About Chan-Hyo BAE
Chan-Hyo Bae (1975- ) Born in Busan, South Korea. Lady Antonia Fraser begins the epilogue of her seminal 1969 biography on Mary, Queen of Scots with that ill-fated monarchs most famous words, spoken with pleading grandeur at her trial: Remember that the theatre of the world is wider than the realm of England. This notionthat the world and also history may act as percipient, compassionate spectators to any number of unjust actssuffuses not only Frasers biographical work, notably her Marie Antoinette: The Journey (the basis of Sophia Coppolas recent film), but also any given hagiography. Fraser herself would no doubt object to this comparison, for her intention is not to sanctify but to humanizeto make the vicissitudes of power, be they Cromwells or Henry VIIIs wives, vicariously contemporary. This is no small feat, especially in light of our visual record, those official portraits that so rarely convey the flesh and blood behind the pomp. Fraser is, in fact, intrigued by the ways in which the lives of her subjects subvert or at least comment upon the stiff conventions of royal portraiture. To flip through a pictorial insert in any one of her biographies and to read her accompanying captions is to get a good taste of the kinds of ironies of privilege she is trying to underscore. In Marie Antoinette, Fraser tells us that Louise Vige Lebruns depiction of the Queen in Rousseauvian country garb was criticized as indiscreet; another Lebrun showing the Queen and her children evinces a poignant, last-minute alteration, as Marie Antoinettes youngest child had died and had to be painted out of her bassinette. Similarly, a rendering of Mary Stuart, madeemblematic on covers of early editions of Frasers study, is described thusly, The Deuil Blanc portrait of Mary, by Clouet, probably painted in 1559 at the time of her mourning for her father-in-law Henry II. It is not surprising, then, that Chan-Hyo Bae has chosen the iconography of queenliness to express his own feelings of cultural estrangement. Originally from South Korea and currently living in London, Bae begins from very simple, common sentiments of foreignness. His workslarge-format colour prints, in which he plays unidentified female British monarchs from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries (all his works are untitled)initially appear to be a cheeky sort of wish fulfillment. One is readily reminded of Yasumasa Morimura, the Japanese artist who casts himself in Western arts biggest roles, and also, perhaps, of the phenomenon of cosplaythe subculture of dressing up likefictional or historical characterswhich originates in Japan but has become popular throughout Asia and the rest of the world. Bae seems to be performing a blatant paradox: that of the outsider gleefully destabilizing the hierarchies of a culture about which he has admittedly fantasized, but which has forbade him full entrance because of an unalterable ethnicity. Yet Bae also describes his Existing in Costume series as akin to what a child tries to do in dressing as an adult. Here Frasers contentions about Mary, Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette can be brought into play, extending Baes project beyond simple-minded, postcolonial gunpowder plots. After all, what we see in Frasers biographical portraits is the utter ontological rupture present in the very idea of monarchy. The semiotics of royal representation have never been a stable means by which to express individualized character or subjectivity. Their very intention is to eradicate such things in service of nationalismto create, out of the monarchical body, a signifier belonging exclusively to the state and its people. The contradictions and impossibilities of this intention have been hashed out so many times in popular art as to become a secular humanist clich. From Shakespeare to Hollywood, we are inundated with representations of monarchs who fall out of line with, or rebel against, the psychological neutrality of their propagandistic representations. Royal portraiture and, arguably, royalty in generalis now not just synonymous with prestige but also with crises existentielles, melancholy, entrapment, martyrdom and, as Bae suggests, a tragic, protracted innocence. In Chan-Hyo Baes photographs one accordingly sees his identification with the Queen as a misfitas one who inhabits a role which she can never fully possess or understand. That he is cross-dressing merely stresses the point. He is not interested in queerness or camp; this is not sarcastic idolatry or a theatrical apotheosis of the feminine. Bae is simply, in his words, trying to express existence as another person. In the tradition of portrait posing, he carries with him items that speak to who he is, but which, in their own quiet strangeness, controvert any perceived act of intimacy: a fan (which might just as easily be a Western queens Orientalist flummery), a golden pig (a token of good luck), a birdcage that contains within it a red and a blue ball, presumably representative of the South Korean flag. Relegated to the symbolic realm, Baes self strains under its own, bi-polar weights. One senses an awkward distance, an ineffable repression, a longing gaze through a bizarre suit of armour. One photo, showing Chan-Hyo Bae in what looks to be a Rose Bertin pouf, speaks to the difficulty in ascribing to monarchy and its representations any degree of nationalist authenticity. Here Bae resembles the non-British Marie Antoinette, and may be Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the queen consort of George III. In any case, the hairstyle is patently continental, as were, appropriately, many of Europes queen consorts, who were effectively imported wives for the purposes of political maneuvering: Charlotte was from Germany, as was, for thatmatter, the House of Hanover. Marie Antoinette was Austrian, and in her book Fraser memorably describes the handing-off of the child bride, who was required to be stripped of her Austrian clothing, even of her pet dog, Mops, before crossing the French border. Mary, Queen of Scots, who also retreated to France for an early, arranged marriage (she herself was part French), had three husbands in totalthe last of which was the enterprising Bothwell, who abducted and raped her under the premise of her needing, for political reasons, to betroth a native-born subject. Mary, Queen of Scots story is of an outsider on the inside, of an itinerant woman bound to merciless concepts of empire. In what appears to be Baes depiction of her, he adopts red hair (this is atypical, for in all the other works he leaves his hair black)a trait that has marked her throughout history as echt-Scots. If this is a gesture of alienation, it is also one of firm alliance. In her recounting of Marys death, Fraser remarks that the Queens head was held up by the executioner, but that the auburn tresses in his hand came apart from the skull and the head itself fell to the ground; her actual hair at the time was short and grey, and she had chosen to wear a wig, along with a matching blood-red petticoat and bodice, for the beheading. Even in the audience of that wide theatre of the world, Mary had thought it wisest to exist in costume.