“Have you seen my BANANAS yet?” – A conversation with Baek, a budding Korean artist
It seems Hyang-Mok Baek, South Korea-born, 25-years old artist, never had a proper introduction to bananas.
Tasting his first banana only a year ago when he resolved to buff himself up, Baek realized how hard it is to keep its golden color.
Baek put his first-ever banana into the fridge with a smile, thinking
‘Oh yeah, these bananas will be fresh for me tomorrow morning!’
Alas, next morning, he found that the bunch sneaked out to a tanning room over the night.
Bright yellow color was completely gone. They all turned into mix of brown and black!
Next batch, he put on the table, but found bruises on spots that held the weight.
“I loved banana’s deep-yellow color but then realized it was so sensitive,” Baek said.
“On the surface, it looks tough with it’s not-so-thin skin, with its beautiful yellow color.
But you gotta put them in room temperature and hang it somewhere, by itself, so it does not get bruises.
And this made me realize that twenty-somethings, like me, in Korea are like bananas.”
“When you are about twenty-something years old, you are naturally pretty, and of course young, strong, confident, and about to embark on something bigger than yourselves. But we are also most prone to get our feelings hurt. We are just out of school, or any other forms of comfortzones that we are so used to. Whatever people or society says to you, it’s hard to ignore or let go.
So I wanted to draw people I love, painting bananas as medium”
Kobe met Baek at Gana Space Gallery, where he had his first exhibition, in Insadong, a town known for numbers of galleries that exhibit works of rising and mature artists in Korea.
Now 25, Baek had his first exhibition. He says he is still too yellow, that he wants to ripen and be sweet.
[Q. How was preparing for your show?]
B: Since I chose banana as my focus of contemplation and started painting more than hundreds of them in my studio, all my friends and acquaintances started sending me boxes of banana, banana milk, and all different kinds of banana-flavored snacks that you can imagine.
At one point, I was like, ‘shit, I wish I drew steak. Then I would be having fillet mignon all day everyday haha.
Overall, preparing for the show was fun, but there were definitely hard times. I felt like I put myself into studio 24/7, sort of like a prisoner.
But I absolutely loved it there. Creating and creating…
Bananas are wearing suits, t shirts, hoodies, and hats. They got facial expressions.
These are personified-bananas of people that Baek loves.
B: So yeah, I wanted to paint people I love, in portraits.
So first, here are little ones. There are my family members, good friends, nuns… And characters in the movie that I love.
Then I wanted to do them in bigger size, and I made few changes.
In small portraits, they got facial-expressions. But here, in bigger portraits, face is composed with chips of color. I believe that colors are subjective. What I mean by that is, when you see color red, what comes to your mind is different from what comes to my mind, depending on one’s experience with red.
For someone, red might bring up feelings or images of love, for some blood, or warmth. Blue might bring up feelings of cool breeze, bright sky, or feeling blue.
So, I wanted to combine various colors, paint them only in lines and dots, and let viewers interpret the expression of each banana.
[This one was absolutely hilarious. I stared at it for awhile, thinking about the freedom the banana with sun-glasses must be, enjoying and what seems to be his Grim Reaper of the Ocean, approaching him. And no bananas are actually trying to help him.. All are just in gasp and screaming “Ohhhhhh noooo~~!!!!”]
B: After college, like everyone else, I got into job search, and with luck, I got into a good company. I thought,
‘well, I guess this is where I will try to go up the ladder.’
But, I felt something was wrong.
I was not satisfied at all, just ‘doing work’ at a place that I am supposed to be happy because the place was respected in the society and people around me thought I was a big shot.
So I said to myself that I shall do what I really want to do.
And it was painting. So, ‘Okay, let’s paint.’
And I quit my job, and all my friends were like,
‘You are doomed.’
‘Dude, you took a wrong turn…’
So the shark is expression of these cautionary and spirit-scraping words that people around me threw at me. I was confident with my decision, so I am deep into the ocean, away from the mainland.
Meanwhile, my friends are peacefully hanging out near the mainland with ducks, and only giving me caution with words, about what it seems to be a shark.
But you know, what seems to be a shark could not be a shark.
It could be someone just fooling around, or if it is a shark, it might not eat me, you know?
It might say, ‘shit, this banana doesn’t smell so good, move on to the bunches over there’ or
‘ah, a banana having a jolly time. i will let it have its fun.’
