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b. 1950, South Korea

Bae Bien-U Biography

Calm and poetic, Bae Bien-U's photographs contemplate the relationship between humanity and nature. Bae is most known for works featuring pine trees and landscapes specific to South Korea, but his practice also includes photographing architecture.

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Bae Bien-U's first photographs date back to the 1970s, when he began using analogue cameras. Since 1980, the artist has favoured high-resolution photographs, creating clear, crisp images of nature that produce a sense of immersion. Bae's works are mostly large-scale and black-and-white, although he also produces small-scale and colour photographs.


Sonamu, which translates to pine tree in Korean, is arguably the oldest and most recognisable of Bae Bien-U's subjects. While pine trees are common throughout South Korea, the artist's favourites are located in the Gyeongju mountains.

Bae captures the meditative and sometimes eerie atmosphere of pine trees through an interplay of light and dark. The trees appear as darkened pillars surrounded by dense forest in SNM1A-101H (2006), while they are more airy, almost magical entities in SNM5A-036H (2019), in which soft, hazy light pools through the winding trunks.

In traditional Korean culture, the pine tree is a culturally loaded symbol. It is considered to be a conduit between heaven and earth, and is celebrated for the association between its evergreen leaves and loyalty. In his careful, decades-long study of the pine tree, Bae investigates the transience and permanence of human life and the environment.


Bae Bien-U has applied the quietude of his landscape photography to architecture, notably with his 'Jongmyo' series. Begun in 1995, the year the Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the series consists of black-and-white and colour photographs of the Confucian shrine dedicated to the kings and queens of Joseon dynasty. One poignant image, JM1A-007HC (1997), offers a symmetrical view of the shrine's architecture, viewed from under a roof, with the pale blue sky the same colour as the snowy ground.

In 2006, Bae was the first Korean artist to hold a solo exhibition at Madrid's Thyssen Museum, which led to the Spanish government commissioning Bae to photograph the Alhambra Palace. For the following two years, he visited Granada every season to capture the changes in light and colour on film.


Bae Bien-U studied at Seoul's Hongik University, receiving his BFA in 1974 and MFA in 1978. He led a long career as an educator, beginning at the Seoul Institute of the Arts (1981–2015) and going on to teach at Suncheon University (2015–2016), both in South Korea. Between 1988 and 1989, Bae was also part of the research faculty in the Photograph & Design Department at the University of Applied Sciences Bielefeld in Germany.


Bae Bien-U has exhibited internationally, with solo exhibitions including Boundless Union (a joint-show with Kwon Dae-Sup), Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong (2021); Bae Bien-U – L'Esprit du Lieu, Musée de la Mer, Cannes (2016); Dans le paysage, Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain, Saint-Etienne Métropole, France (2015); Bae Bien-U: Between Island and Forest, Gwangju Museum of Art (2015); Bae Bien-U, Art Sonje Museum, Gyeongju (2011); and Bae Bien-U, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul (2009).

Selected group exhibitions include Guangzhou Image Triennial 2021, Guangdong Museum of Art (2021); Into the Woods: Trees in Photography, Victoria & Albert Museum, London (2017); Public to Private: Korean Contemporary Photography since 1989, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul (2016); PROPORTIO, 56th Venice Biennale (2015); A Homage to Korean Architecture – Wisdom of the Earth, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul (2015); The Aged Future, Culture Station Seoul 284 (2012); The Wind in the Pines: 5000 Years of Korean Art, Hermitage Art Museum, St. Petersburg (2010).

Bae Bien-U's website can be found here.

Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021

Bae Bien-U Recent Exhibitions

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Bae Bien-U Represented By

Axel Vervoordt Gallery contemporary art gallery in Hong Kong Axel Vervoordt Gallery Antwerp, Hong Kong

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