CHAN-HYO BAE at Gallery 44 (401 Richmond West, suite 120), to July 5. 416-979-3941. Rating: NNN
Chan-Hyo Bae, a South Korean photographer currently residing in London, has produced a series of stately photographs of himself dressed as the historic queens of England. Modelled on the starchy rectitude of monarchical portraits, many of the photos show Bae in Elizabethan whiteface sitting very correctly in crinolines, silks and brocades, holding aloft the seals and symbols of empire.
The royals are a pun-filled pretext for high camp, but Bae is doing more than being subversive. He uses the many contradictions in his imagery to explore the demands inherent in social roles. British queens were often forced to reconcile the contradictions between their private lives as women and their public lives as symbols. His images are less a critique of institutional power than an exploration of the ambiguities surrounding social identity.
Bae makes no explicit comments about his political beliefs or sexual orientation, but the visual jokes concealed in several prints – he holds a Korean beer in one, and displays his manly hands in others – speak to the sheer impossibility of an Asian man passing as a British woman.
Yet that impossibility becomes nearly plausible through his rigorous attention to detail and meticulous staging. In some portraits, his discreet smirk recalls a boy playing dress-up in his mother’s closet. In others, his theatricality and femininity are eerily convincing.
In concept, at least, Bae’s work recalls the work of Cindy Sherman, though he differs from her sharply in one essential regard; Sherman’s self-portraits as others always follow a line of self-erasure, to such an extent that her own identity disappears.
Bae’s true face remains recognizable, accentuating the contradictions inherent in his portraits. He wants the fissures and fault lines to show.