Seoul - Get, Set, Go! The Seoul Art Race

By Mark Waugh  |  Seoul, 7 June 2013

So everyone who went to the opening of the 55th Biennale of Venice knows that the art world moves at curious speeds. You see movers and shakers lost in chat and apparently blind to the works on the wall or asleep on their feet in queues for the ‘Must See Pavilion’. Well one of the slowest moving of these was for Kimsooja's Korean Pavilion. But the wait was worth it because it allowed the artworld to look at itself in psychedelic clarity and then fall into a black hole of self-reflection.

We should remind ourselves Korea has had a permanent national pavilion in Venice since 1996. In 2013 the National Museum of Contemporary Art Korea also presented a selection of their collection in the collateral exhibition; Who is Alice? So do these shows with their questioning of identity reflect the mood of Korean artists and who is leading the race to define the ascendancy of Korea on the global stage?

In the Autumn of 2013 two new cultural landmarks open in Seoul. The first, The Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by Zaha Hadid; is conceived of as an engine of cultural metamorphosis cooking up a heady brew of design, technology and fashion. A building with a footprint that one of my Korean colleagues pointed out, 'looks like an elegant stiletto dropped on the lawn!' It's curvaceous progress was held up when huge and significant historic remains were found during the demolition of the sports stadium that previously stood on the site. Because Seoul has been led until recently by regimes without much taste for heritage these finds were a rarity; moreover the zeitgeist now in Seoul is tinged with nostalgia, so these artefacts have forced even Zaha Hadid to wait! However when it opens this building will not be alone in a skyline that has recently welcomed the world's greatest architects.

The second building is the new downtown home for the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. It's old home will remain open in a beautiful hillside location, while the new buildings which comprise of 38,605.79㎡ of galleries, shops and other facilities, will be more fiercely focused on promoting cutting edge art from Korea as shown in Venice. This move makes sense when tourists visiting Seoul are perhaps more inclined to visit the commercial galleries located near the old Royal Palaces than take an excursion out of the city.

I visited the hillside site for the opening of the Korean Art Prize. It was awarded to Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho who presented, Voice of Metanoia — Two Perspectives, alongside a dynamic and kinetic sculptural environment which was brilliantly installed; as were the works by other candidates, Gim Hong-sok, Yee Soo-kyung and Lim Min-ouk. Although the event was evidently attended by the who's who of Korean art it was not the raucous and crowded reception one might expect but instead a civilised and slightly scholarly affair.

For less reserved events you need to attend the openings of independents not for profits such as Loop who specialise in video and Media work or the fabulous artclub1563 which has a facade installation of mock Tudor panelling by Richard Woods and shows Korean and international artists. Recently they featured the artist Young in Hong whose exhibition City Gestures included her current embroidery, Triptych: A Wishful Song, which contrasts the speed and randomness of graffiti with the delicacy and duration of embroidery, alongside a fully functioning police station in the gallery.

Korean artists have certainly grown in reputation in recent years and indeed Moon and Jeon also participated in this year’s dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany. The duo showed their stunning; El fin del mundo, (2012), a dual-screened film which presented ideas developed through their interdisciplinary explorations and theoretical speculations on the 1890 book by William Morris, News From Nowhere and its notion of Utopia in the context of a post-apocalyptic world. They are represented by Gana Arts who have consistently championed Korean artists offering them both studio space and presence at the major international art fairs. Gana Art, founded in 1983 has a diverse portfolio of artists including, Vanessa Beacroft and Richard Pettibone and leading Korean artists such as; the photographer Bien-U Bea whose epic photography celebrates a Korean poetics of flowers and landscape. It also shows emerging artists such as the very cutesy but sensitive and anti-bombastic Eddie Kang who creates animations and paintings. “I feel pretty much everyone around me feels loneliness in many occasions; and I want to talk about such unbearable loneliness with my dolls, drawings, and paintings. In my work chaos-like surfaces that I create by using pens, paints, and oil sticks portray the reality of today’s society."

Like Lee Bull the aesthetic is 'G-ultra'. Interestingly after two decades of absence from the line up in Documenta; Korea was also represented by Haegue Yang. Her work also combines an erudite and sophisticated theoretical position with exuberant remodelling of urban detritus ~ widely known after she represented South Korea in the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. The critical acclaim should encourage more galleries in Seoul to think more ambitiously in terms of selling Korean artists to collectors in Seoul but also to international clients who will certainly enjoy the magnificent collection of gallery spaces that the Kukje Gallery has built to show its powerful group of established and emerging artists such as the brilliant video works of Yeondoo Jung, the mushroom inspired paintings and delicate drawings of Eemyun Kang or the aromatic sculptures in soap by Meekyoung Shin.

In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine James B Lee noted; “Go to MoMA in New York and three of the biggest corporate sponsors are Samsung, Hanjin and Hyundai” James B. Lee, who represents his wife Lee Bull and is a consulting partner at Seoul’s leading PKM gallery, argues that, "Every major museum swings through Seoul with its trustees and directors with the goal of forging future institutional partnerships. Still, international collectors are not coming, which means fewer galleries, which hurts younger local artists. I still think Korea is very isolated.”

In addition to Kukje Gallery, Gana Arts, PKM and Arario Gallery (which now has extended its brand with a gallery in New York), which other galleries have been working to consolidate the global profile of Korean artists and attract collectors to Seoul? These are a tiny sample of what is on offer and artists who epitomise what is great about Korean contemporary art.

For international and Korean collectors these works are brilliant value and don't forget that like Hong Kong, South Korea doesn’t impose any taxes on transactions of art property, and artwork is exempt from transfer and inheritance taxes in Korea too.

