In the verb “to wait,” as in “waiting for the right moment,” there is a patient resolution. Artist Bae Sejin says that upon “super-temporal experiences,” one discovers that the sense of human accomplishment is attained through repeated action with in limited time. Bae has been producing artworks through laborious repetition, imprinting serial numbers on myriads of small ceramic tiles and piecing them together. During the interview, the artist noted that as we spoke, he was “stamping the 231,000th number.” This inscribed piece was attached as a part of a three-dimensional work in its final stages. Ten years have amassed while he came to reach this number.
Bae says he often asks himself, “What if we’re really all tied up?” like Vladimir and Estragon, the two indigent old men in Samuel Beckett’s tragic comedy Waiting for Godot, which is both the title and the running theme of Bae’s works. Then he says that on days when he falls into a trance while working, he unknowingly transcends time. “I often find myself working into the night, without even noticing that I’m hungry. When that happens, I come to think that the repetitive process of number ingtiny ceramic pieces, or the method of handling clay as an act of aligning human time with the nature’s time, really isn’t too far from the art of philosophy. Then I think the act of living itself must ultimately be a form of art. "Bae believes that a craftsman working with clay must inevitably synchronize himself with the time of nature.” (Quoted and translated froma prosaic definition by poet Kim So-Yeon.
<Waiting for the Godot 123840-125201>, 2015. 67x56x56 cm
You’ve had a restless series of years participating in Maison & Objet and Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design(SOFA)Fair in Chicago in 2014, the British art fair Collect and Paris Révélations in 2015, and being nominated as one of the 11 candidates for the Loewe Craft Prize at the Triennale di Milano’s Korean crafts exhibition in 2016.
Between the crafts market and the art market, the latter is far larger in scale, so I do have practical concerns about how to enter that market. I don’t put a taboo on making a living. I consider the business, the effort to sell work, an artistic virtue. It’s not that I place importance on immediate rewards like a support program, but I do believe it’s important to make an effort,taking such opportunities to create the next opportunity. Somewhere down that line, somebody will recognize my work, and that will in turn become a motivation for work.
You have adapted as the title and theme of your work, Samuel Beckett’s tragic comedy Waiting for Godot, which talks about the universal sense of “waiting” immanent in human life.
I thought that making something out of clay was in many ways similar to the context of the play. I started my work as an attempt to create an association between the nature of ceramic craft and the theme of the play, and surprisingly, it gave me an enormous sense of accomplishment. Maybe in my mind, Godot is clay itself, for it symbolizes endurance, repetition, transition, and circulation of time.
You mentioned that while you were learning how to do pottery, you realized it was the kind of work that could be mastered with effort and time, regardless of special talent.
Even though I’m no genius at producing something sensational on the spur of the moment, if assiduous and enduring labor could count as a talent, I thought I might have that. If I were more talented and able, I would have made pottery or paintings. Those who have been making traditional tea ware for a long time say that they see a whole universe inside a cup. To craft a tea set, you have to shovel up clay from the mountains, sift it and dry it with care, then knead it, mature it, spin it, carve the foot, then bake it in a firewood kiln for over a week, and even after all that effort, some would break and become of no use. If someone had repeated this process for 40, 50 years, I can believe it when they say that they see a universe in a cup. Pottery has that sense of strength. I don’t exactly work in the form of pottery, but I think in the lines of it, considering that they’re both solid records of accumulated time.
Bae Sejin is currently experimenting with smaller and larger scale models of his three-dimensional works and is planning to manufacture a custom-made numbering machine
Your work integrates craft, art, and design elements, but the more we talk, there’s a sense that your work should be approached philosophically, in terms of conceptual art, instead of technically.
I think it’s important to approach craft materialistically or technically. A craftwork can’t be accomplished in a day or two. It’s a battle with time—there’s time melded into any craftwork, and I thought I should create something that aggressively addresses that. I thought, maybe if I constructed a piece with a thousand, two thousand parts, that would show how much time has gone into it; no, maybe that’s not enough, maybe I should label each piece with a number from one to one hundred thousand, or a million, then people will recognize—that anything built with human hands, or any form of musical or choreographic performance is a pure condensation of time. Since society is so focused on the outcome, I thought I should actively illustrate the time taken in a process.
You use small ceramic pieces made from slabs. How did you come to decide on the medium and method of work?
The first assignment after I returned to school after military service was slabbuilding, and I got a good evaluation on the project. At the time, I used a rolling pin to hand-spread slabs, but now I use a rolling machine for uniformity. I mostly use paper clay, clay mixed with 10 percent of newspaper. Currently, I’m mainly working with pigmented white clay, but I also use buncheong (grayish-blue-powder).From time to time, I use chamotte, calcined clay, mixed with pigment grains, but I plan to use other types of clay as well. I press the slabsto even out the thickness, cut them into uniform lengths, then dry them, stack them in vinyl, break them into pieces, stamp them with serial numbers, then use slip to attach each one to create a certain shape.
