Breath of light
Pierre Cabanne, July 2005
Bang Hai Ja has created a country of images, an imaginary homeland where she lives, paints, loves and feels comfortable. She has her own Korea and she has her universe, the vital space of her paintings; she is born each day with them, discreet, fragile, efficient; she talks of them precisely and passionately. When she is not there, others come and stroll through the land of her paintings, discover that they like it there, and carry away in their eyes and in their minds her light and the impalpable gleam of pulsing colours, these constellations, these vibrant germinations that are touched by the magic of immateriality.
Bang Hai Ja lives in the land of her roots, of her first sensations, of her childhood, when marvelled she discovered plants, stones, clear streams, the sky and its myriad stars, dawn and dusk. Her country is a land of enchantment, purity and innocence. Between the Korea of her childhood and youth and France where she looked long and searchingly at Van Gogh, Cézanne, Kandinsky and Paul Klee, she has cast a link, a binding wire, to “reach deep into myself”, she says, and unite East and West, the calligraphic tradition and the revelation of abstraction.
Bang Hai Ja does not paint nature but space, signs, marks, streaks, cries, which become by a sort of visionary magic splashes of light, star tremors, seismograms of calls, of distant sounds. The suggestions and vibrations of an imagined cosmos. Emotion crystallizes in them, opens a pathway to infinity.
Bang Hai Ja’s painting is a shimmering garden, offering its blossomings to our mobile gaze. Nothing has any weight, nothing lasts, all is profusion, effusion. Another way opens up, a new distance is established with the world and new approaches become possible. We thus come face to face with an art that does not seek to portray and hence to reduce man to enslavement through images, but on the contrary to free him, to restore to him his autonomy, his originality. An art that abolishes the humdrum and gives creative power back to the artist and plenitude to creation.
With figurative art panting for breath in sad and paltry blind alleys, the adventure of art seemed over. Bang Hai Ja is one of those who have taken over other births in the world. The living painting that she discovered in Paris became an outgrowth of the joys of calligraphy received from the person she regards as her master, Chusa, a painter, scholar, poet and calligrapher who lived from 1786 to 1856. He met and maintained epistolary relations with Chinese scholars and created an original style. His influence and the assurance that painting does not come from reality but from the heart, the emotions, the unexpected, the tribulations of life led Bang Hai Ja, in communion with the inherited culture of Buddhism, towards that “space within” where she taps her imagination and takes stock of her powers.
In coming to the West, Bang Hai Ja never thought of escaping her origins; on the contrary, her constant and overarching aim was to build on them through her discoveries, by exploring new forms of language, through her amazing capacity for capturing all that can reveal itself to the mind’s eye. She thus brought into being a visionary world that enchants and unsettles us, that has no equal anywhere, cut loose from the visible world and plunged into the depths of herself, of her impulses, her fantasies and fevers. In the margins of mystery, she seizes these hidden messages which she clothes in dancing, sky-filled, dreamlike colours, without beginning or end, where bursts of movement invest space and give rhythm and life to her journeyings out of time. “Seeing means closing your eyes” said Wols, to which Bang Hai Ja adds, “It means opening your heart”.
She says that when she was young she learned most of what she knows from the Korean sculptor and art historian Yung Kyông Yol, whom she met on a visit, with a group of Seoul schoolchildren. “It was through him that I was able to grasp the essence of Korean art”, she says. She has always remained faithful to his example and to his teachings through a lengthy correspondence. Yun Kyông Yol introduced her to the Mountain of the Ten Thousand Buddhas, Nam San, in Kyongju, capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla. She confided to Charles Juliet that “each time we met, I felt drawn towards an inward journey. He opened the eye of my heart to beauty…”
For reasons of health, Bang Hai Ja would spend long periods in Buddhist monasteries. There she would meditate and paint and, on returning to Seoul, she enrolled at the Academy of Modern Art. Little by little, a language of reflection and conquest took shape in her, and in Paris, where she took up residence in 1961, she became aware of her own freedom and of the importance of colour and light.
