It’s easy to list off the most influential gallerists in Seoul. Kukje, Arario, Hyundai, PKM, Pyo and Gana Art. But in recent years, a pivotal band of creative spaces have been taking the South Korean art scene in a different direction, headed by a new generation of artists and gallerists able to adapt to the post-recession economic landscape.
Bella Jung, co-founder of the nascent space bm, is one of the figures at the forefront of this generational transformation. Accomplished in the art world, she spent two years at Kukje Gallery as an assistant director, a stint at the more commercial-minded Opera Gallery, and headed the publicity team for the Seoul Museum of Art’s Mediacity Seoul biennale. But unsatisfied with the limitations of vertical movement within the established system, Jung set off to start her own gallery in late 2012. Co-founded with Lee Seung-min, the Itaewon-located space bm is thoughtfully and precisely curated, focusing on mid-career abstract artists. Last year saw solo exhibitions by Sunny Kim, Park So-young and Myoung Ho Lee, who then closed out a productive 2013 with a major show at Gallery Hyundai.
The combination of abstract and conceptual art doesn’t typically raise eyebrows in the art world. Yet in the often figurative-leaning South Korean market, it’s a bold taste that sets space bm apart—a distinction most clearly seen in the fair circuit. Jung takes inspiration from Berlin’s Barbara Wien, credited with helping Haegue Yang find an international light and whose personality can be seen in every acquisition. “That’s the kind of concept we want,” Jung says, referring to the German gallerist’s resolute sense of character. “From a business point of view, there are way too many galleries relative to people here. Which means you have to think about how your gallery is going to survive. The conclusion Seung-min and I came to was that you have to be able to stand alone.”
This led to space bm’s fine-tuned mission to work with established Korean artists who have hit a wall in terms of international exposure. Their goal became to help promote domestic names on a global level, as well as cultivate a greater audience within Korea itself. Aligning with this philosophy of cultural growth, the two also spend time working as consultants for gallery start-ups and curatorial projects outside their gallery.
Earlier this year, space bm worked tangentially with Jang Seung Hyo at Art Stage Singapore, where the artist unveiled a collaboration with Rolls Royce, and featured his vivid murals and sculptures of frenetic photographic collage. But Jang is also notable for his part in creating a new artists’ hub in the posh Cheongdam neighborhood: COL.L.AGE+, a mixed-use complex established with fellow artist Jang Woosuk and Cha Minsuk. The venue has become a scene for both art and culture with icons like Lie Sang Bong organizing mini fashion shows. Comprising the décor of the space is an extended artwork by Jang Seung Hyo—the walls, floor and ceiling are covered in his signature photo collages. “I wanted to be able to hold concerts, fashion shows, exhibitions, meet new people, work, and drink all from within the setting of an artwork itself. A place of fusion where all sorts of people can come and express their views, like the salon culture of Europe,” he says. “I think that mixing all of those elements can lead to interesting new endeavors…like Andy Warhol’s Factory.”
It is the collaborative mentality that is changing the way art is created, produced and approached in Seoul. Partially in response to the economic downturn, partially in an effort to expand reach, there has been greater emphasis on a business-minded model. One of the most successful of these is Hzone, an independent curatorial group founded by the regarded Lee DaeHyung. Hzone is best known for its work with the Korean Eye series, a three-year project that took corporate sponsorship from Standard Chartered and others to hold blockbuster group exhibitions of Korean artists at Saatchi Gallery. He also oversaw the partnership between the historic Gansong Art Museum and the Zaha Hadid-created Dongdaemun Design Plaza through 2016, with the iconic institution scheduling collection-based exhibitions at the DDP after it opens in March. It’ll be the first time any artwork from the Gansong collection will be shown outside.
But most recently Lee became the art director for Hyundai Motor Company, known locally as an influential backer of the arts. Just last month the Tate Modern announced an unprecedented sponsorship with Hyundai, which will commission works for the Turbine Hall from 2015 to 2025. The company is also helping the museum strengthen its Asian art collection, starting with an acquisition of nine major works by the late Fluxus artist Nam June Paik. It’s part of the company’s overarching goal to establish itself as an art authority while providing rare opportunities for the art aficionado public. “We have to analyze from a long-term perspective, look at the significance [of these art projects] beyond Korea. The basic premise is to collaborate with multiple partners, not just one, and propose a vision measured in decades not years,” Lee says.
On the opposite end of that spectrum is the more grassroots approach. Active in the avant-garde corners of the art world is Nayoungim and Gregory Maass, an artist duo that created the nomadic, conceptual Kim Kim Gallery in 2008. The couple started with an idea to create a community without the physical space and institutional boundaries. Last year, the tongue-in-cheek “gallery” held the conceptual Douglasism Festival, a citywide event hosted in indie bookstores, artist residency cum cafes, and other hole-in-the-wall spaces. While the two as artists have exhibited at alternative spaces and established galleries both here and abroad, it is their foray into the organizational aspects of the art world that has pushed them to the frontier of the scene.
Ultimately, it is the drive to move away from the model of the white cube that is shaping contemporary art in Seoul today. Even space bm’s architecture takes a step away from tradition: instead of a windowless cavern, the half-basement gallery makes use of a floor-to-ceiling, southward facing window wall. Although Jung and her co-founder were warned against renting out the space, they found the window to be the true selling point. “Not everyone wants to become Kukje Gallery,” Jung says. “Gallerists are like a different kind of artist.”