consider the temporary intervention on the land as the only object of my work but seek to maintain a lasting relationship with it through the photograph. Here the photograph is not simply the record – the indexical evidence – but also part of the expanded function of the medium in creating contemporary art images.

These projects take time to prepare. How do you negotiate the weather in terms both of the physical state of the ground and the changing light at the point of photographing?

I visit the site several times before I begin the work, to check the characteristics of the land and the direction and intensity of light. The appearance of the ground changes depending on the quality of the light and the physical characteristics of the land such as moisture, temperature, and so on. If we carve the land the day after it rains, the layers below it reveal other characteristics that we did not discover when the land was dry. The direction and intensity of light also changes the way the ground appears, which of course is something consciously used in photography.

[Left] © Hyongryol Bak ‘Figure Project – Earth #69’ 2017
[Right] © Hyongryol Bak ‘Figure Project – Earth #71’ 2017

Art in the west has tended to conceive of Nature differently than in east Asian cultures. The former in terms of idealisation and objectification, the later in terms of harmony. How do you approach your engagement with nature?

Philosophically, my creative process is closer to Goethe’s approach to ecology which emphasised intuition and imagination. I ‘empathise’ with the land by touching its texture and experiencing its ever-changing nature. By continuously observing and experiencing nature, we become aware of its diversity and expansiveness. We realise that it is foolish to try to define it in taxonomic terms. In my work, through observation and reflection, I seek to evoke the vitality of continuously changing natural and human landscapes without defining them.

Is there an irony in the fact that the photograph of the mudflat becomes more aesthetically interesting through your intervention of carving into it? How do you control the aestheticising effect of translating Nature through Art?

The areas I work on are easily accessible, but it is a ground that ‘does not look like much’. It is neither picturesque nor landscaped, so it tends to be ignored. In other words, the land I am interested in is land that has nothing to do with development logic and utility value. The sculpted land, seen in a specific light and photographed from a bird’s-eye view is revealed in a new and unexpected way. The image of the land in the photograph no longer belongs to a category that people define under the logic of capital and the human desire to capture and possess nature. It goes beyond that. While it is true I am imposing a territorial marking on the land made at my discretion, this is quite different from formative beauty associated with utility value. The image cannot be defined or characterised by existing customs or commodified ideas. Viewers must seek new ways to understand and define these land images for themselves.

[Left] © Hyongryol Bak ‘Figure Project – Earth #75-2 (from the cracks in the stones of the 37°11’34.2″N, 126°39’37.3″E)’ 2018
[Right] © Hyongryol Bak ‘The stones of the 37°11’34.2″N, 126°39’37.3″E’ 2018

Tell me about the second part of ‘The Figure Project’ ‘Performance’. Can you describe the two sets of images that make up this work and their relationship.

This work was made on the reclaimed land that borders the West Sea [also known as the Yellow Sea]. In the first of each pair of images, human figures and lengths of cloth are arranged into a pattern, viewed from high above the ground. In the second image of each pair, we see a stone cracked by a heavy blow, and we recognise that the formation adopted by the figures on the ground echoes that of the cracks in the stone while, at the same time, trying to fill them.

These two sets of images create another form of territory that goes beyond the dominant capitalist logic. This pays careful attention to the ruptures in the landscape while seeking ways to recover them visually, presenting human beings in an abstracted echo of natural elements.

© Hyongryol Bak ‘Figure Project – Earth #39’ 2014

In discussing this ongoing, increasingly unequal, relationship between humankind and nature you have posed the rhetorical observation: “We have never asked nature what it thinks and if it is alright.” If one was to give Nature a voice, how do you think it might respond to that implicit question?

Nature, of course, cannot speak. But, if it could tell a story, it would be about the important difference between the flow of time in nature and that perceived by humans, and the confusion that arises from randomly mixing up the two. Nature reveals great variety in tens of thousands of changes every day, but the human perspective ignores such diversity, viewing and judging it as simple and uniform. What if we did not just look at the nature, but rather took the time to listen to it?

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

It is easy to make an error in understanding the nature of something if we only look at it with our eyes and judge it purely rationally. I have learned the importance of looking at nature from a variety of perspectives and not assuming there is just one way to see it. I have also come to reflect upon the relationship between the artist and the artwork in a society that places more importance on the finished result than the actions by which it was created.

© Hyongryol Bak ‘Captured Nature – Earth #12’ 2012

Biographical Notes

Hyongryol Bak was born in Seoul, Republic of Korea, in 1980. He has a bachelor’s degree in photography from Seoul Institute of the Arts (2009), and a master’s degree in fine art from Korea National University of Arts (2012). His work has featured in sixteen solo and forty-five group exhibitions across Korea and in Belgium, France, Netherlands, and the USA. His work is held in prestigious public collections across Korea including (in Seoul) The National Museum of Contemporary Art, The Museum of Photography, Seoul Museum of Art, and Sungkok Art Museum; and also, GoEun Museum of Photography (Busan) and Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art (Ansan). He has won a number of awards including the Grand Prize for Public Art presented by Public Art magazine, Korea (2012); the Daum Prize, Geonhi Art Foundation, Seoul (2015); and the Artist for Tomorrow prize, Sungkok Art Museum, Korea (2022). His book, ‘Unseen Land’ was published by Iannbooks in 2019. Hyongryol Bak lives and works in Seoul.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.