There where calligraphy, which she had always practised, no longer had a hold, lines and markings became the means whereby she could begin to overcome laws and mental routines. As it is said in the Diamond Sutra, one of the founding texts of Buddhism, “We do not perceive the world as it is in reality. Our productive imagination, sustained by the force that is born of habit, superimposes upon the world an illusory construct…”
When Bang Hai Ja took her distance from reality, from its conventions and arbitrariness, she was astonished to find that she had the power to lift the veil on the unknown, the ineffable, the inaccessible, to peer into it. Her path lay in the unwonted prehension of the cosmos, seen as mystery, surprise, ecstasy, joy, fervour.
The art of Bang Hai Ja is neither an adventure nor a feat, but a quest. Her painting, which vibrates with an intense poetry, is a living, independent organism which produces radiant light effects. She herself is but the receptacle and intermediary of her own creative force, which is given to her.
Coming back by plane recently from Korea, where she had an exhibition at the Whanki Museum in Seoul, she watched through the window as the sun all at once lit up in the sky the most brilliant tints of saffron. . Bang Hai Ja received the light like a call, like a gift, it entered the whole of her being, and now, when she speaks of the experience, she is still overwhelmed by it. She immediately made a drawing of it; perhaps it will become a painting. Her gaze and her heart were at one with the colour, which seemed to come from infinity.
What comes from elsewhere is for Bang Hai Ja an offering. Like colour, like matter, like life. So it is with these shapes picked up by chance in her studio or during a walk in the forest. Cardboard, bark, stone, wood, these sediments of chance become sculptures, painted and mounted on bases. They are not separate from the rest of her work, they come to her in the same way as her paintings, both are arts of deliverance, exploration, wakefulnesss and fever.
“The light paints with me”, Bang Hai Ja writes in one of her poems, “it becomes my heart, I become the light. We both enter the painting…”
She uses Korean paper made by hand from leaves and plants, according to age-old traditions, by Buddhist nuns. It can be rumpled and shaped with the fingers. She also uses unwoven fabric known as geotextile, which she likes for its transparency. Bang Hai Ja who works with the fabric stretched out flat before her, on the floor, paints with it not on it. The colours are set side by side, merge, create subtle shades and upon this dreamlike background there arise those imaginary or lyrical visions that she also speaks of in her poems, those cellular bursts shot through with a light whose impact on the emotions is a source of happiness.
For calligraphy, she uses brushes made from goat hair whose bamboo handle she holds between her thumb and her index finger, with her third finger underneath. The wrist, which must remain supple, has three qualities: speed, power and strength.
Bang Hai Ja applies pressure without ever losing her calm, her self-control. She speaks in soft, even tones and never raises her voice.
At Art Paris in 2004, the Galerie Guillaume exhibited some pieces of a kind unprecedented in her work, assemblages of fragments painted on both sides, freely stuck together and mounted on a base, together with paintings that could be looked at on both sides in a to-and-fro movement, front and back. Bang Hai Ja discovered these unwoven fabrics one day in 1991, when a landscape architect came and used them to plant bamboos in earth on the terrace. What is special about them is they can be painted on front and back, and the colours that Hai Ja herself prepares are absorbed, which creates strange impressions of transparency.
She also uses earth, Visiting Provence in 1996, she was enthralled by the ancient open ochre quarries of Roussillon. The shades of colour ranging from grey to orange powerfully affected her and she saw immediately how to incorporate this matter and its light by adding other pigments to it, to her colour explorations, thus injecting a new energy into them. “This energy penetrated me, all the way into my tiniest cells”, she explained. She is no less convinced that the cells of the person who looks at them are equally penetrated by this telluric energy.
In her studio, background music accompanies Bang Hai Ja. A music lover, she listens to Bach or Mozart, Satie, Mahler or Messaien, with the sounds of birdsong noted at daybreak in the forest or in the mountain. In her youth she would often go to concerts with her violinist brother. The music of her country affects her particularly: the tanso which is a Korean instrument made of bamboo, or the kayagum, the Korean 12-string sitar, made of paulowina wood, are her favourites.
As an adolescent, she practiced Qigong, the Taoist dance that is a sort of physical calligraphy in which the body becomes one with space. Later, in her painting, she was also to enter into communion with the energy flowing through the universe. This term, “energy”, is often spoken by Hai Ja. She receives it with the light and colour, which cannot be dissociated from it. They come to her and she in turn communicates them. A secret dialogue is established in silence, peace and love.
Through her works, Bang Hai Ja allows us to share her inward path, she exhibits them not to show herself, to draw attention to herself, but to convey the message she carries in her, in spiritual union with the cosmos.
