Critic's Guide: Seoul

With the opening of Media City Seoul 2016, a guide to the best current shows in the South Korean capital

BY Park Jaeyong in Critic's Guides | 01 SEP 16

Kim Heecheon, Sleigh Ride Chill, 2016, Single channel HD video. Commissioned by SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul 2016 

‘Mediacity Seoul 2016 – NERIRI KIRURU HARARA’
Seoul Museum of Art 
1 September – 20 November

What can the future be? Celebrating its 8th edition this year, the ambitious biennial of media art poses the question via more than 80 works by 61 artists from 24 countries. The title ‘NERIRI KIRURU HARARA’ is a sentence in an imaginary Martian language that appears in a poem by Japanese poet Shuntarō Tanikawa. This edition of the biennial, curated by Beck Jee-sook, puts heavy emphasis on new commissions by young local artists and an expanded timeline for the biennial proper: pre-programmes held at different branches of Seoul Museum of Art; four independent publications printed and distributed throughout the year prior to the opening of the biennial, and a summer camp held just a few weeks before the opening. All of these lead to further public events throughout the exhibition’s duration. In terms of venues, ‘NERIRI KIRURU HARARA’ uses two branches of the museum in the Southern and Northern part of Seoul as well as a separate residency complex elsewhere in the city in addition to the main venue located in the city centre.

Inaugurated in 2000 as a festival to celebrate the new millennium’s then-called digital revolution, SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul has strived to define and locate itself within the context of contemporary art. In this regard, ‘NERIRI KIRURU HARARA’ is the most contemporary and expansive edition of Mediacity Seoul to date.

Kim Yong-Ik, Plain Object, 1977, airbrush on cloth, dimensions variable

Kim Yong-ik, ‘Closer… Come Closer…’
Ilmin Museum of Art
1 September – 6 November

‘Closer… Come Closer…’ is Kim Yong-ik’s first major solo exhibition in 19 years. The exhibition is part of the museum’s ongoing effort to reposition itself to keep up with the current discourse of the contemporary art scene at the same time as attracting more visitors with an emphasis on design and popular exhibitions in its yearly programme.

Throughout the three floors of the museum, which overlooks Seoul’s central Gwanghwamun square where festivals and political protests often overlap with each other, the exhibition presents all the major works by the artist in three chronologically divided sections. Well-known in Korea as an artist with strong artistic and political voice, a productive educator, and a passionate organizer of independent spaces, Kim has also been characterized by his constant effort to redefine himself through his works. Paintings with added dots and colours long after they had been originally created, or painted canvases wrapped with clothes to become another work in another time, exemplify this self-reflection. While being a major solo exhibition of an established artist, ‘Closer… Come Closer…’ also tries to provide a wider perspective on Korean art and society by including the artist’s personal archive that spans the four decades of his career.

Lee Kun-yong, Logic of Place, 1975, performance documentation, gelatin silver prints, each: 24 x 33 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul 

Lee Kun-yong, ‘Event-Logical’
Gallery Hyundai 
30 August – 16 October

‘Event-Logical’ is an exhibition that specifically focuses on the performance art practice of Lee Kun-yong in the mid and late-1970s. The exhibition is part of current effort by many public and private art institutions in Korea to reappraise and relocate the recent history of Korean contemporary art. Presenting a series of untitled performative drawings, photographic records of important performances by the artist, and a series of reenactments of the artist’s performances, ‘Event-Logical’ highlights the most productive period in the artist’s career. With this in mind, the exhibition is directed towards a certain picture of the largely forgotten period of Korean contemporary art between the mid and late-20th century which is now being rediscovered – both within Korea and around the globe.

mixrice, The Vice Chronicle, 2016, video still. Courtesy: MMCA, Seoul

‘Korea Artist Prize 2016’
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) 
26 August 2016 – 15 January 2017

