Son Bong Chae is best known for his Migration series, which features beautifully rendered, yet uprooted trees. Son’s choice of imagery stems from his years spent living in New York, during which, according to him, pine trees, to be used for landscaping, were laid on a huge cargo truck with their bare roots showing. It struck him that all around there were such beautiful trees standing not in their original places, but in the park, on the streets, or around residential areas. He saw himself in these uprooted trees; it felt very much like his own four-year experience as a foreigner in New York. Even after he returned to Korea, his was the life of a wanderer, an uprooted person.
The Migrants series was further inspired by a visit with his father to their native village in Gokseong. What first appeared to him as a poetic pine grove soon showed another face, after he discovered the massacre that took place on that very spot during the Korean War. It was a brutal interruption to the serene attachment he felt toward his native land; and he wanted to express his strong emotional bond for these tragically uprooted people. As victims of industrialized society, the wandering migrant lives of these people are like swaying weeds: his empathy and sympathy for them became the basis for the series.
With extremely fine brushes and oil paints, Son paints on transparent polycarbonate plates. At the beginning of the series, he used photo images as a guide, but not long afterward he began to paint everything by hand. He first makes a rough sketch of the painting and paints elements of his trees on five different polycarbonate plates. The final image that the viewers see is a composite image of the five different polycarbonate plate paintings. When illuminated by the lucid white LED light, the scenery revealed is an intricate and layered dreamlike image, a serene and beautiful 3-dimensional landscape painting. This image becomes a powerful contemporary adaptation of traditional landscape painting. Whereas traditional landscape painting only uses hues of the ink to express distance and space, Son’s ‘Migration’ series uses a composite of five different layers of paintings of tree and clouds on polycarbonate plates to represent subtle changes and motion in the scenery.
Son Bong Chae’s message is a hopeful one - a reminder that all of our lives are fluid, layered, and changing. His trees remind us to perservere, in particular those who are living life in a strange land - although trees may be uprooted, the roots themselves remain intact, and reinforced through our layers of life experience.