1999 is the Year of the Hare, and though the hare is a symbol of good fortune in Sinocentric legend, the economic crisis in Korea shows no sign of abating. Needless to say, the Seoul art scene has suffered. Many of the galleries in the Sagan-dong and Insa-dong art districts have closed their doors, and the quality of the exhibitions that remains has dipped.
Audience is shrinking in size, too. On a recent visit to the Sungkok Museum in downtown Seoul, there were no visitors in sight even though the exhibition, "Media and Surface," had received a good deal of local press. In an attempt to shore up national pride and attract a wider array of visitors, many of Seoul's museums haved staged shows revolving around traditional painting of the ink-and-brush sort, or nationalistic or historical themes.
Two new museums
In spite of the economic situation, new museums continue to open. Last July, Artsonje Seoul opened with an exhibition of Korea's first "moderns," artists who gained a more international consciousness after studying in Japan in the 1940s and '50s.
Funded by the Daewoo conglomerate, the Artsonje is widely considered to be a Daewoo attempt to gain a foothold in the Korean art world, long dominated by the Samsung Corporation with its extensive holdings of over 25,000 objects (regarding Samsung, see below).
Curated by Kim Sun Jung, a Cranbrook MFA graduate who is a daughter of Daewoo chairman Kim Woo Choong, the Artsonje premiere also featured Venice Biennale delegate Bul Lee's cyborgian installations and an exhibition of recent video installation work by three younger artists.
Also opening last summer was the Gana Art Center, designed by French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte in the posh Pyongchang-dong area. Like most Korean museums, the Gana has next to no government support. It seems to specialize in Korean Minimalists like Whanki Kim, work that sells in Korea and Japan.
"Don, Don, Don" at Gallery Savina
One of the best gallery shows this winter is "Don, Don, Don" at Gallery Savina, a relatively new, relatively small gallery. "Don" is a pun on the word that not only means money in Korean but also "to turn" -- as in to turn over the reigns of power to the opposition party for the first time in 50 years, and subsequently watch the economy tumble down the drain. This political climate has inspired weird art-like events throughout the culture. During my visit, Hyundai c.e.o. Chung Joo Yung herded perhaps 500 cattle into North Korea, apparently as a gesture of good will.
In any case, the Gallery Savina show provides the proverbial starving artist's response to the economic situation. Several participants are old hands at political art, including Park Bul Dong. In the work here, a mixed-media assemblage of a plate, spoon and some lottery tickets, Park sets out a kind of repast of ephemeral wishes for the hopeless. The piece is called Six Million Lottery Tickets for Sunday Communion Dinner, a reference not only to the number of lottery tickets sold each week in Korea, but also to the vast numbers of unemployed workers and the faint hope of being a prize-winner.
Ordinarily, Lee Jong Gu is known for stark, photo-realist paintings of farmers and their hard life. His work Marriage, Funeral Inheritance (1998), however, is made of 10,000 won notes and an assortment of deeds and contracts. The work refers to the idea of value, and devaluation, in more ways than one -- many artists are having trouble affording traditional art supplies.
Kwon Ki-Su eschews handmade creation altogether for his Thoughts of Money graphics, which are done in Photoshop (or something similar). Most of the images depict a young, typically dressed student type ruminating over money. In one work, a shiny 10 won piece hovers over a student's head like an unattainable sun. The work is a depressing reminder of the entry-level job market in which graduates of even the most prestigious universities cannot secure employment.
While much of the art directly articulates the current economic situation, a few works probe into its underlying causes. Kim Joon's The Credit Door serves as a subtle emblem of the staggering corporate debts that plunged Korea into its present fiscal chaos. The artist has literally tattooed the logos of common credit cards on small pillow-like cushions, suggesting that debt has been permanently etched into Korean society.
As a whole, the general malaise surrounding the exhibition is disturbing. One might yearn for coping strategies, but then again, it is debatable whether Koreans are really in a situation to ponder solutions at all.
Visions of time at Ho-Am Gallery
"Contemporary Korean Art: Time" was on view at Ho-Am Gallery, a more established and well-funded enterprise (it's supported by Samsung). The show features many of "the usual suspects" of contemporary Korean art, including video artist Nam June Paik and Lee U Fan, a monochrome painter who now lives in Japan. The result is an eclectic if somewhat colorless exhibition on the concept of "time." Including installation works and video as well as photography and painting, the exhibition has an ascetic quality that stands in distinct contrast to the fiery heatedness of Minjoong painting (a late '80s political art movement) or the whimsical kitsch of neo-Pop artists like Kang Ik Joong or Choi Jeong Hwa.
Kim Soon Ki's work, a giant calendar on white board, was supposed to be interactive. Viewers were invited to write "today" on the date of their visit as well as the words "yesterday" and "tomorrow" in the appropriate spaces. But the markers remained steadfastly in their containers, presided over by a stern-looking young guard.
Likewise, Kim Young Jin's video installation -- a magnified, projected image of water droplets -- was monumental in scale and meticulously arranged, but the concept of the passage of time suggested by the insistent dripping seemed simplistic. It was oddly mesmerizing, however, to imagine having stepped into a microscopic cell; squirming like a paramecium, the giant water droplet emblematic of the origins of life, or time.
More promising was Kim Soo Ja's video loop of her sojourn throughout Seoul and the surrounding countryside. Sitting on top of a flat truck filled to the hilt with bottari (cloth wrappings tied into bundles), Kim wandered down a total of 2,727 kilometers of highway over a period of 11 days. She and her accompanying troupe become a kind of Pied Piper, meandering throughout the Korean countryside. "Some of the farmers threw down what they were doing and started running after us," Kim recalled.
Like picnic baskets made of cloth, bottari are commonly used to quickly transport and carry items of any size or weight. The mountain of colorful, knotted cloths in the truck alludes to the troubled episodes of Korean history, in which city dwellers and the inhabitants of the countryside alike were forced to flee their homes, carrying their valuables in similar large bottari. Despite the accumulation of memories that the bottari seem to embody, Kim's ride throughout urban Seoul and the Korean countryside is very much a present-tense action.
Koo Bohn Chang's lyrical, mysterious photographs, all titled The Painting of Time, resemble sketches or etchings of marks left behind by objects, such as an imprint of a leaf or a series of hand prints. These works ostensibly explore the past as a fossilized souvenir of human or nature's presence. In this respect, the works had a simple charm of their own, suggestive of Hiroshi Sugimoto's soothing seascapes. Koo uses overexposure and mis-focus to devise the discrepancy between the work's appearance as a "drawing" and its actual classification as a photograph.
JOAN KEE frequently writes on contemporary Asian and Asian American art.