During a radio interview, when Olivier Germain-Thomas asked her whether she would not have been able to know the same deep self-fulfilment in her country, she replied: “Yes I’m sure, but I needed the West to round off the world in me”.
In one of her poems she writes:
By the inward path
By the wakeful path
The path of light begins to open
Where the heart of the universe beats
Where the cells awaken
I cast seeds of light
On the earth and in the sky
Bang Hai Ja is just as naturally a poet as she is a painter. As a child, she received the revelation of the power and sensitivity of words. She was touched by the behaviour of one of her cousins, a poet who, a certain periods, left his home to receive the lessons of nature, to listen to the rustle of lotus flowers opening up. He had made an extraordinary garden where verses were engraved on stone slabs. “He taught me poems and got me to recite them”, says Hai Ja.
Poetry for her is an inward path where words are colours. When in the morning she goes into her studio, she goes into herself in the silence and the desire takes her to paint or to write, to transcribe her feelings in a state of exultation or peace. She has herself accompanied poets, creating correspondences between what she receives from them and what she imagines. She does not illustrate in the strict sense, she has made wash-paintings for the poetry collections Une joie secrète by Charles Juliet and Au chant des transparences by Roselyne Sibille. Calligraphies by Bang Hai Ja accompany Les Mille Monts de Lune, an anthology of poems by Korean Buddhist monks.
Her hand has sought to follow the thoughts of these men of faith, their solitary meditation in the silence. Her signs trigger direct, intimate links to their vision, body forth timeless presences. Ink and paper unite to attain the ineffable, to allow each word, each ideogram to live together, to achieve harmony, balance, “the unity that embraces the universe”, as Confucius puts it in his Analects.
Painting, calligraphy, writing are all expressions of a same impulse, a same call, for each form of art commands Bang Hai Ja’s attention. It is meaningless to speak of development in her work. The large paintings at la Salpêtrière in 2003 whose vibrant luminosities filled the space, the assemblages in coloured volumes, the concise calligraphies and the warm wash-paintings, they all differ from each other in approach and scope, but without any antagonism or dislocation between them. They express an equal aspiration to transmit energy.
This gentle, frail woman is a blazing furnace, her work stands apart, it is a meeting place suspended in space and time. Using different means, she seeks to probe ever more deeply the same desire, to explore the art of painting as a form of revelation of which the artist, before the spectator, is not just an agent but the witness.
Bang Hai Ja writes:
With all my heart with all my body
Paint to the music of the song of life
See the colours marry and fuse
Lines join and dance
See open space appear
The eye of the heart awaken
Then trace the one line
On the infinite sky
The soft light of Bang Hai Ja
When you set out on the road
you only know it by its absence
by the urgent need you have for it
So you seek it
Unflaggingly you seek it
But you don’t know where to go where to find it
what direction to take
With no clear idea
and hemmed in by night
You grope your way forward
Sometimes a brief glimmer appears
then immediately fades
Often you despair
of seeing light break through
and you lose heart
Nothing seems possible any more
Yet ever present
this untiring need that tugs at you
again and again sets you searching
The dim labour continues
in a limbo
Thankless subtle exacting
for ever demanding a fresh start
The impression that sometimes
the night will never end
Yet without your noticing
the wandering has become progression
A path emerges
a hope takes root
each step grows bolder
Little by little
doubt and confusion
But you weary of walking
your doubt begins anew
and you fear that you will be for ever
a prisoner of the labyrinth
Later it stares you in the face
You will not find the way out
until you vanish completely
Your being holds back rears away
but everything forces it
to give its consent
Then overpowered defeated wiped out
you sink into death
The forces of life resist
but the moment comes
when you must truly
without your being able to speak of it
death has been lived
Against all expectation
this death has fathered you unto yourself
and light has come forth
This light so long
so hard sought
that you had given up hope of ever seeing again
it has come forth
It has come forth
and all is changed
all has taken on new meaning
The road ahead is still long
but your steps are guided
by a light that does not fade
x x x
All through these years
you have been painting
and each of your works
gives visible form
to a stage along your way
This light that no longer leaves you
it was a long time emerging from the night
but now it is here
clear and steady
rooted in a base
that nothing can erode
A soft light
glows and spreads
through your paintings
and when we stop before them
a succouring light
enters us guides us
quickens in us
the pulse of our days