Say "contemporary Korean art" and what comes to mind. Either the politicized, Social Realist-type of "protest" art that became highly visible during the turbulent 1980s, or the cosmopolitan polish found in the works by Lee Bul, Suh Do-Ho, Kim Soo-ja and others who have been touted on the global art circuit. But Korea is home to a vast range of artists, and perhaps this diversity can be most clearly illustrated by looking at the contrasts between newer, artist-run spaces that show emerging artists and the lavishly appointed spaces run by international dealers or large corporations.
Since the days when feudalism was a perfectly acceptable form of government, "not the rose but near the rose" was the creed of choice for those aspiring to mingle with the elite. Unsurprisingly, Sagan-dong, with its choice location between the royal residences of Kyongbok and Changgyeong palaces as well as its current location on the road up to the "Blue House," the president's current abode, is a favored haunt.
Today, the area is home to some of Seoul's most prestigious galleries, a list that would have to include Kukje, which often participates in the Basel art fair and represents establishment artists like Cho Duck-hyun and Lim Choong-sup, as well as Hyundai Gallery, which has the distinction of being one of Seoul's oldest galleries.
Also located in Sagan-Dong, near the Jungdok library, is the Artsonje Center, run by Kim Sun-jung, the daughter of fallen Daewoo conglomerate head Kim Woo-joong. A graduate of Cranbrook and a former Whitney Museum intern, Kim has come up with a space that is more kunsthalle than actual museum. Like its counterpart in Kyeongju located near the southeastern coast of Korea, the Artsonje Center features the work of both younger and established local and overseas artists.
Currently on view is a retrospective of the works of Kim Young-jin, the well-known video artist. Once considered experimental, Kim's works -- such as his signature piece, Fluids, a large-scale projection showing the quivering movements of water droplets -- now appear more in sync with the highly estheticized Miniminalist paintings so dominant in Korea during the '70s and '80s. Fluids, for example, curiously echoes Kim Tschang Yeul's rampantly popular Water Droplets series of oil paintings that was shown as part of "The Era of Thinking and Sensibility," a rather heavy-handed group exhibition of monochromatic paintings on view at the ultraconservative, government-run National Museum of Contemporary Art in Kwacheon.
A few blocks from Artsonje is PKM Gallery, located in a cozy space that appears to have been a private house. Run by Park Kyung-mee, formerly of Kukje and the past commissioner of the Korean pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the gallery houses a small stable of local and overseas artists, including Lee Bul.
Separated by some very busy streets from Sagan-dong is Insa-dong, the traditional galleries and antiques district. In recent years, the area has revamped itself into a tourist hotspot with an assorted array of kitsch souvenir shops, upscale traditional crafts outlets and occasional eccentricities, like a store specializing in North Korean memorabilia. Many of the galleries are of the vanity sort, where an artist can shell out thousands of dollars for a solo "show" lasting anywhere from one to three weeks. There are some great exceptions to this rule, of course, and among them are the alternative spaces that have cropped up in the past three years or so.
In this category would be Pool, situated in an alley across from a Sudo Pharmacy just off the main drag. Established in 1999, its programs have included thematic shows, but its strongest offerings are the solo exhibitions of younger and lesser-known artists. Pool was home to one of my favorite shows this winter -- Kim Ok Sun's "Happy Together," a series of photographs that show a Korean woman, whose gaze barrels into the camera lens, while her white husband is somewhere off to the side or in the background.
The title of the exhibition reflects the artist's own meditations on the nature of happiness and the charged nature of interracial relationships. The series could be written off as a sociological study, but what emerges in sporadic turns is a complex gamut of emotions. In Suyeon and Dean (2002), for example, Suyeon wears no expression, tells no story, but the viewer's curiousity is piqued by this very absence. How does she feel about her situation? Who wears the pants in the marriage? How did they come to be together? Why do they live in Korea? Why did the artist become interested in this subject? The questions are endless and the viewer is left to come to his or her own conclusions without the hope of confirmation from either the subject or the artist.
Providing a similar alternative, but much more specific in its mission, is Project Space Sarubia, which occupies a gutted teahouse space and is directed by Lee Kwan-hoon. Unique in its selection process, it requires artists to submit detailed proposals for the works they hope to show. Furthermore, the space is completely open to all artists, a rarity in an art world where school pedigree counts for a great deal. As expected, not all of the projects work, but when they do, as in the debut of 20-something artist Ham Jin's miniature monsters, the results are stunning.
Downtown (Gwanghwamoon and City Hall)
The central business district in downtown Seoul might seem like a strange place to house a museum, but this is Korea, where every conglomerate however large, small or financially dubious must have its own temple of art. This said, these spaces often house some of Seoul's best exhibitions, although the current offerings are a bit lackluster.
Smack dab across the street from the Kyobo Building is the Ilmin Museum of Art, a sleek glass tower that is presently home to "Novel Seoul, Story Tokyo," celebrated Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki's first show in Korea. A mini-retrospective in itself, the exhibition shows some of his early photographs of his wife, countless black-and-white images of women in numerous permuations of the bondage theme as well as the debut of his works featuring various panoramic and close-up shots of Korea, which he has made several visits to in the past 20 years. Given his background as a commercial photographer, Araki unsurprisingly gives a sensuous appeal to his color images, although many of the works distinctly border on the shameless gratuitousness of advertising.
