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Issue 180

City Report: Seoul

Travis Jeppesen and Sook-Kyung Lee explore the South Korean capital, a city that is fast cementing its place as a leading international destination for art

BY Sook-Kyung Lee AND Travis Jeppesen in Critic's Guides | 15 JUL 16

Read the Chinese translation here:editorial-seoul-city-report-frieze180.pdf

Sook-Kyung Lee
Sook-Kyung Lee is Senior Research Curator at Tate, London, UK. She served as Commissioner and Curator of the Korean pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Italy, in 2015.

Seoul’s reputation as the most wired city in the world seems justified when you find yourself receiving constant news and email updates through free Wi-Fi while walking around the city or travelling on the subway. One story that caught the public’s attention this March was the sudden replacement of the director of the National Museum of Korea, Kim Young-na. An established art historian turned respected museum director, Kim had been in the position since 2011 and had just held a press conference setting out the ambitious exhibition programme for 2016. The local newspaper Hankyoreh claimed that Kim was ‘vengefully replaced’ for her objection to a French decorative art exhibition, which was part of the cultural exchange programme celebrating the anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and France, in which the Korean’s president allegedly had a particular interest. The article contended that the presidential Blue House was offended by Kim’s opposition to the inclusion of commercial items by French luxury fashion brands in the exhibition, which led the show’s French co-organizers, the Louvre Museum and Comité Colbert, to cancel it.

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Museum 1 designed by Mario Botta, Museum 2 designed by Jean Nouvel and Samsung Child Education & Culture Centre designed by Rem Koolhaas. Courtesy: Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; photograph: Kyung-sub Shin

The claim demonstrates a long-standing and often legitimate suspicion of state interference in cultural affairs. Regardless of its validity, however, what surprises me most is the relative silence over the matter among artists and cultural figures. Just a few months prior, in November 2015, some 800 artists and art professionals signed a petition against the appointment of Bartomeu Marí as Director of Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), scrutinizing the reason for Marí’s departure from the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and questioning his integrity over the issue of state censorship. Marí responded to the representatives of the petition and the press with an explanation, and has since made subtle yet progressive changes to the institution. Though the petition was divisive, it was largely perceived as a signal of a growing political awareness within the artistic community, where opposition to censorship has been paramount. So, what has changed since November 2015? Is this silence about Kim’s dismissal a sign of a renewed disengagement? Are artists and art professionals less interested in the institutional workings of an historical museum than a contemporary one? Or, as some have speculated, was last year’s petition actually a rally against a foreign director driven by an ambiguous political agenda?

Home to several national and municipal art museums, numerous commercial galleries and publicly funded artists’ studios, Seoul has come into its own as a thriving artistic and cultural centre to rival other international cities. MMCA opened its new central Seoul offshoot in November 2013, with the goal of becoming what the Museum of Modern Art is to New York and Tate is to London. Unlike its original branch in Gwacheon – a southern suburb of Seoul – the new museum is located in the heart of the city, where major commercial galleries such as Kukje and Hyundai are based. The museum’s inaugural programme was a mixture of exhibitions of the collection and temporary projects, showcasing contemporary Korean and international art. Do Ho Suh’s massive installation Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home (2013) was a highlight, while other shows and projects attracted mixed responses and, at times, heated criticism. It was clear that MMCA Seoul had immediately become the centre of attention, with its every move closely watched. In fact, the museum has been put under intense public scrutiny ever since, resulting in the inaugural director’s dismissal over alleged nepotism in hiring curatorial staff. Such scrutiny exposes the Korean art community’s high expectations for the new museum, which could encourage its growth and improvement in the coming years.

Jean-Michel Othoniel, 'Black Lotus', 2016, installation view, Kukje Gallery, K3. Courtesy: the artist and Kukje Gallery, Seoul; photograph: Keith Park

Seoul’s solid infrastructure of art schools, institutions, public funding, internationally experienced art dealers and auction houses gives it a particular edge over other major cities in the region. Unlike Beijing or Shanghai, where the private sector dictates many of the major museums’ activities, Seoul has the benefit of strong public art institutions and funding systems that support artistic innovation and experimentation. Corporate sponsorship remains robust, with Samsung and Hyundai at the forefront of philanthropic support for art as part of their social responsibility and global marketing initiatives. Seoulites’ characteristic international outlook and curiosity are also crucial. Increasingly, Korean artists and curators are choosing to  study and work abroad. At the same time, a growing number of artists from Seoul are gaining international exposure, exhibiting in biennials and group shows worldwide. Like their predecessors Lee Ufan and the late Nam June Paik, artists such as Do Ho Suh, Haegue Yang, Lee Bul and Sung Hwan Kim have become leading international art-world figures. On my recent visit to Australia, I saw remarkable new projects by Lee Bul and Minouk Lim at the 20th Biennale of Sydney, and by Siren Eun Young Jung at the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial.

