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Frieze Week Seoul 2023

Elizabeth Chun’s Slice of Paradise

The Seoul-based private collector and her husband have brought showstopping works to Incheon’s Paradise City resort. She discusses female artists and her hopes for the Korean scene

BY Elizabeth Chun AND Matthew McLean in Frieze Seoul , Frieze Week Magazine , Interviews | 07 SEP 23

Matthew McLean What were some of your first encounters with art? How have they shaped your approach to enjoying and collecting art today?

Elizabeth Chun I became interested in art and culture at an early age. I’ve been surrounded by art for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was actively involved in art clubs during his school days, and his exceptional artistic talent won him several awards. His former classmates included Chang Ucchin, Lee Daiwon and Kwon OkYeon—prominent modern and contemporary artists in Korea. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I grew up appreciating the work of some of the great masters, from both home and abroad.

My own passion for art blossomed just as naturally. I spent my childhood in Japan. Shortly after arriving there, without speaking a word of Japanese, I took an art class—before I even started kindergarten. Even though I was very young, I still remember the moment I first stepped into the class. I was amazed and fascinated by the various materials that I encountered for the first time, and I quickly came to love and excel at art.

So, having had the great fortune to be exposed to art from an early age, it became an integral part of my life and shaped my knowledge and taste. Then the development of Paradise City as a premier “art-tainment” resort helped expand my interest. I developed an instinct for selecting excellent artworks and continued to learn from being in close proximity to art.

Elizabeth Chun at Paradise Art Space in Seoul, June 2023. Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules), 2013. © Jeff Koons
Elizabeth Chun at Paradise Art Space in Seoul, June 2023, with Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules), 2013. © Jeff Koons. Photography: Lee Gyu Won

MM What was your first acquisition? Can you talk us through the process that inspired you to own a piece of art for the first time?

EC In 1993 or 1994 I bought an Andy Warhol print in a gallery I happened to visit on a trip to Hawaii. That was my first acquisition. My first encounter with pop art was in secondary school in Canada, when it was the focus of my research project. The idea that everyday images from comic books, magazines and illustrations could be works of art came as a shock, and the simple yet vivid colours and lines caught my attention. I was particularly impressed by the work of Roy Lichtenstein. For my project I even made drawings by hand—at that time there was no such thing as a printer. Throughout my teenage years, I would save my pocket money to buy pop art posters and hang them in my room. This love continued to grow, and so my first acquisition turned out to be pop. As a young traveller in my twenties, I could only afford a print, but the work remains a treasured piece in my collection to this day.

At Paradise City, you can also find works by pop masters like Robert Indiana, not to mention many unique pop art pieces from different corners of the world.

MM When did you begin thinking about sharing contemporary art in the setting of Paradise City? What was your inspiration?

EC As the slogan “Design life as art” suggests, Paradise has always been accompanied by  art. In addition to Paradise Hotel Busan, which opened in 1981, Paradise Hotel Jeju and Olympos Hotel in Incheon have all showcased unique contemporary art. Paradise Culture Foundation and Kaywon Academy (Kaywon High School of Arts and University) support art and culture and nurture young talent. We have sought to bring art into everyday life.

As a continuation of this vision, Paradise City was developed into a space for “art-tainment”. It brings art closer to people and our visitors have access to outstanding works without having to go to a museum.

Damien Hirst, Aurous Cyanide, 2016
Damien Hirst, Aurous Cyanide, 2016. Photography: Lee Gyu Won

MM Could you talk through the story of your acquisition of one of the iconic works at Paradise City—say, the Damien Hirst painting

EC Our association with Damien Hirst dates back to the early 2000s. Since Hirst burst onto the contemporary art scene in “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” at the Royal Academy in London in 1997, we developed a strong relationship with him and acquired several of his works. Over the course of nearly 20 years, this relationship led naturally to the Paradise City project, where we commissioned Hirst to create a new work for the space that had been specifically designed to showcase contemporary art. He then fulfilled his promise to create a monumental work for Paradise City by completing Aurous Cyanide (2016), which, at three metres high and nine metres wide, was the largest dot painting at the time.

MM At Paradise City, there is a strong dialogue between Korean and international contemporary art. How do you see this developing in the years to come?

EC In recent years, the film Parasite (2019), the television series Squid Game (2021) and the K-pop sensation BTS have taken the world by storm. In addition, Korea’s art and art market are in the global spotlight, which is why Frieze chose Seoul as the site for its first venture in Asia. The Korean art market may be relatively small in scale, but its vigour remained undimmed throughout the pandemic. Along with the rise of K-pop, the powerful and distinctive art being made here today is bound to win a bigger global audience. The recent exhibition “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s–1970s” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York is a testament to this growing interest.

Paradise City is widely known for its collection of works by world-renowned artists, including Hirst’s Golden Legend (2014) and Yayoi Kusama’s Great Gigantic Pumpkin (2014). However, there are also works by masters like Park Seo-Bo, Kim Tschang-Yeul and Lee Kang-So and young artists like Kajin Lee, as well as works from different countries, genres and generations. Our aim is to establish Paradise City as a K-style destination that raises the status of Korean art on the global stage.

