The opening of ‘X: Korean Art in the Nineties’, at Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) in the middle of December 2016, coincided with weekly protests next to the museum following the impeachment of President Park Guen-hye, as part of
a corruption scandal involving some of the country’s largest companies. The nearby City Hall Plaza was one of the main venues for regular anti-government demonstrations, with often more than a million citizens from all around the country protesting. In light of such events, there is now an urge to take a close look at South Korea’s tainted recent past and make a radical departure from it.
In a way, SeMA had already broken from its institutional past under its outgoing director, Kim Hong-hee, who departed in January at the end of her five-year term. During Kim’s tenurship, the museum cancelled a number of ‘externally organized’ exhibitions, mostly of works by Western masters, with the intention of moving to a model of in-house curation. (In Korea, it is common for touring exhibitions to be ‘imported’ by private companies that rent public venues. For institutions, such exhibitions are good opportunities to increase visitor numbers.) ‘X’ might therefore be read as an attempt to simultaneously address two histories: that of the institution itself and that of the wider culture beyond its walls. The exhibition deals with the period between 1987 and 1996: respectively, the year of nation-wide protests that ended the military dictatorship and led to the first free direct presidential election and the year before the Asian financial crisis. ‘X’ defines the period as a time of ‘excess and loss, destruction and leap’, encompassing global sociopolitical events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the death of Kim Il-sung, the leader of North Korea.
Unfolding across the museum’s first floor, the show is divided into four parts: the work of self-organized young artist groups; key exhibitions from the period, which have been partially restaged; the reproduction of major works by individual artists or collectives; and a reimagining of a number of cafes that were key meeting points for artistic activities. As such, ‘X’ presents a rather confusing environment to its visitors. As if to simulate this period of total social, political, economic and cultural change, the exhibition is arranged in a such a way that it is confusing to distinguish reproductions from new commissions.
One risk that this historicizing approach runs is of over-festishizing the period. Take, for example, Lee Bul’s Untitled (Cravings Red), a 2011 reproduction of a 1988 piece that was worn by the artist in a number of performances at the end of 1980s. Hung from the ceiling at the exhibition’s entrance, the striking assemblage of tentacle-like limbs and externalized organs is a key work in Lee’s oeuvre. It serves as an important signifier of both the rigid social atmosphere in which the artist’s early works were produced, as well as a fresh reminder of ongoing debates around gender discrimination and misogyny in contemporary Korean society. (In the past year, the country has witnessed a series of hate crimes against women and revelations of sexual harassment cases in the art world.) In ‘X’, however, the work’s political charge is subdued. Instead of delving into Untitled (Cravings Red)’s historical context, ‘X’ simply juxtaposes the sculptural element with colourful production sketches, reducing it to little more than a prop.
This decidedly apolitical manner of presentation is also the case in the section that deals with historical shows, such as ‘Apgujeong-dong: Utopia/Dystopia’, which took place in the somewhat unexpected location of the Galleria department store in Seoul in 1992. While this provides a welcome opportunity to access rarely seen archival material, it is difficult to judge what exactly ‘X’ is trying to say about the period in question.
In the end, every attempt to review the past necessarily implies a consideration of the present and future. Along with the historical archive and artworks, ‘X’ presents four new commissions by a younger generation of artists. One of them, Ruptured (2016) by Gim Ikhyun, is a collage of superimposed images of the future as imagined from the mid-20th century and 3D renderings of the interiors of mass-constructed South Korean apartment complexes. The Korean government built the first generation of satellite cities around Seoul in the 1980s and ’90s as part of a plan to create two million new houses. Conceived as a quick solution to surging housing prices, these buildings are eligible for demolition and reconstruction after 2021 – a year that must have seemed very distant when their foundations were laid.
What will replace them? This seems to be the question that both the exhibition and the protests that engulfed the museum building are asking. What version of the past can help us imagine the future? The answers might not be obvious, but it has been a while since an exhibition in Seoul has raised such newly vital questions.
Lead image: Lee Bul, Untitled (Cravings Red), 1988/2011, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York