Son Bong Chae Versus Leonardo Da Vinci.
By Doug Stuber
Originally published in the Gwangju News.
There is great art to be found in the world, but few have achieved the aesthetic, critical, popular and commercial success of Son Bang Chae (born 1969). Son’s work has been shown by the Michael Shultz Gallery in Berlin at the prestigious Art Basel jamboree and at the Art Basel Miami. To be the representative of a major gallery at two major art fairs in the world is about as high as you can get in the art world, but Son also has works owned by four different museums. He has built a career on defying norms, with work that should outlive his grandchildren in popularity. So putting him up against the canonized genius Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) may seem outrageous, but it is not.
Leonardo Da Vinci never wrote a title, or a pamphlet, or even gave a hint about what Mona Lisa was thinking when she posed with that smile the world knows. He did not because thankfully, conceptual art had not been invented yet, so every viewers can have his or her own opinion about what the art represents. Just as Marcel Duchamp cleverly never told us what we were supposed to think when he hung up a latrine or, ahem, an old bicycle, neither did Da Vinci. We have to figure it out for ourselves.
Son’s work would be some of the best landscapes by a traditional Asian artist even if he made them on one panel or with ink on rice paper. As it is, Son paints for over 2,000 hours to create one work that uses 5 to 12 panels and varying small squares to stretch the length of any size room, from a big room at the Gwangju Museum of Art to a living room size to any-museum-in-the-world size. These sights are spectacular, especially in the way that the depth also exudes the feeling of fog in the mountains, the importance of the dimensionality of trees and the insanely fine-detailed work that makes oil on plexiglas look like watercolor or ink on paper. This technical achievement alone ranks Son among the top living artists.
Chae expects us to understand that the trees in his paintings represent the world’s diasporas. The trees, each an individual, become rooted overseas and cannot ever go home, since trees – unless cut or used for lumber – generally live out their lives, fall down and rot. Philosophically, one can easily agree that to be in a foreign country permanently can be isolating and lead to yearning for familiar ways. But why are Son’s landscapes not able to speak on their own? Why can he not just let his viewers make their own stories from his art, the way Da Vinci does?
Once an artist explains exactly what she or he means by his or her art, especially when it is a leap as far as this one, it takes away the viewer’s ability to create a narrative out of the story. Compare Son’s work to that of Edward Hopper (1882-1967), the U.S. artist who famously painted cityscapes with people so vapid as to be interpreted as a hint at the lack of privacy and meaninglessness in an urban existence. We as viewers do not have to see it Hopper’s way and many choose not to do so. Many love the works without having that point of view.
With his technical prowess, if Son wants to show us the lives of migrants, then he should paint the lives of migrants. For instance, what would be the harm in painting the true story of the Daecheon migrant, or depicting an imported urban wife so battered that the husband did not even show up at the divorce trial? Why not depict that husband’s easy life, free from jail time despite having laid on such a battering? How about a painting of 20 men living in one room, while one woman cooks and cleans for all of them so that they might be able to send 70 percent of their meager wages back to Mexico or the Philippines? Or a painting of the long hours worked at the “DDD” jobs that few Koreans will take? Son could easily depict a man falling off a building, not yet complete, at a construction site. But Son does not create these types of paintings.
To show the real lives of migrants would take away from their aesthetic beauty. So Dear Reader, please accept that Son’s trees are capable of showing us the entire lives – the good, the bad, the fun and the difficult – which migrants have experienced around the world. You can also see them and be amazed at the works, melting into the landscapes and starting to imagine yourself walking along Mudeung Mountain with Son, stopping on the way to fill a tea pot with mountain stream water, build a fire, boil the water and sip freshly-picked April tea from Jiri Mountain.
You just cannot break bread with a tree, though. And in this sense, I “get it” about foreigners in Korea. Many are welcomed on the same levels that humans welcome trees into their lives: barely noticed, from afar, useful as fruit bearers, ondol fuel or lumber.