Park Sang Yu, aka Mo Bahc, aka Bahc Yiso (1956-2004)
The act of artmaking, for me, is in a way a process of justifying my endless doubts about everything by using images and materials. It is like I’m trying to maneuver in reverse mode into the vast and limitless field of “gap” among those already existing categories and meanings.
Bahc Yiso, Artist Statement, October 2000.
Since Bahc Yiso’s unexpectedly sudden death in April, a growing number of tributes and commemorations both in the States and in Korea have begun to assess his remarkable trajectory. Mo Bahc (his nom de guerre/art during his New York years and the name that I first knew him by) lived in Brooklyn for over a decade from his attendance at Pratt where he earned an MFA degree in 1985 until he returned to Korea in 1994. I first met Mo in the mid ‘80s shortly before I moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in search of cheap rent, just a few blocks from where Mo lived in a large loft of a huge warehouse building.
Greenpoint, also known as Little Warsaw since it was predominantly Polish, was then quite a backwater. While a few artists were scattered here and there, the warehouse—at the north end of the neighborhood overlooking the East River and Manhattan— housed the dominant concentration of artists. Through Mo, I met numerous Korean artists already living in the area or visiting from Korea. Mo’s studio was in many respects the center of their network and the warehouse itself was a hive of artistic energy.
Mo’s prominence in the art scene of Greenpoint and beyond stemmed in part from his gallery, Minor Injury, which he founded around 1986. Before the mass influx of artists and the gentrification of Greenpoint and Williamsburg beginning in the ‘90s, Minor Injury was the only art venue in this outpost neighborhood that was worth a visit. Mo operated this gallery with some public funding and he invited other artists and curators to organize exhibitions and activities. I organized two exhibitions there, one of which was a group exhibition about the Palestinian Intifada, which I co-curated with fellow artist Shirin Neshat. This exhibition and an accompanying symposium would have been nearly impossible to organize in mainstream institutions or venues due to the political sensitivity of the topic but Mo gave me free rein. Such was also the case with a Korean Min Joong Art exhibition, organized by Um Hyuk in 1987, that preceded a larger, similar exhibition at Manhattan’s Artists Space in 1988. Minor Injury was the first gallery to introduce this new cultural movement to a U.S. audience.
Sam Brinkley, a close friend during this period, recounted in a Mo Bahc obituary appearing in Block, a Brooklyn publication: “…His artistic world view could oscillate between the sobriety of a ‘60s minimalist and the irreverence of a graffiti kid. His art was his life and his asceticism spooked even the gnarliest of squatter punks. He refused such amenities as heat and hot water, comforting himself with ice showers in January and a diet of plain white rice and cheap Korean noodles from a ceramic bowl. But in spite of these spiritual pyrotechnics, Mo never really took himself all that seriously. Snatches of popular culture would lodge in his vocabulary and spring out at unexpected moments, and even strangers were treated to the sporadic licks of human beat box that Mo entreated us to over sessions of envelope stuffing and mail sorting.”
Mo was also a co-founder of the organization Seoro, Korean American Arts Network, which produced newsletters and activities in an effort to promote greater visibility for Korean American artists in New York. One of the organization’s most notable achievements was to successfully lobby the Queens Museum to organize the exhibition Across the Pacific: Korean and Korean American Art that included Korean artists in the U.S. and Canada (curated by Jane Farver) and Korean artists from Korea (curated by Young Chul Lee, a prominent curator/critic in Korea). The exhibition traveled to the Kumho Museum in Seoul and served to introduce some new Korean artists to both U.S. and Korean audiences. This was a landmark exhibition in that it was one of the first to deal with the Korean Diaspora, and to compare the perspectives of artists from both sides of the Pacific.
Although Mo’s decade-plus years in New York were productive in terms of his output and the number of exhibitions and significant funding he received, it’s also evident that he was not yet able to exercise his full potential as an artist nor achieve the level of recognition that he would receive after returning to Korea. One obvious obstacle was English as a second language. Although his english was more adequate than he gave himself credit for, Mo often expressed his frustration at his inability to fully participate in critical and cultural discourse in the U.S. in the same manner as he could in his native tongue—which I’m told was commandingly agile and witty.
His adopted name, Mo, in Korean means “nobody,” which was itself a wry and opaque response to his perceived position in the U.S. It’s interesting to note that the majority of his work during his New York period centralized Korean text and relied on language as a key pictorial and conceptual element. It would appear that in a foreign context Mo felt compelled to assert his difference and was actively mining references to his Korean heritage and culture.
A lot of his work got lost in translation to a U.S. audience. However, in my view, Mo often successfully exploited the risks of indecipherability, slippages of meaning and the orientalizing gaze. His work Speak American, exhibited at the Bronx Museum in 1990, was an exuberant and witty bilingual critique of the many multicultural stereotypes and concepts revealing a curious interpenetration between Korean and English languages. Mo occupied an uneasy position in the art world of the ‘80s, a highly circumscribed art scene that has come to be identified with Multiculturalism and identity politics. In spite of its noble goal to diversify American culture, the way it was managed served to balkanize everyone into five fixed, racially coded and competitive categories: African American, Asian American, Latin American, Native American and lastly, the all-pervasive and undefined category of White. As someone who came as a yuhakseng (college student), Mo didn’t self-identify as a Korean American or Asian American in the way that others did and yet the mainstream art world tended to conflate all categories of Asians in a homogenous grouping.
Godzilla, an Asian American arts network, conducted a survey for one of its newsletters in 1993, asking Asian American artists about their views on the efficacy or the necessity of Asian American or other ethnic specific exhibitions. Mo’s published response was that he participated in these kinds of exhibitions mainly because they were the only opportunities presented to him. His characteristically succinct and ironically pragmatic stance revealed an awareness that much of the reception of his identity and his work was viewed within this restrictive framework. In hindsight, Mo’s decision to leave New York during the mid ‘90s when Multiculturalism was in its wane was fortuitous. Mo found greater opportunities in Korea at a time when the Korean art scene began to enter a more international phase. Mo’s visibility as an artist steadily accelerated during his years in Korea with increasing international exposure culminating in his selection as one of three artists to represent Korea in the 2003 Venice Biennale. He was also well regarded for his teaching in two college art programs. During the latter part of his Korean years, he also adopted his final name, Yiso.
Two works by Mo have been posthumously realized by a number of his artist friends. One, a large billboard that simply asked, in Korean, “Are We Happy?” was shown at this year’s Busan Biennale in South Korea. Another highly ambitious project involving video cameras dropped from planes is planned for a future exhibition.It is a testament to the strength of Mo as a person and as an artist that he made a significant mark in two distinct artistic environments. His achievements and ability to position himself in both contexts deserve greater examination.
A few of Bahc Yiso’s recent works are currently on view in Past in Reverse: Contemporary Art of East Asia, San Diego Art Museum, San Diego, CA. (November 6, 2004–March 6, 2005).
Yong Soon Min is an artist living in Los Angeles. She is Chair of Studio Art Department at UC Irvine.