Any metropolitan city with a long history tends to show a hybrid landscape, where the old and the new mix and different cultures coexist. And Seoul, which has been Korea’s capital for more than 600 years, might be one of the most dramatic examples. Look at buildings rising in layers in any part of this city. The vastly contrasting styles piece together a cityscape like a surrealist photo collage. Just beside traditional Korean Hanok homes and shabby mid-century Western-style buildings soar glittering twenty-first century skyscrapers. Picturesque mountains embrace them all.
Everywhere in Seoul, the old and the new, the Eastern and the Western, and the natural and the artificial collide without neutral zones, an effect of Korea’s very condensed modern history full of gaps and discontinuities due to its excessively rapid economic growth and urbanization. Artists, curators, and art critics have been in the center of efforts to deliberate on the phenomena and to overcome the collisions and harmonize them since the beginning of the new millennium. During this time, Korea’s art market has matured significantly. Helped by such a background, Seoul now has one of the world’s most dynamic art scenes. Here is a selection of Seoul spots that show the vibrant spirit of the Korean art scene.
MMCA Seoul’s location is full of history. During the Joseon period (1392–1910), it was the site of the Office of the Royal Genealogy, or Jongchinbu, which housed portraits and documents related to former kings and their relatives. During the latter part of the twentieth century, the property was home to the Defense Security Command, a major center of secret surveillance activities during the country’s military regime. MMCA Seoul, which opened in 2013, embraces this history, as it combines seven new structures with the Defense Command’s old red-brick building and the traditional, wooden Jongchinbu. The new low-rise buildings, covered mainly with pale-brown terracotta tiles, along with some gray granite and glass, are linked through the underground levels, while above ground, they are separated by six courtyards of green grass and white paving tiles. Architect Mihn Hyun-jun calls the concept “an open museum in the style of an archipelago.” The courtyards smoothly spill out into the neighboring spaces, linking the museum with the many galleries, restaurants, and small old-fashioned houses nearby.
Five special exhibitions are being held at the museum now. Among them is the exhibition for the sixth “Korea Artist Prize,” an annual award granted by the museum and the SBS Foundation. Rather than a competition, this year’s exhibition looks surprisingly like a well-designed group exhibition united under a common theme. The 2017 finalists, Bek Hyunjin, Sunny Kim, Kelvin Kyungkun Park, and Song Sanghee, are all quite different from one another in style and medium, but their works can be linked to create a story about the realities of Korean society as perceived by individuals.
Located just south of MMCA Seoul, Gallery Hyundai is one of the city’s oldest galleries. Founder Park Myung-ja is an influential figure in the modern history of Korean art, particularly in the promotion of abstract art. The original building currently hosts Korean artist Minjung Kim’s solo show titled Paper, Ink and Fire: After the Process until October 8. British conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin’s solo exhibition All in All runs in the gallery’s new building until November 5.
Kumho Museum of Art, tucked between MMCA Seoul and Gallery Hyundai, was founded in 1989 by the Kumho-Asiana Group, one of Korea’s major conglomerates, to support artists. It moved to its present location in 1996. The museum is currently hosting a group exhibition of twelve young artists participating in the museum’s residency program, In Every Language We Know, until September 26.
Hakgojae Gallery finds its home in a beautiful Hanok building north of MMCA Seoul. The gallery has dealt mostly with both old and modern art of Korea and China, along with works by some contemporary European artists. A solo exhibition of Song Chang, one of the minjung artists known for their realistic style and sociopolitical messages against the military regime of the 1980s, is now being held here. After the show finishes on September 24, German New Leipzig School painter Tim Eitel’s solo exhibition runs from September 30 to November 12.
A few steps beyond Hakgojae Gallery is the Kukje Gallery, which presents exhibitions in its three buildings—K1, K2, and K3. Led by Lee Hyun-sook, one of the most influential Korean gallerists, listed on ArtReview’s “Power 100” in 2015 and 2016, this gallery has presented works by many hot Korean and foreign contemporary artists. Now in a solo exhibition titled Cut Up and Silicone, Female Idol, WS, running until October 29, American artist Paul McCarthy presents the sculptures of his “Core” and “Cut-Up” series.
Since it opened in 1998, the Art Sonje Center has focused on post-modern and conceptual art under the curatorship of Kim Sunjung, former head of the museum and now president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation. The museum is currently running Korean artist Koo Jeong A’s solo exhibition ajeongkoo until October 22, featuring the artist’s new animated films and drawings.
The PKM Gallery is currently holding a small-scale retrospective of Kwon Jin Kyu (1922–1973), a pioneer of modern Korean sculpture. The show, titled Kwon Jin Kyu: The Essence, runs until October 14 and features twenty-three of Kwon’s sculptures, drawings, and A Mold of Aeja, the only plaster mold made by the artist remaining after his death.
