Daegu, February 21 – May 28, 2023, http://daeguartmuseum.or.kr
The immensely wealthy Samsung CEO Lee Kun-hee was kept alive on hospital machines for five years so that his heirs can prepare for the inheritance of the huge business empire that is said to contribute up to 20 % to South Koreas GDP. When the family business was finally settled and the life-supporting machines turned off in 2020, an inheritance tax of a unprecedented size corresponding to the uprecedented size of the business empire came due. While the exact deal between the Lees and the Korean government remains unknown, it seems that at least a part (maybe a big part) of the tax due was settled through a donation of an art collection that Lee Kun-hee was building on the side from Samsung profits. Since 2022 a series of Lee Kun-hee collection exhibitions is taking place around Korea. Last year there was a hugely popular one at the National Museum of Korea (focus on traditional Korean art, I guess). This year there is one at MMCA Gwacheon (focus on western art). And not long ago one opened in the Daegu Art Museum. That is the one this text is about. Daegu, by the way, is the city where Lee Kunn-hee’s father started the Samsung business – wholesale dried fish trading – 85 years ago. So far for the context, which is quite important to understand. It was very difficult for me to ignore the slight unease when I think about the close connection between government, the Samsung corporation and corruption. While the donated art collection was on display at the National Museum last year, the son of Lee Kun-hee, the heir, was serving a prison term for corruption. Now he’s out again on presidential pardon. There have been rumors that a special new Lee Kun-hee collection museum is about to be built on a plot in Seoul between the old royal palace and current presidential palace, cementing Lee Kun-hee’s position and relation with the rulers of Korea for posterity.
The exhibit at the Daegu Art Museum focuses on tracing the genealogy of Korean modern art throughout the twentieth century through a selection of artworks donated the the DAM and MMCA. It spans the time from the 1920’s when the first Korean artists got acquainted with “western” (modernist) theories during their studies at universities in Japan, followed by the neo-folk tendencies of the 60s and 70s, up to the abstract/monochrome works of late 70s and 80s.
The chronologial arrangement of the works and grouping according to historical periods gave the exhibition an illustrative, textbook feel. The works were here to illustrate the grand narrative of the rise of the Korean nation which somehow also happened to correspond with the rise of the Samsung business empire. It was good in the sense that even a kid or a foreigner could understand it. At the same time this concept made it more difficult to appreciate the artworks in their uniqueness and original artist’s intention. Obviously none of the artist were intending to illustrate the aforementioned grand narrative when creating their works. That was just a lucky post factum coincidence.
The ease with which my Korean friend who accompanied me was commenting on the artworks and explaining them to me showed, that these were all well known artists and artworks, probably featured in real Korean students textbooks. Probably all of the artworks were signigificant in one way or another for Korean art history. As my time was limited (whose isn’t?), I consumed the exhibition in a similar way to flipping through a book. Stopping here and there at artworks that caught my attention. Everything was clean and neat and well arranged, including a little free catalog handout featuring most important works.