What might be interesting to note about the ‘Korea Artist Prize 2016’ exhibition is not necessarily the architecture of its host venue, the new MMCA branch in Seoul, which was once a secret military intelligence facility, nor the scale of the prize (10 million Korean Won) nor the fact that the winning artist will become the subject of a documentary to be aired nationwide on public television. The prize has been held as an annual, nationwide ‘Artist of the Year’ exhibition since 1995 and changed its name to the ‘Korea Artist Prize’ in 2012 with media sponsorship by one of the country’s major broadcasting stations. It is a platform where different ideas of art, and invisible forces in the art scene, gently bump up against each other through the participating artists and their new commissions for the exhibition. In short, the ‘Korea Artist Prize’ provides a useful opportunity to map the Korean art scene, if one carefully decodes the exhibition, the participating artists and their works, and the often invisible circumstances surrounding how the participating artists are decided and promoted. The four contestants of this year’s prize are Back Seung Woo, Ham Kyungah, Kim Eull, and mixrice (Cho Ji Eun and Yang Chul Mo). The winning artist will be announced before the end of the exhibition and the documentary film is to be aired early next year.

Lee Bul, Cyborg W1-W4, 1998, mixed media, dimensions variable

‘Connect 1: Still Acts’
Art Sonje Center 
27 August – 20 November

Opening its doors to the public in 1998, Art Sonje Center has been the central venue in introducing new artistic currents from outside of Korea but has also been a place for Korean artist to produce new works and experiment. Within the Seoul art scene, the museum has long been a meeting point of artists, curators, and art practitioners that visit the city. ‘Connect 1: Still Acts’ is an exhibition to mark the recent renovation of the museum and its two-decade history with three solo exhibitions of Sora Kim, Chung Seoyoung, and Lee Bul.

All are artists whose careers have coincided with the growth of Art Sonje Center and each occupies a floor in the museum to summon the past, the present, and the possible future of the institution. The three artists reinterpret prvious shows they have presented at the museum and invite the visitors to become part of the museum’s renovation of its building and operational structure. In this way, the three exhibitions are part reenactment of the past and part preliminary guide of the future of the institution.

Yi Yunyi, Hearts Echo Like Mercury, 2016, single channel video still. Courtesy: Platform-L Contemporary Art Center, Seoul

‘Push, Pull, Drag’
Platform-L Contemporary Art Center
30 August – 13 November

With the opening of MMCA Seoul in 2013 and changes of directors and key curators at public and private institutions, the dynamics of Seoul’s art scene has been dramatically changing. Platform-L Contemporary Art Center, a private museum funded by a fashion company, is a new player that entered the arena earlier this year with two inaugural solo exhibitions by Yang Fudong and Bae Young-whan.

‘Push, Pull, Drag’ is the museum’s first exhibition curated solely by its young team of curators. Introducing five artists born between 1979 and 1987, the exhibition departs from the question about ‘an exhibition without a theme’ and instead asserts certain tension between the comprehensible and incomprehensible under the frame of an exhibition. Such tension goes beyond the museum’s galleries as the exhibition actively tries to enter into other functional venues within the museum building. At the same time, other intriguing kinds of tension are also present in and around the museum since part of the museum functions as a venue for promoting its mother company and the museum is located in a district in Gangnam, home to Seoul’s high-end fashion district.

Sulki and Min, Concept Drawing 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 9, 2016, digital prints on fabric, each: 210 x 180 cm, installation view Project Seven and a Half, Seoul

‘7 1/2: Cryptographic Imagination: Sulki and Min’
Project Seven and a Half
28 August – 1 October

Locating this exhibition is far from easy since its temporary venue is a renovated storage facility tucked away behind the busy streets of Jongno, an area filled with small shops and pedestrians. Once there it might be difficult, still, to comprehend what you see as an exhibition. Faithful to the spirit of its title, the designers Sulki and Min present cryptographic interpretations of what they have produced as designers in the forms of blurred information charts: images that are reduced to patterns, and seemingly functional goods without any labelling. Whether one finds this exhibition an intriguing artistic experiment by designers or a mere simulation of what can be an art exhibition, it’ss an opportunity to peek into the latest current of Seoul’s art scene where many young artists and practitioners are opening and running spaces and programmes that are often very temporary or publicized only through Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, visiting one of these spaces might be the only way to get information about the other places that are likely to be found nearby.

Main image: Part-time Suite, Wait for Me in a Crashing Airship, 2016, 360-degree VR video. Commissioned by SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul 2016

Park Jaeyong is a curator, writer, and translator based in Seoul.