Perhaps the most architecturally impressive of all of Korea's contemporary art spaces is the Rodin Gallery, the contemporary arm of the Samsung Museum behemoth. As if to prevent any misunderstanding that the gallery has escaped the long arm of Samsung, this glass pavilion of a space is located under the shadow of Samsung headquarters near City Hall. Finished in 1998, the gallery is so named for its permanent exhibition of Rodin's Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais, and many of the exhibitions take these works into consideration.
The current show is "Bodyscape," a beautifully installed if disappointingly conceived group show that suffers from an overly literal reading of its chosen theme. Here, the only criteria for inclusion seemed to be the depiction of the human body, and the works ranged from photographer Kim Atta's nudes-in-a-box to the projection of human torsos forming a millipede of sorts in Kong Sung-hun's Eating an Insect (2002). By far the outstanding work in the show was Park Sung Tae's untitled installation. Made from single sheets of aluminum insect netting, the anthromorphic bodies hanging from the ceiling appeared to amazing effect as eerie and malevolent shadows.
If you happen to be in Seoul during the winter on an odd-numbered year, it is also well worthwhile to check out "Art Spectrum" at the Ho-Am Art Hall located in the Samsung-owned Joongang Ilbo building. A much pared-down, well-organized and intriguing Korean version of the Whitney Biennial, it has featured some terrific works, like Oh Inhwan's burning-incense floor installation, titled When Man Meets Man in Seoul.
Hongik University Area and Taehak-ro (University Lane)
One cannot forget the area around Hongik University (colloquially known as "Hongdae") just west of downtown Seoul. Hongik University is home to Korea's largest art school and as such is a magnet for the aggressively hip -- those who seem to consider fashion a cry for help as well as an artistic statement. It is also home to some interesting spaces, namely Loop an alternative space hidden in an alley, and also Ssamzie Space, a curious blend of the corporate and the alternative models.
Funded by a maker of leather goods, Ssazmie's programming is almost entirely devoted to younger and emerging artists, a preference attributable to its director, Kim Hong-hee. The best time of the year to visit is during the "open studios," where Ssamzie's artists in residence bare their studios and their work for all to see. The event can provide some insight, too, into what will likely be on display at the next Gwangju Biennale, since Ssazmie Space is a prime culling ground for curators.
Kim was recently tapped to curate the Korean pavilion for this year's Venice Biennale and her possible choices have been the subject of intense speculation. As we go to press, the artists for the Korean contingent for Venice have just been selected. The artists are Hwang In-gi, Bahc Yiso (who used to live in New York under the name Bahc Mo) and Jung Seoyoung. All three artists are middle-aged men with established reputations in Korea. The theme is "Landscape of Differences."
Ssamzie's latest show was titled "Lee Seung Taek vs. Ium." In an effort at provoking dialogue between the old generation and the new, the work of Lee Seung Taek, a senior member of the art-world establishment, was juxtaposed with the new sound installations of Ium, a fast-rising performance and installation artist. Ium has lately shed her Mariko Mori-type cyborgian masquerades in favor of sound-based works like Ruach op. 5: Shine, in which her ethereal, girlish voice sings a series of monotones in succession. On its own, the work sounds like a misplaced clip from a Bjork track, but paired with Lee's abstraction of winds in movement, it suddenly makes sense.
Also worth checking out is the Korea Culture and Arts Foundation building at Taehak-ro located in the northern part of the city. As with all government-run institutions, its programming can be a mixed bag, but the annual "New Trends in Contemporary Korean Art" exhibition is recommended. Held in the spring, last year's installation included Yang Hae-gue's understated installations commenting on the instability of everyday life and Kim Ki-ra's video, Return, Maria's Song, on the notion that speed is inevitably equated to superiority.
South of the River (Cheongdam-dong and elsewhere)
Lastly, there is that city-within-a-city known ambiguously as Kangnam, or "south of the river." Its limits are for the most part unspecified, as Seoul keeps growing at an exponential rate. The National Museum of Contemporary Art, for example, was built in the 1980s as part of an attempt to develop Kwacheon, then considered the boondocks. Now Kwacheon is part of a thriving mega-metropolitan district that has long since extended its borders, but the programming at MOCA (as the museum is referred to) is as distant and staid as ever.
A number of commercial galleries are located in the exclusive Cheongdam-dong district, as is the POSCO Museum in Daechi-dong, yet another one of Korea's many corporate museums, this one funded by Korea's largest steelmaking concern. The POSCO Museum has had some bright sparks in its programming. But perhaps the most interesting art scene down south can be found at the Kaywon School of Art and Design, which is arguably Korea's most experimental art school, if without the clout of Seoul National University or Hongik University, the country's two dominant schools. Its faculty includes some of the most outspoken critics on the scene, such as Lee Young Chul and Lee Young Jun.
At present, English-language listings of art shows are few and far between, although the Korea Times occasionally has some good art writing, and the table of contents of Korea's largest and oldest art magazine, Wolgan Misool (also part of the Samsung empire) also has an English version. But with a little digging, interesting works are bound to be in store for intrepid art lovers.
JOAN KEE is a critic based in Hong Kong and Seoul.