Gallery Hyundai has a large portfolio of international artists such as Douglas Gordon and Thomas Struth but this is balanced by support for an array of established and emerging Korean talent from the monochrome master Lee Ufan and the video art pioneer Nam June Paik to the online and graphic video works of Young-Hae Chang HEAVY INDUSTRIES aka YHCHI, the Web art group created in 1999.

These heavyweights sit alongside artists, Kisoo Kwon and Hyunsoo Kim whose mythomophic sculptures stood out at the, 2012 Saatchi Gallery, Korean Eye exhibition and others including: Junebum Park (whose subversive and humours animations and installation SUUM Founder, Jiyoon Lee exhibited at A Foundation during the 2008 Liverpool Biennial) , Kwangho Cheong whose works with wire are miraculously delicate as are the whimsical but troubled tableau by Lee Jinju. Apart from technical sophistication it is always the ideas and their urgency which is most compelling. In an interview Lee Jinju said of her inspirations for her dreamlike work, "I’ve once read, In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust and I absolutely loved it. I personally feel that the book best describes the uncertain state of mind: half-awake, dreaming, or fully conscious. And they all felt so real to me. We know we live our lives, but how do we really know what’s going on around us? And that thin line is where I think art steps in to provide an answer, and that’s what I aim to portray in my works."

For international and Korean collectors these works are brilliant value and don't forget that like Hong Kong, South Korea doesn’t impose any taxes on transactions of art property, and artwork is exempt from transfer and inheritance taxes in Korea too.

Gallery Skape is definitely a signifier of the way that galleries are developing in Seoul. It has a mainly Korean list of artists including the brilliant and charismatic Suejin Chung. Last autumn she hosted a visit at her studio for the International Curators Forum and wowed the group with her intensive process of painting her multilayered paintings and  theories on the perception of colour which were covering the walls. Hyungkoo Lee is perhaps the most established artist with the gallery whose incredible The Objectuals and Animatus have been seen at numerous international exhibitions since he showed in Venice in 2007.

Headed by the founder and the current director, Ihn Yang, Gallery IHN was established in April 1989. The gallery moved to its present premises in Sagan area, near Kyung-Bok Palace and the Blue House in August 1998. It has continued to evolve and promote innovative artists such as Yoo Hyun Mi whose unique large scale photographs at a distance look like paintings. In fact her portraits and still lives are the result of a intensive process of painting and building sculptural forms in 3D to resemble  2D paintings that the artist photographs.

One and J. Gallery was founded in September 2005 in Seoul as one of the first galleries to focus primarily on young contemporary Korean artists. Currently, the gallery represents a strong array of emerging and mid-career artists and has begun to show non-Korean artists in Seoul on a regular basis. Perhaps their most iconic artist is Nikki Lee made an impressive debut in the New York art world with her solo show at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects. This series of works famously featured the artist deploying strategies of assimilation with super Korean diligence, becoming a member of serial subcultures and showing the photographs taken by her new best friends, punks, hip hop crews and pensioners. These works bend the frame of performance and portraiture.

Founded in 1994, Gallery Simon is dedicated to presenting the most current and significant exhibitions such as Digital Translations which focused on the digital aesthetic. Of the Korean artists they represent Airan Kang also explores the specific impact of technology on the transformation of aesthetics most famously in her interactive Book Project.

The public galleries in Seoul should not be missed and there are too many to mention but two of the best are; Seoul Museum of Art. One of the most visited museums by Koreans is right next to the romantic road by the stone wall (Jeongdong-gil), and Leeum (Samsung Museum of Art). The largest private art gallery in Seoul was established by the Samsung Foundation in 2004. Known for its three architectural buildings of three distinctive architects it boasts a significant collection of art pieces from Korean traditional & modern art and international contemporary art. - [O]

Mark Waugh is a London based curator and author of the novels, 'Bubble Entendre' and 'Come and Co' - editor with Thomas Frank of 'We love You / On Audiences'. He is Commissioner for G-Seoul 13, Associate Director of SUUM, Producer of the International Curators Forum and Chair of Spacex Exeter. He has curated and produced numerous projects most recently working with Sachiko Abe at the Pompidou Metz and with Jiyoon Lee on Samsung projects; Samsung Art + Prize and Samsung Olympic Media Art Collection. 

Ocula discover the best in contemporary art icon.
Ocula discover the best in contemporary art icon.
Ocula Newsletter
Stay informed.
Receive our bi-weekly digest on the best of
contemporary art around the world.
Your personal data is held in accordance with our privacy policy.
Ocula discover the best in contemporary art icon.
Get Access
Join Ocula to request price and availability of artworks, exhibition price lists and build a collection of favourite artists, galleries and artworks.
Do you have an Ocula account? Login
What best describes your interest in art?

Subscribe to our newsletter for upcoming exhibitions, available works, events and more.
By clicking Sign Up or Continue with Facebook or Google, you agree to Ocula's Terms & Conditions. Your personal data is held in accordance with our Privacy Policy.
Thank you for joining us. Just one more thing...
Soon you will receive an email asking you to complete registration. If you do not receive it then you can check and edit the email address you entered.
Thank you for joining us.
You can now request price and availability of artworks, exhibition price lists and build a collection of favourite artists, galleries and artworks.
Welcome back to Ocula
Enter your email address and password below to login.
Reset Password
Enter your email address to receive a password reset link.
Reset Link Sent
We have sent you an email containing a link to reset your password. Simply click the link and enter your new password to complete this process.