The pieces almost look like stones—their texture exudes a unique aesthetic that adds to the physical beauty of the finished work.
If I were to cut the pieces with a knife, it would feel like that’s the end of it, whereas when I break them into halves, it could signify that there is another half somewhere. I broke the pieces from the beginning, based on the idea that everything has a connecting link—to allude that there is no certain end to this work, and that it’s all a segment of something larger.
<Waiting for the Godot 138283-142299>, 2015. 65x65x60 cm
The works shown at London Craft Week from May 9 to 13 seemed like a skirmish, suggesting experiments in scale.
I do have the desire to make something huge in scale,free from the limits of the kiln’s size. Instead of making the whole work out of clay, I could use other materials to build a structure or a frame to attach the ceramic pieces onto. I can’t exactly say when that would be possible.
Is there an artistic intention to the works with “directional” qualities?
Attaching pieces at a slant in a uniform direction can be more effective in conveying the message of time. The slant allows a better view at the numbers. I used to want to hide the numbers, thinking that the yare a dead giveaway, but these days, I intend to show them more. In terms of evoking curiosity—in this case, about the combinations of numbers—yes, the artist is responsible and his attitude is important, but the viewers also have an obligation. The numbers mean nothing if you glance at them and just move along. You have to pay attention to discover a unique point of view. In that sense, I think placing the numbers in better view can bring the audience a step closer.
<Waiting for the Godot 147911-151578>, 2017. 29x22x46 cm
<Waiting for the Godot 220855-221704>, 2018. 23x23x22cm
<Waiting for the Godot 164209-166027>, 2017. 55x40x28 cm
Internationally, you are working with the J. Lohmann Gallery in the United States, Mouvements Modernes Galerie in France, and Aubert-Jansem Galerie in Switzerland as hub galleries. Are there any upcoming exhibitions?
In July, I have an exhibition in Scotland. In August, there’s an exhibition in Beirut, and one in New York in September. Those are the most imminent events, and in Korea, I’m participating in KIAF this fall.
What is the ratio of your two-dimensional works to your three-dimensional works?
Numerically speaking, I produce a lot more two-dimensional works. Two-dimensional works don’t require preparation, and I just begin when there’s an issue because it doesn’t tend to take long. Three-dimensional works, on the other hand, can’t be started without preparation ahead of time.
Who is the most memorable collector of your work?
I remember a collector who purchased my work at SOFA Chicago. She bought a large piece fourteen thousand dollars at the time, and later, we emailed each other a couple of times. Once, she asked me about the logistics of the work, so my friends and I sent a video of us moving another piece as a guidance. She also sent me a picture of my work displayed in her home—she had put up the packing material on her wall as well because it had imprints from the weight of the work. She said they looked like one of my flat works, which was memorable.
<WFGF241 216428-216491>, 2018. 86x117 cm. The basic form of a two-dimensional workis contingent on the three dimensional work. Transposing the three-dimensional work seen from above yields a round-shape, and transposing the work from a side view yields a semicircle. Two-dimensional works in the form of horizontal or vertical lines are partial observations of the three-dimensional work. For two-dimensional works, serial numbers aren’t directly inscribed onto the ceramic pieces but recorded consecutively at the bottom of the paper
<WFG 101697-105173>, 2014. 75x104 cm
TEXT NAM-MI CHANG (Contents Director of magazine ARTMINE)
PHOTOGRAPHY WOO-JIN PARK (STUDIO KIMERA)
VOD SEUNG-HEON HWANG (VOD MANAGER of ARTMINING Inc.,)
IMAGES OF THE ART WORKS © SE-JIN BAE – ARTMINING, SEOUL, 2018
PHOTO © ARTMINING – magazine ARTMINE / WOO-JIN PARK
Bae Sejin graduated from Seoul National University College of Fine Arts as a design major, then completed the graduate program of the same school with a major in ceramics. As a teen, deciding to go to a vocational high school became a turning point in his life. Despite dissuasions from his parents and teachers, he chose to walk the path of his own choosing, and he now believes that “the choice was ultimately right” as he continues his life as an artist. In the midst ofthe college entrance examcraze, Bae put together a portfolio utilizing Photoshop, Illustrator, woodcut prints, and silk screens, receiving a high evaluation that admitted him to Seoul National University. Through cordial colleagues and teachers, he came to read the literary work of his life, Waiting for Godot, and with the title and ideas borrowed from the play, he is producing ceramic works that are gaining global recognition. www.baesejin.com