Seoul has come into its own as a thriving artistic and cultural centre to rival other international cities.

Recent international attention to the 1970s artistic movement Dansaekhwa is welcomed in South Korea as a positive development in the rethinking of Korean modernist art. Terms such as ‘derivative’ and ‘belated’ are gradually being replaced with ‘negotiation’ and ‘parallel’ in critical writing on contemporary art. Artists like Kim Ku-Lim and Lee Seung-Taek, who are from the same generation as the Dansaekhwa artists, have also enjoyed renewed interest in their work. For almost four decades, these artists have worked independently, having opted not to affiliate themselves with the academic establishment of the 1970s nor the dissident movement. This stance has enabled them to make performance and installation works that are both experimental and non-conformist. Recent revision of the 20th-century art-historical canon has put a new emphasis on the international dimensions of so-called Western movements such as conceptualism, minimalism and performance, and practices like Kim’s and Lee’s are now being written about as locally rooted yet globally connected examples. There are several artists in Seoul whose work ought similarly to be rediscovered and re-evaluated, as well as a host of younger artists whose practices deserve recognition now, not just retrospectively at some unknown point in the future. With further professional and ethical reforms in the management of public institutions and state cultural policies, Seoul will remain the capital of South Korea – both politically and artistically.

Do Ho Suh, Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home, 2013, polyester fabric, metal frame, 15.3 x 12.8 x 12.9 m. Courtesy: the artist and MMCA, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul

Travis Jeppesen
Travis Jeppesen is an artist and writer based in Berlin, Germany. He is the author of eight books, including, most recently, All Fall: Two Novellas (Publication Studio, 2014). His latest solo exhibition, ‘New Writing’, opened in May at Exile in Berlin. 

Dansaekhwa might be enjoying its moment in the spotlight, but this past winter in Seoul, where it all began, the art-historical referent on everyone’s minds (and on every other billboard) was Nam June Paik, whose retrospective, occupying both spaces of Gallery Hyundai, opened in January. Although Paik left Seoul in 1950, at the age of 18, to escape the Korean War, he returned to the city several times to produce a number of memorable works and actions, including A Pas de Loup (Discreetly, 1990), a large and elaborate shamanistic performance that served as a funerary homage to Joseph Beuys. Documentation of the performance, as well as the objects Paik used, featured prominently in the show.

Shifting economies of attention are the nature of existence in the South Korean capital. The velocity of the city’s social life can be measured by the dizzying speed at which trends come and go: one month, a dozen new Korean-Mexican fusion restaurants sprout up; three weeks later, the crowd has moved on to southern US soul food, and so on. ‘Competitive’ is the adjective used over and over by Seoulites when asked to describe their society, and this applies to more than just climbing the academic or professional ladder. It’s also about being two or three steps ahead of the latest fads: an aspiration that suggests an underlying fear of being left behind, which, in its worst incarnation, can lead to an overwhelming pressure to conform. Many South Koreans I met admitted that their society is, after all, still governed by a deeply traditional and conservative value system, despite often appearing to be at least two decades ahead of the West in terms of its architecture, technology and infrastructure.

MMCA, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, designed by mp_Art Architects. Courtesy: mp_Art Architects, Seoul; photograph: Kim Jong Oh

It was minus 30 degrees on the day I arrived in Seoul for my first visit, but I quickly warmed up after stuffing myself with fiery doses of kimchi and squirts of milky sweet makgeolli. My visit felt long overdue: multiple trips to the surrealscape of North Korea had instilled in me a lingering curiosity about the more developed and accessible side of the peninsula. I felt a bit guilty about betraying my sweet North Korean guides, from whom – despite widespread propaganda portraying South Korea as an illegal puppet state of the American imperialists – I had always detected a hint of disappointment when I told them I hadn’t been. My immediate observation: if North Korea seems perpetually stuck in the 1970s, South Korea is hyper-advanced in fields such as fashion and technology. With its spotlessly clean and efficient subway lines, the fastest Wi-Fi in the world – freely available virtually everywhere – and bold, 21st-century architecture (including GT Tower East, Boutique Monaco and Kring Kumho Culture Complex, to name but three of the most impressive structures), Seoul makes a city like New York look as though it’s living in the Dark Ages.

Unlike Beijing or Shanghai, where the private sector dictates many of the major museums' activities, Seoul has the benefit of strong public art institutions and funding systems.

