The pressure is high for boutique art fair G-Seoul 14 this year, though you wouldn’t know it by the easy glamour and airy polish of its backdrop: the newly broken-in Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) designed by Zaha Hadid and officially opened this March. The curvilinear hall, expansive ceiling space, and ceiling-to-floor white motif lends itself well to the exclusive event. Even the booths strayed from traditional cube form, instead favoring an angular, open-layout design that leads visitors from one end of the hall to the other in a maze of fine art.
Though still in its nascent phase, the progressive fair that caters exclusively to Korean buyers floundered last year with a stagnant art market and poor venue choice, resulting in an additional level of strain to perform well in this year’s incarnation. Meticulous attention to detail was paid to both the location and guests, as G-Seoul pared down its exhibitors list to a minimal 18. Included in the main exhibition are Kukje Gallery, Gallery Hyundai and Hakgojae, and a section dedicated to solo shows includes new, yet influential, venues like Gallery Koo and Gallery Planet (each of which opened within the last year), and established heavyweights like Gana Art. Only two overseas exhibitors were invited — Hong Kong-based Edouard Malingue Gallery and London’s HADA Contemporary, which specializes in young Korean artists.
The carefully vetted selection and cautious market approach, in combination with the recent Sewol sinking tragedy, led to a subdued but determined atmosphere at the VIP open. This year’s inclusion of such fresh-faced galleries also meant a greater choice of artworks by both Korean masters like Lee Ufan and Kim Tschang Yeul and emerging contemporary names. The latter has been proving popular among buyers, while secondary works by blue-chip artists from both home and abroad are gathering gradual interest.
Initial sales have been slow, but as is custom at most fairs in Korea, the majority of transactions are anticipated to occur on closing night. The biggest sales of the fair’s open were had at Edouard Malingue, whose Laurent Grasso works garnered interest across the board. The neon-lit Stella Nova (2012) sold its first edition for 18,000 euros (US$24,800) and a reserve was placed on the artist’s other work on view, Retroprojection (2012). The gallery’s mix of conceptual art proved to be a winning combination, with interest shown in works by young American artist Jeremy Everett and Hong Kong artist João Vasco Paiva. The inflated fire extinguisher Globo (2011) by Los Carpinteros is one of the few in the fair to bring both obvious levity and social commentary.
Hakgojae brought their representative Korean artists Sea Hyun Lee and Lee Yong Baek, with a small selection of works by Anish Kapoor, Ian Davenport, Tim Eitel, and Sam Francis. Ultimately, their first sale of the fair was a work by Yun Suknam, whose drawings are on offer for the first time at a fair. A Woman Writing a Letter (2002) sold for 1.5 million won (US$1,400).
Following in this trend, smaller works are proving to be most popular, with most transactions occurring in the solo show hall where emerging artists are clustered. Four oil paintings by Moon Hyeong Tae were sold by Sun Gallery, while four works by Je Baak sold at HADA Contemporary for a total of 8 million won (US$7,800). Gallery Em quickly sold a number of small acrylic canvases by Jeanie Lee for 600,000 won (US$580) a piece, while at their main booth a print by Jae Yong Rhee, Memories of the Gaze_Mirror_Shinoori 2 (2013-2014), sold for 1.2 million won (US$1,170).
Gallery Koo, which opened just this March, took a risk and dedicated its booth to Han Sook Yoo, a young, 33-year-old artist with no previous fair exposure. Reflecting the new contender status of the gallery, the artist proved to be a plucky success — two of her poster-like compositions in acrylic, paired with acerbic quips, sold by the end of the first day.
While the interest in young Korean artists is a progressive step forward for the local collecting crowd, it’s left some of the more established names lagging in sales. Buyers were certainly not left in want of choice. Hyundai brought a concise selection of works, including a painting by Lee Ufan and a recent works by Kim Tschang Yeul. Foreign artists on their roster include Ivan Navarro, Michael Craig-Martin, and Thai artist Natee Utarit, who held a solo show at Hyundai last year — the first Southeast Asian artist to do so in the gallery’s history.
Kukje brought to the show a combination of sculpture and paper collage by Haegue Yang, along with pieces by Anselm Reyle, Candid Höfer. Gallery Shilla perhaps brought the most in name value, with works by Yayoi Kusama (whose traveling retrospective A Dream I Dreamed is on view at Seoul Arts Center), Lee Kang So, Alan Charlton, and an installation by Nam June Paik. Paik’s Literature is Not a Book (1988) is one of the most expensive in the fair, up for 600 million (US$585,000). “No one’s even asked about it yet,” lamented a gallery associate.
But prospects are fair for the weekend crowd, and gallerists have let no detail escape their grasp (even the date of G-Seoul was pushed up, likely to coincide with Art Basel in Hong Kong next week and draw in more visitors). This is never more clear than at Johyun Gallery, whose stunning main exhibition booth was designed and curated by the artist whose works it displays — Park Seobo. It’s the only venue in the main exhibition that went with a single-artist show, and distinguishes itself with its visual minimalism. “The artist himself selected the placement of the works on the walls, and even the spacing between each piece,” said gallery manager Jeeyoung Park.
The art market might still be in recovery, but G-Seoul has returned to its spirit that first earned it the spotlight in 2011. The combination of careful curation and thoughtful strategy will hopefully break through the economic strains by Sunday’s end. -[O]