A casual stroll through the River North gallery district in Chicago became a lesson in the stresses and fractures of modern day East Asia.
We were in Chicago for a long Memorial Day weekend. We walked to Water Tower Place a few blocks north of our hotel, and then over to the gallery district. It started to rain just as we ducked in to The Soup Box Restaurant on Chicago Avenue. The rain continued but wasn’t too heavy, so after we had lunch we walked the six blocks or so to the galleries. Our second stop became out last stop.
The Andrew Bae Gallery sits at the corner of Superior and Franklin, just underneath the purple line of the El. It consists of three rooms and features the work of contemporary Japanese and Korean artists.
I was drawn to three prints by the Japanese artist Tetsuya Noda (new to me, cretin that I am), produced on a mimeograph machine and printed on mulberry paper. They were beautiful simple pictures – a highway scene framed by sky and an overpass; a wrapped vase on a small pedestal; and a blue mattress on the floor, with a folder kimono and eyeglasses on it and shoes and a magazine of bullets next to it. They were beautiful prints. And the bullets with the mattress print had to do with what normal life is like in Israel (Noda met his wife when he was a young man and she was the daughter of the Israeli ambassador).
In the same small room were two sculptures by the Korean artist Seungchun Lim. What was immediately striking about both was that both had three eyes – beautiful pieces but not exactly what we might have considered for the living room.
I turned back to the Noda prints just as Mr. Bae entered the room. A native of Korea, he’s lived in the United States for many years, including two years in St. Louis, as it turned out. His training was as a chemist, but he gave it up because of his passion for art.
He proceeded to tell us about Tetsuya Noda, who had been a professor at the University of Tokyo until his retirement. His work has been featured in both San Francisco and at Chicago’s Art Institute. The three prints were part of a series, a diary of Noda’s life. Bae has an exhibition book from San Francisco, and showed us other prints and photos from the series.
And then he told us what Seungchun Lim with doing with his sculptures – telling the story of contemporary South Korea, which has gone through convulsive change in the last two generations, change that’s torn away with the traditional Buddhist religion and somewhat replaced it with Christianity; that’s seen capitalism’s outpacing of Christianity’s ability to temper ruthlessness and excess; where the traditional family structures have been fractured. Bae said that the big question that people ask in Korea had become “how many square feet is your apartment?”
In such a place, and at such a time, he said, you need three eyes. “The third eye is not the eye of wisdom,” Bae said. “It is necessary simply to see all of the change that is happening – just to see it, not understand it.” Both statues have injuries to their backs, suggesting the supporting structure of society is giving way.
“Our artists,” he said, “lead the way. They indicate what is coming.”
The last piece by the sculptor Bae discussed was simply a head – the face looking like that of a dead person peeking our underneath a kind of skull of jumbled houses. It told the same story as the other two but in a different way – the traditional idea of a home or a neighborhood has become a jumble of structures in a disordered society.
We talked with Mr. Bae for a good 90 minutes. Our simple stroll through the gallery district had become a lesson about art and culture and society.
It was still raining as we left.
Andrew Bae Gallery
300 W. Superior St.
Chicago, IL 60654