[I went to the gallery alone, and I LOLed. Right next to me, there were girls who came with friends, and were LOL-ing together. ‘Haha! It’s named 19-Geum.’ The title 19-Geum did a great job. ‘Geum’ in Korean means ‘banned’. So 19-Geum means anyone under 19 years old is banned/prohibited/not-allowed. It’s put on movies or songs that include sexual or violent content or explicit swears.]
B: You know, people often joke about banana because it looks like penis.
I wanted to highlight the humorous nature of the jokes, painting banana as it is.
I used general skin color of Koreans on the background, and peeling a bit and a bit in each successive drawings, I wanted to make people laugh.
[Q. What types of works will you be doing after the exhibition?]
B: There are some more emotions and things that I want to show through bananas. In the future, I want to do some filmmaking, what I studied in college, and some installations; but for now, I want to do some more paintings.
[Q. I am sure there had been difficult times while you prepared for the exhibition. What kept you going? Who are people you talk to, places you go to, or memories you go back to?]
B: Yeah, absolutely.
When I was preparing for the exhibition, I spent 5 to 6 days in the studio. Barely going outside.
And when I do that, I would be tired of looking at my own paintings. I just want to stop looking at them. They looked like shit, and I didn’t know if I am doing it right.
Every artist has her own style and work towards it.
But since I am looking at only my paintings, I would be like,
‘Huh, is it okay to paint the way I do? Is my style right?’
Well I do not believe that there is a perfect formula in painting, but I would start thinking there is one, and I start feeling anxious that I might not be following that formula, you know.
So when this happens, I go out and go to galleries.
And when I see works of other artists, they look amazing.
Paints are splashed, there are abstract forms… and honestly I do not understand them, but they say ‘This is A and B and X and Z…’ and they all look so cool.
And I think ‘Shit, do I need to do it like that?’
And I think ‘Oh man, my painting is rubbish.’ And I get into deeper slump.
But then, I get myself up and go to more galleries. I just go out and see every works out there.
Then, I see that there are so many different works out there.
And I realize that ‘Yeah, that’s right. There are all these different types of paintings, and different people like them. There are people who like A and there are people who like B.’
When I spent too much time by myself in the studio, it is hard to think this way.
So yeah, when slump happens, I go out and see works of others, and get that peace and juice back into my system.
Oh and I love watching movies.
And it’s same with movies. There is hardly a movie that everyone likes, you know.
If some people like the movie, some will probably dislike it.
Everything on Earth has its own lovers and enemies, you know.
So I think ‘Of course there will be some people who might not like my works’ and let that fear go, and think ‘But also, there are people who like it’ And that helped a lot.
I think that I am still very young. So when I show my works to people, when I doubt about my painting’s style, comparing to really complex and abstract works of more known or older artists, I say to myself,
‘Well, I am still young, and I want my paintings to look like they are done by a young artist.
If I express emotions and feelings I really feel as a twenty-something in my works, there will be people who resonate with them on personal level.’
So instead of complexity and abstraction, let’s be honest.
Then my style came out to be what you see here.
I love it when people look at my stuff and smile and laugh, having a good time.
[Q. You said twenty-somethings got that deep-yellow color of bananas. Can you tell us more about what you mean by that?]
You know, I wrote that we – twenty-somethings – are like bananas with ‘deep-yellowish’ colour. And you know, these bananas with deep yellow color are not so tasty.
I learned that half-way into my first box of banana. Ones with few bruises and soft spots, had much more sweetness in them.
I feel that we have this deep, yellow colour that is pretty on the surface, but still unripe.
I see that we are all just starting to ripen.
I see myself as a yellow banana, quite fancy on the surface, but not really ‘sweet’ yet.
I want to prepare and ripen, so I can be really sweet.
Also, my friends, who got regular jobs going or who make music or arts, we are all not so known yet, and hustling every day, to be ripe, you know.
So I wanted to throw a message like, we are beautiful, but since we are not ripe yet, let’s prepare and ripen.
[Q. This was your first exhibition, and it probably works as your first-step into the world of arts in Korea. Is there anything that you wished you knew about this field beforehand?]
Well, yeah, this is my first exhibition, a debut show, I guess.
The first thought was this.
Well, the arts industry in Korea is getting bigger, but I never knew it is still so small.
And that makes it very difficult for young artists like me to break out and to be known. That door is very slim in Korea.
I believed in hard work and if an artist has faith in her work, she can do well.
Well, I was really lucky to have my own exhibition.
But when I look at my friends around me who do arts, I see how difficult it is to be a young artist in Korea.
Looking back, I was really lucky. I just didn’t know much about the world of arts here, so I was very daring.
