White, billowing clouds roil and churn against a brilliant blue sky at the opening of the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day”—a storm brewing, perhaps. The whirling mise-en-scène foreshadows supernatural conditions to come in the classic rom-com and sets the stage for “Chicago Works: Gregory Bae” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in a pair of delicate pencil renderings. In the film, the cloudy sky gives way to the protagonist, Phil Connors, delivering a deadpan weather report before becoming trapped in an endlessly repeating day. Faced with an eternity to himself, Phil becomes obsessed with winning the affection of his weather program’s producer, Rita. In what is widely cited as one of the most philosophical and spiritual endings to a popular American movie, Phil spell-breakingly confesses his love: “No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now because I love you.” The churning clouds appear again as Phil is released from his personal hell back into a world where time marches forever onward.
To love, “Groundhog Day” argues, is to give oneself away again and again to the incessant churn of the world, to live without possession or promise—“loving life includes loving the fact that it goes,” according to National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser. This heartrending theme grounds the exhibition, thanks only in part to Bae’s “Black Hole of Love” (2016) drawings, splaying the movie’s opening and closing scenes across large sheets of paper split by hairline tears and held together by sheets of clear acrylic.
The drawings, titled for an English translation of the movie’s Korean title, evince Bae’s sustained interest in time, love and loss, metaphysically and through his experience as a first-generation Korean American. To read “Black Hole of Love” autobiographically is no stretch—born in Salt Lake City, Utah on Groundhog Day, February 2, 1986, Bae often traveled between the United States and South Korea, adopting themes of distance, separation and complex negotiations of identity and nationality in his work. In “Black Hole of Love,” translation is adopted as an index of the pain and rupture of communication across space and time—the meaning of “Groundhog Day”’s hopeful message becomes something more sinister and threatening. A crack, embodied in the physical tears through the drawings, appears in the film’s shimmering morale, persistent love becoming less heroic than futile, sucked into the ravenous “black hole” of time. Bae sees this neat American parable come apart at the seams, capturing a freeze-frame of a world where love is only permitted to exist when it already incorporates its own undoing. A world that consumes love, darkly, leaving little opportunity for a different future.
Nolan Jimbo, who curated the presentation of Bae’s works at the MCA, sees a similar theme most clearly in “24-7, 365 (#5)” (2017). The sculpture consists of a Goodyear tire that rolls endlessly on a slow-going treadmill, painted with hazy stripes of red, yellow and blue, which recall the sam taegeuk, a variation of the symbol on the South Korean flag. Jimbo sees the sculpture as a scene of failure: failing to represent, failing to move forward, failing to achieve. This failure, Jimbo writes, is a corollary to the American imaginary of Asian immigrants as “hyper-productive, undifferentiated, barely visible sources of labor” at the whim of ever-accelerating expectations.
The apparent pessimism of “24-7, 365 (#5)” (2017) is joined, curiously, by an intense and fantastic optimism described in a memoriam published by Newcity soon after the artist’s death in 2020. Friends describe Bae and his work as unflinchingly romantic and hopeful, embracing the obliteration of love not as a dark and endless drudge, but as a promise made over and over to encounter the world. Poet Jean Yoon reflects that Bae’s work, “felt like a coded set of instructions on how to eventually put my heart back together and work my way back into the world to tell the tale.” “24-7, 365,” writer Erin Toale notes, resulted in “at least one marriage,” an effect that Bae regarded, “a personal achievement.”
Combining an eye toward perpetual failure with the bittersweet affirmation and realization of love through loss is what lends Bae’s work such an unusual and especially piercing air. “It shall all be mine” (2015) is another love letter to loss. A pair of atomic clocks are installed facing each other on opposite walls along with preparatory sketches. The clocks are comprised of glass rounds etched with raindrops suspended mid-drip, over which thin, pale second hands are held at twelve o’clock by a stack of watch-battery-sized magnets. As the hands attempt to tick forward, the magnets draw them back to home, resulting in a startlingly human shiver. Time is kept in a jittery standstill, a tragic dance that directly recalls Felix Gonzales-Torres’ “Untitled (Perfect Lovers)” (1991), a set of two wall clocks installed side-by-side and allowed to tick away together into the future, while slowly falling out of sync.
Gonzales-Torres’ clocks reflect the physical asynchrony of two lovers fated to a life out of step, at the mercy of time rendered fleeting and precarious during the AIDS epidemic. The tragedy of “It shall all be mine,” in contrast, is not that the two clocks might fall out of step, but that they are doomed to be frozen together. The attempt to stop time, to avert the eventual digression of the two bodies, produces the zombie-like twitch that warns that preempting failure also preempts life. Bae suggests, instead, that we offer our love up to the black hole gladly, and that the object finds its realization in its own undoing, not in its preservation.
In this vein, Bae’s “Ex Radios” (2019) and “Shadows of Thought (Mango Coconut Island, Butterscotch and Fresh Linen over Seojin circa 2014 – 2016)” (2019) offer familiar objects gutted and pulled-apart, order and coherence giving way to absence and chaos. “Ex Radios” is a collaged scroll of how-to manuals for assembling objects the artist “had a strong relationship with” but removed of all language and instruction. The remaining voids are arranged in a busy symphony resembling a complicated score or an impossibly dense urban map and, at times, a monochrome constructivism. “Shadows of Thought” is more playful and childlike, a discarded electronic screen gummed up with layers of butterscotch candy, a popsicle stick and bits of packaging and wire–a casualty, perhaps, of a thousand years on the floor of a well-loved minivan.
Both artworks, once helpful and rational objects at the end of their useful capacity, inspire a type of awe, like Rembrandt’s anatomy students marveling at the complex system of veins and muscles inside the human body. The coming apart of these objects, in one case careful and systematic, and in the other apparently random, seems to memorialize the importance and meaning the objects once carried, while paying equal respect to their dissolution. Feminist theorist Luce Irigaray writes about this encounter between the entropy of the world and the transcendence of love as the space of “wonder,” which is “only possible when we are faithful to the perpetual newness of the self, the other, the world. Faithful to becoming… the passion of the encounter between the most material and the most metaphysical… between mortal and immortal.” The meaning of love is accomplished through the inability of the body and its passions to stand up to the test of time, the wonder of the impermanent and the fragile.
“Chicago Works: Gregory Bae” is a powerful testament to Bae’s wonder at the intersection of life and love—an invitation to turn toward, rather than away from, the pleasure and pain of the endings that make beginnings so worthwhile. In this way, Bae provides a blueprint for living, sensitive to the time we have, and refusing to turn away from each day as it breaks. (Emeline Boehringer)
“Chicago Works: Gregory Bae” is on view at MCA Chicago, 220 East Chicago, through January 29, 2023.