Last year, in collaboration with Professor Sang-Hoon Kim of Seoul National University and other experts, we published Korea Art Market 2022, an English language report introducing the essence of the Korean art market overseas. Beyond simply presenting and exhibiting artworks, Paradise is committed to nurturing Korean artists through ongoing research programs and the creation and production support project such as the Paradise Art Lab. Our goal is to serve as a hub where international and Korean artworks can come together like a patchwork quilt made up of diverse patterns and colours. To this end, we will continue to make every effort and provide extensive support.

Elizabeth Chun at Paradise City with (on wall) Je Yeo Ran, Usquam Nusquam, 2016
Elizabeth Chun at Paradise City with (on wall) Je Yeo Ran, Usquam Nusquam, 2016. Photography: Lee Gyu Won

MM How would you characterize the Korean contemporary art scene right now? What makes it so vital in your eyes?

EC More and more female artists are making their presence felt on the Korean art scene. The 59th Venice Biennale, where most participating artists were women, featured Mire Lee and Geumhyung Jeong, both born in the 1980s. Moreover, the list of the world’s top 1,000 artists, compiled by Artfacts, includes Lee Bul, Kimsooja and Haegue Yang.

In Korea, young women born between 1980 and 2000—known as Millennials or Gen Z—are the most engaged with arts and culture. They cherish and nurture their own sensibilities and place a high value on networking with each other. For example, they don’t hesitate to communicate directly with artists via Instagram, use hashtags to find out about new ones and search for relevant information or ways to purchase artworks. In essence, the younger generations have come to embrace and enjoy contemporary art, which usually requires a basic understanding of philosophical and artistic concepts. This growing interest in art and culture has undoubtedly led to a greater focus on female artists.

MM What were your impressions of the first Frieze Seoul? What do you anticipate for this next edition?

EC I remember the Korean art scene buzzing with excitement from the moment the news broke that Seoul would be the first Asian city to host Frieze. Alongside the ongoing boom in the Korean art market, there were both high expectations and apprehensions. However, when Frieze Seoul finally opened, I realized that “Frieze never disappoints!”

Like everyone else, I am looking forward to the second edition with a fluttering heart rather than a vague sense of anticipation. I hope that galleries that were reluctant to participate last year, or that opted for safety rather than innovation, will all come this year and contribute to the fair’s diversity. As Frieze Seoul continues to take root, I expect it to establish itself as an important axis of the Korean art scene and thus play a pivotal role in promoting Korean art to the wider world.

Above Kim Tschang-Yeul, Waterdrops, 1975
Kim Tschang-Yeul, Waterdrops, 1975. Photography: Lee Gyu Won

MM You collect with your husband, Mr. Phillip Chun. How do you make joint  decisions about your collection? How do you negotiate different positions on individual artworks?

EC Phillip tends to rely on his intuition, while I lean towards data-driven decision making. I gather information about artists or artworks and share it with him. Then he makes the final call. I have complete faith in his intuition and judgment, so we do not have differences of opinion.

MM What are some of the works you live with, as opposed to putting on display at Incheon? Do you look for different qualities in works that you spend time with in this way?

EC My private collection is mainly contemporary art. I own works by internationally renowned artists such as Ed Ruscha, and works by a number of remarkable Korean artists such as Lee Ufan and Haegue Yang. The works I’ve collected for myself reflect my personal taste, while most of the works on display in Paradise City are owned by the Paradise Group and therefore represent the company’s vision and philosophy, or the message we hope to convey to our customers. Needless to say, there are many more factors to consider when selecting work for Paradise City. Each piece must be in harmony with the style and interior of the hotel and we take great care to ensure that the chosen works will appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds.

MM What is your most recent acquisition, and what is on your radar as a piece to consider soon?

EC In recent years, exceptional female artists have come to the fore in the contemporary art world. I once came across an oil painting by Elizabeth Peyton and was captivated by the sheer energy and charm it exuded despite its small size. I remember standing in front of it for a long time, completely lost in it. Although her portraits are of familiar figures, they have the power to make us see them in a new light. I am usually very cautious about buying works, but with this particular piece, I felt almost destined to collect it. It can’t be a coincidence that the artist, the painting and the collector are all named Elizabeth.

I’ve also been on the lookout for promising but underrated Asian artists. Young artists such as Yiyun Kang, whose recent collaboration with Jaeger-LeCoultre has been in the spotlight, and Heejoon Lee has also caught my attention.

MM What are the most important lessons you’ve learned on your collecting journey?

EC I make a point of visiting and experiencing as many exhibitions and cultural spaces as time allows. I try my best to interact with those in the field at every opportunity. By constantly networking with the local and global art scene, I come across artists or works that resonate with me. Often, discussions with artists about their creative intentions lead to the discovery of works that inspire deep reflection, while ongoing communication with critics and curators helps me keep abreast of the latest trends in the field.

These endeavours add depth and breadth to my perspective on art, business and life in general.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, Seoul 2023 under the headline ‘Holding Court’

Main image: Damien Hirst, Aurous Cyanide, 2016. Photography: Lee Gyu Won

Elizabeth Chun is Vice Chairman of Paradise Group and Chairman of Paradise Cultural Foundation in Seoul, Korea.

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.