With the second largest metropolitan area in the world, Seoul is, unsurprisingly, also home to a massive quantity of museums, galleries and alternative exhibition spaces – I struggled to see even half of them during my week-long trip. Short-term visitors tend to concentrate on the galleries and museums scattered throughout the Insadong district, which is wedged between two icons of classical Korean architecture: the Joseon Dynasty Gyeongbokgung Palace and the traditional houses of Bukchon Hanok Village. One of the most touristy areas of the city, Insadong is a fusion of old and new, with high-end boutiques installed alongside antique markets, traditional tea houses and Buddhist temples. Besides Gallery Hyundai, the district is also home to the MMCA, which – to give an idea of its size – was hosting simultaneous solo exhibitions by Philippe Garrel, William Kentridge, Ahn Kyuchul and, my personal favourite, a collection of recently donated, large-scale abstract ink paintings by Suh Se-Ok.

Dior Boutique, designed by Atelier Christian de Portzamparc. Courtesy: Christian de Portzamparc, Paris; photograph: Nicolas Borel

The most impressive venue, however, was a bit further afield: the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. In virtually every respect, it is evidence of how Korean ambition can yield awe-inspiring results. This is as true of the museum’s collections as it is of its architecture, with contributions from some of the world’s leading names in the field: Mario Botta designed the building that houses traditional Korean art, while Jean Nouvel built the structure for contemporary art and Rem Koolhaas designed the museum’s education centre. Curatorial ingenuity is apparent throughout the exhibition spaces: in the collection of classical Buddhist sculpture, for instance, works by Alberto Giacometti and Mark Rothko have also been thoughtfully installed in the space. Rather than appearing as a laboured attempt to create an East-meets-West cultural dialogue, however, this simple act underscores how they form part of the same continuum. In Museum Two, devoted to modern and contemporary work, there is a similarly seamless integration of pieces by Korean and non-Korean artists. A good example: in one section, paintings by Chung Chang-Sup, Chung Sang-Hwa, Ha Chong-Hyun, Agnes Martin and Park Seo-Po surround Roni Horn’s Ten Liquid Incidents (2010–12).

With the second largest metropolitan area in the world, it's no surprise that Seoul is home to a massive quantity of museums, galleries and alternative exhibition spaces. 

Architecture exhibitions can be alienating for non-specialists like myself, which is perhaps why I unconsciously put off viewing the museum’s temporary exhibition, ‘An Homage to Korean Architecture: Wisdom of the Earth’ until the end of my visit. Now I regret not having set aside an entire day to see it, as it turned out to be the most engaging and interesting architecture exhibition I have ever seen. Eschewing the modern and contemporary – the cityscape of Seoul is, after all, its own museum in this regard – the exhibition served as the first comprehensive overview of classical Korean architecture. Rather than showing endless rows of 3D plastic models, however, the curators opted to work with contemporary photographers and filmmakers to produce large-scale digital films and videos of ten built environments, many of which are situated in the country’s mountainous terrain, far from cities. As one of the architectural historians interviewed for this fascinating project observed, classical Korean buildings tended to be modestly scaled because they were constructed in response to the natural environment; since the peninsula lacks soaring mountains, buildings were traditionally designed with low pitched roofs in harmony with their surroundings.

Eun Hye Kang, Sequence #1, 2014, collage, 76 x 51 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Elsewhere, at Arario Gallery, Lee Kang Wook’s exhibition ‘Paradoxical Space: The New World’ showcased a new series of abstract paintings comprised of coloured dots and ink stains, eliciting the illusion of craggy surfaces, as well as another group of works of gestural overlapping circles that resembled solar systems. The work of Eun Hye Kang provides further evidence for young Korean artists’ deep engagement with languages of abstraction; her show at the Sejong Centre was a deconstructive reading of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, reduced to a series of vertical and horizontal lines on canvas.

With events such as the the Gwangju and Busan Biennales and the annual fair, Art Seoul, not to mention a plethora of international artist residencies, South Korea is increasingly opening its doors. So, it makes sense that Paik, the local boy who swam out into the mainstream of the international art world and revolutionized it, is the historical figure Seoulites currently have their eye on – for the next week or two, at least.

Sook Kyung-Lee is Senior Curator, International, at Tate, London, UK. She served as Commissioner and Curator of the Korean pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Italy, in 2015.

Travis Jeppesen is an American novelist, artist, poet and art critic. His novels include The Suiciders (2013), Wolf at the Door (2007), and Victims (2003). He lives in Berlin, Germany, and London, UK, where he occasionally teaches at the Royal College of Art. In 2014, his work was included in the Whitney Biennial, New York, USA, and he had a solo show, ‘16 Sculptures’, at Wilkinson Gallery, London.