Gender, culture, isolation, prejudice, and stereotypes are explored in Korean photographer Chan-Hyo Bae’s work Existing in Costume, the first series in a trilogy Bae began in 2005.
Initially conceived when Bae left Korea to study in London at Slade School of Fine Art in 2004, Existing in Costume was a reaction against the exclusion Bae felt as an outsider from the East trying to live in the West. The prejudice he felt against men from the East, specifically the idea that Eastern men were more “feminine” than their Western counterparts, resulted in work that in that way has a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” resonance.
“I felt that by making an effort to fit in, and thereby coming to resemble the group from which one feels separated, one might minimize this sense of alienation,” Bae said during a conversation with chief curator Woo Hyesoo of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. “I sought to reduce my own alienation, which related to cultural and linguistic differences by affiliating myself with women, who belong to the opposite gender group to my own. In seeing to assimilate myself to this group, I expressed my desire to escape the experience of alienation.”
It might seem a stretch to try to assimilate within a contemporary culture by dressing up in costumes from the 13th to 19th centuries. Why not contemporary attire, which on the surface would seem a better fit for assimilation?
“When I was in Korea I admired Western culture,” Bae wrote via email. “However, it was rooted in history rather than present day. I also admired oil paintings and styled my photographs as such.”
“I studied and choose historical costumes to also show that being different is also of value,” wrote Bae.
Existing in Costume was followed by two more series that examined Western and Eastern culture differences: Fairytales and Punishment. Punishment is currently on view at Purdy Hicks Gallery in London through March 23. Bae, who lives in London, is working on a fourth series titled Witch Hunting.