I just asked people around and told them exactly what I wanted and needed, thinking, ‘It will happen, right?’ in my mind.
So yeah, these days I am seriously thinking about studying in USA or somewhere in Europe.
I saw that art scene is more in the public domain in these places than in Korea.
I feel that only few people enjoy going to galleries and seeing works of art. I’m not saying that everyone in USA or Europe do enjoy arts. It’s just that more percentage of population seems to seek arts, and they approach paintings more casually I think
Well, professors I know tell me that I can study in Korea, but I want to dig more and see what’s out there.
I need to find schools that do great job in teaching things I want to learn.
[The moment I saw these, I just wanted to take them with me. But a red-dot sticker was on its nameplate… they were all sold. I was devastated]
[Q: I love that this piece did not just portray rainbow, good feelings of being in love. Falling in love makes one feel powerful, humbled, and human, but it also requires commitment, confusion, and navigating new challenges. Your pieces portray both sides of being in love really well, with humorous touch.]
B: I wanted to put in erotic feeling, and also show both-sides of being in love.
I also added some wit to it, so that people will find it witty and have some good laughs.
The heart could be a male, or the banana could be a male.
I wanted the painting to be delightful, while showing more than one side of being in love.
[Yeah, being in love is not always happy. There will be some pain and sacrifice…]
Yeah I also do not think it is all just happiness when you are in love.
It’s a good thing, falling love, you know, but it also comes with some aching.
So I wanted to have some blood coming out.
You also got to be patient, so when love is coming through you, you can let it be.
[Yeah. The face expression is… not happy but also not sad or doomed.]
Yeah, It’s like ‘Huh, what the hell is this? What did I get myself into?’
Is the banana stuck there, fell in there, does it want to get out of there or stay there,
what shall it do?
And this one is holding the heart, will he keep it there, or get it out?
[Q. You’ve seen Aladdin, the movie? ‘Yeah, of cousre!’ Haha, great. You go back to your studio today, and Genie shows up, and tells you your three wishes will be fulfilled. What would these three be?]
Haha, well. First, wish, if I could have it fulfilled.
I would love to have a permanent space where I can show my works to people.
In Korea, I would love to see more galleries introducing works of young artists.
Second wish would be financial freedom when I buy materials for my work.
When I am shopping for brushes and paints, I no longer want to tell myself,
‘Ah, I want to use that brush, but oh well, I will use this brush for now.’
Last wish is about getting my work noticed in bigger world. [anyone out there who like his work, spread the words! :P]
It’d be great if Genie comes to me and tells me stuff like, ‘Hey man, to apply to School X, you need A, B, and C.’
I know nothing of such information.
Like, what tests I need to do, and what scores I should be able to achieve.
So if Genie tells me exactly what I need, I can just prepare that, and knock on the doors.
Then, I think it’d be more fun, you know.
[And, there was, the Marilyn Monroe.]
B: You know I was studying filmmaking… I really loved her. She is the symbol of her generation.
There are so many things that can be expressed through using just her image.
So I wanted to let her become a banana. There were already some other people who’ve done the same thing. But well, I wanted to do it as well, so I did it. And many people loved it, and it found its owner already. So I am thankful.
[This is sort of out of topic but, I studied physics so it came to my mind. A banana, wearing a spacesuit, hanging out in the space. Could I ask you to do that painting? Do you do such thing?]
Absolutely, Wah, that will be fun. I like this kind of collaboration. Combining other people’s imagination and my execution on canvas. It creates more fun stuff.
[So shall we do a space-banana then?]
Oh yeah? I like it. Let’s do it.
[Q. Alrighty, we’ve been at it for awhile. I want to be respectful of your time. Last question… What do you plan to do after the exhibition ends?]
I am going to Osaka, Japan, to travel, relax, and get some inspirations, hopefully.
And with impressions I get there, I want to do bigger paintings.
One concept in my mind is like this: I will draw my friends, family members, and people I met through this exhibition, of course as bananas, and having a blast together.
Everyone having fun together, partying, I guess.
You know, bananas will be grilling, swimming around.. some surfing on the waves, and some making snowman on the side, no restrictions from global weather patterns, you know. It will be fun…! I will send you a picture when it’s done 🙂
So a conversation with Baek was filled with laughters, what it was like to quit a safe, comfortable job to pursue a passion, and what it takes to create your own style.
Baek is now back in his studio, bringing more bananas into life. Some of his new works are being shown in Korea. I will get the info here soon.
Say hello to Baek on his instagram: #yourmok
What did you like about this story?
What other questions would you like to ask Baek?
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