East Contemporary

South Korea – Fine Art in Seoul and around

In December, I visited South Korea and had a look at what is happening there in terms of Fine Arts. I checked out some smaller privately managed spaces around Seoul like Artsonje Center, Kukje Gallery and Plateau as well as some public institutions like the Nam Seoul Museum of Fine Art and the National Museum of Contemporary Art. I also attended one evening of art performances at Seogyo Art Space (Seoul) and stopped by at the Paik Nam Jun Art Center in Suwon.

ARTSONJE CENTER http://artsonje.org/eng/
I remembered Artsonje as one of the highlights from my last trip to Seoul, when they had a retrospective of Yiso Bahc, a Korean/American conceptual artist. So I put this place on my itinerary again and I was not disappointed, this time by a show of the Japanse artist Shinro Ohtake, known beyond Fine Art for his involvement in the Japanese noise music scene, and who also participated in last year’s documenta13 (he was one of the artist in the Karlsaue park where he set up his own hut – I mentioned him in my documenta13 review video).

KUKJE GALLERY http://www.kukjegallery.com
Kukje Gallery is nearby Artsonje, it is a bit smaller and has more of a commercial gallery feel, but they seem to be a well established location in the Seoul art scene. Last year when I was around they had a Jenny Holzer show and this time it was Yuko Shiraishi, a Japanese minimalist painter based in the UK. I was not overexcited about this show, but it’s it doesn’t hurt to stop by at this gallery.

PLATEAU http://www.plateau.or.kr
It was my first visit to Plateau, a gallery that seems to be funded by Samsung (you get a discount for Leeum when with the Plateau entrance ticket). The exhibition space is on the ground floor level, with high ceilings and glass walls. After entering you are greeted by monumental Gates of Hell bronze sculpture by Rodin. The show on display revolved around the topic of landscape and it consisted of a selection of Korean artists. For me as a visitor to Korea, it was interesting to see some Korean artists. And while the show was well made, I left with a rather bland impression. Anyway I’m very glad that my friend introduced this place to me and I will come back here if I have a chance.

NAM SEOUL MUSEUM OF ART http://seoulmoa.seoul.go.kr
Nam Seoul Museum of Art is a southern Seoul (South of the river) subsidiary of the ‘mother’ Seoul Art Museum nearby Seoul City Hall. It is housed in a historical building that used to be an embassy. It is located away from the usual gallery areas, probably by government decision to spread cultural facilities across all of Seoul more evenly. The space is large two storey villa, and has a nice feel. The size is just right for a half to one hour stroll. During my visit there was a show titled “Artificial Garden” that consisted mostly of media art bound together by topics of architecture and space, with an international selection of artists represented. The selection was good, ranging from video projections to light and sound installations.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art is a different beast. The photo at the beginning of this post is the exterior of this museum. (No photos allowed inside.) I will write a bit more about this one. It is a huge building complex located on the outskirts of Seoul on a mountain slope. You need to take a subway to “Seoul Grand Park” and then switch to a shuttle bus or hike along a lake up to the mountain. From the outside it looks like a fortress with gun ports, a medieval European fortress that is. It is surrounded by a sculpture park too. Upon entering, I was a bit confused. There are many spaces with different exhibitions, and it seems a bit like a maze, which somehow confirms the outside look of a medieval fortress. After figuring out what is where, I can say that there is a lot, from a permanent exhibition of Korean contemporary (read: 20th century) art, to thematic exhibitions curated from the museum’s collection, to special feature shows.

I went through one part (the first part) of the permanent collection. I think it was my lack of knowledge about Korean art history that prevented me to put all the works in the right context, but it was interesting to see. My feeling was that the lights were quite dim, which once again supported the fortress impression. This may have been for preservation purposes, but it was the same throughout this part of the gallery.

After that I headed to the New Acquisitions 2011 show, which as the title suggests was showing new items purchased by the museum. It was a mixture of Korean ‘modernist’ authors (Park Soo-keun, Nam Kwan) , younger Korean media art (I specially liked the “CNN” installation by Zin Ki-jong) and a number of globally known art stars like William Kentridge. Overall I liked this show the best of all in the museum, especially for the insights into Korean art.

Next I headed to a thematic show curated from the museum’s own collection titled Dream Walking in Magical reality. Once again it was a broad selection ranging across all thinkable media, from kinetic sculptures to painting and video art. The lighting was very dramatic to create a kind of surreal ‘cabinet of curiosities’ impression. While the individual works were strong, I had a slight problem with the overall ‘spetacularization’ of the show which made it indeed look more like freak show than an art show. On the other hand I can understand that the approach taken here has been taken in the ‘public interest’ of creating an interesting exhibition of contemporary art that would appeal to the broad audience spectrum visiting the museum.

There were some more exhibitions in the house that I missed – more of the permanent collection as well as solo show of Choong Sup Lim, a Korean-American artist somewhere between the conceptual and sculptural. This museum is so huge that it just cannot be seen in one day only. The museum has the usual restaurant(s), one western style with pizza and pasta and one Korean style, so it’s best to plan a whole day or at least a half day for a visit.

SEOGYO ART SPACE http://eng.seoulartspace.or.kr/space_seogyo/introduce.asp
An art experience of a different king was the visit to the Seogyo Art Space in Seoul which is part of a network of Seoul Art Spaces. On December 28th they had an evening of 19-minute live performances, non-stop from 6:30pm to about 11:30pm. The space had a community art centre feel to it, there were exhibition rooms on two floors as well as a bar serving drinks. The exhibition rooms have been empty and set up with plastic chairs for the performance evening. I did not see all the performances, but from what I saw it was an eclectic mixture of everything thinkable, including people singing to karaoke videos, an on-line chat performance, a lecture on architecture and a female performer doing it with a plastic doll.

NAM JUN PAIK ART CENTER www.njpartcenter.kr/en/
The last place to mention from my visit to Korea is the Nam Jun Paik Art Center (NJP Center). On the contrary to all other places mentioned, this museum is located outside of Seoul, about 2 hours southwards from the Seoul city centre, in Gyeonggi province, close to the city of Suwon (but not in Suwon city itself). Nam Jun Paik is probably the best known contemporary Korean artist. He was one of the pioneers of video art, working across continents. The NJP Center has been established to ‘keep his memory alive’ (Paik died in 2006 and the centre opened in 2008). Even though it takes some time to get there, I did not regret visiting the place. Basically they have a semi-permanent exhibition of Paik’s works that is combined with other artworks of his contemporaries. I have visited the museum in 2011 and came back in 2012. Each time there was a different show but the common denominator of Paik’s works has still been there (some pieces stayed in the same place as in 2011). In my opinion for ‘keeping Paik’s memory alive’ there could be more dramatic changes in the exhibition, and it would not necessarily need to include so many of Paik’s works. Talking about Paik’s works, the current exhibition displays mainly his robot sculptures made from old TV sets (late 80’s and 90’s works), but I missed some earlier works like the video-viola or documentation of his early performances. No matter when you visit this place, it can serve as a good introduction to NJP and his work, but for the future, I believe the museum should be thinking about how to make people come back and this would be best achieved by making exhibitions beyond simple Paik collection variations.

Overall it seemed there are some interesting things to see around Seoul. Most of it seemed well institutionally controlled. With the exception of Seogyo Art Space, all shows were very tame, controlled and ‘safe’. People without knowledge of contemporary art and families with children seemed to be a target group that was taken very seriously. There was an emphasis of the aesthetic side of art, and very little shows pointed out the relationship between art, politics and life or ways how art extends beyond artisan skills and emotional sensitivity. I am still pondering what to make out of this, but it gave me a feeling of something missing.

It was also a bit difficult to get to English-language information especially when looking for more ‘independent’ art. All big museums have English websites, but for example the Seogyo Art Space information was only in Korean and I got to know about it thanks to a Korean friend. A lot of the performances there were in Korean too, so I understood this was not targeted at a non-Korean audience at all. But still, it was good to be there and see what is happening. So I feel I have probably missed out on something happening beyond my radar. It would need a longer stay and deeper involvement to know more about the local art scene.


National Museum of Contemporary Art


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.