Arario Museum in Space, located just beside Changdeokgung Palace, is somewhat distant from the galleries above. However the walk of fifteen to twenty minutes from the MMCA Seoul is pleasant along the old-fashioned streets.
The museum opened in 2014 in the iconic ivy-covered brick building designed by the renowned Korean architect Kim Swoo-geun (1931–1986), originally the office of former architectural firm Space. The building’s intricately linked small areas and spiral staircases remain in their original state, with artworks wittily installed in unexpected locations. The exhibits are based on the vast collection of Arario Group chairman Ci Kim, the only Korean who was included on Artnet.com’s World’s Top 100 Art Collectors list in 2016 and who made the ARTnews’s annual list of the world’s top 200 collectors nine times.
About 100 pieces by more than forty major contemporary artists worldwide are on display with a general principle of only one artist in each room. One room houses Korean-born video art pioneer Nam June Paik’s works, while another has British artist Marc Quinn’s famous—or notorious—“Self” portrait made of his own frozen blood. There are also works by hot Asian artists represented by Arario Gallery, based in Cheonan, Chungcheong-do, such as Kohei Nawa of Japan, Geraldine Javier of Philippines, and Subodh Gupta of India.
Gana Art Center, one of Korea’s major galleries, has worked with a wide variety of Korean artists and is known as one of the few galleries that has supported minjung art for a long time. It stands side-by-side with its affiliate Seoul Auction, the nation’s biggest auction house.
The Total Museum of Contemporary Art is now presenting the group exhibition Video Portrait Vol.2, which features video art pieces by thirteen teams of artists showing portraits of contemporary society from diverse viewpoints. The show runs through October 22.
The museum dedicated to Kim Whanki (1913–1974), pioneer of Korean abstract art, houses and exhibits his paintings and drawings as well as archives related to the artist, considered to be one of the most important figures in the country’s modern art history. In particular, the museum has some finest works among the so-called dot paintings that Kim created in his New York period (1963–1974), which is regarded as the peak of Kim’s oeuvre. (The six most expensive Korean paintings ever sold at auction are all Kim’s dot paintings.) The museum was founded by Kim’s wife Hyang-an in 1992.
The Seoul Museum, which opened at the foot of Mt. Inwangsan in 2012, has a very ordinary name but has at least one extraordinary attribute. That would be Seokpajeong Pavilion, a nineteenth-century Hanok that was once a summer house of the powerful Prince Regent Daewongun (1820–1898), father of King Gojong. The house is famous for its beautiful garden that makes good use of the mountain’s rugged rocks, streams, and handsome pine trees. The museum’s permanent exhibits include Bull (circa 1953), an oil painting by Lee Jung-seob (1916–1956), one of Korea’s most popular modern artists.
The municipal museum of Seoul, which relocated in 2002 to the current building that once housed the Supreme Court of Korea, has focused on exhibitions friendly to the general public and exhibitions related to social issues.
Among the four exhibitions going on now, The Art of Dissonance brings together twenty-six artworks from the British Council Collection by sixteen contemporary artists mainly based in Britain, including Wolfgang Tillmans and Rachel Maclean. The show, held to celebrate UK/Korea 2017–2018 Creative Futures, runs through November 12.
Exhibitions are also being held at the museum’s branches in northern and southern Seoul, including Asian Diva: the Muse and the Monster, running through October 9 at Buk Seoul Museum of Art.
The MMCA branch in Deoksugung Palace now presents the second edition of Deoksugung Project, a site-specific contemporary art show housed in the buildings and courtyards that were used as the main palace in the Joseon Dynasty’s tragic last days. The first edition of the exhibition in 2012 was much acclaimed by the public and art critics. In the 2017 edition, nine contemporary artists including Airan Kang, Yeondoo Jung, and Jang Min-seung have created and installed their works in various parts of the palace, considering the spatial and historical contexts of the space. The show runs through November 26.
Located in the heart of downtown, the Ilmin Museum of Art now presents Urban Ritornello: The Archives on Community, an archival exhibition concerning a variety of communities that have changed since ancient times. It runs until December 3.
A multi-purpose space for exhibitions and performances, Culture Station Seoul is in the renovated former Seoul Station, a Renaissance-style two-story building that was constructed in 1925 and survived the 1950–1953 Korean War. Until October 29, Culture Station Seoul is hosting Typojanchi 2017, the fifth edition of the international typography biennale.
Designed by the legendary Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, who passed away last year, and opened to the public in 2014, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, or DDP, is one of Seoul’s new landmarks. Often joked about by Seoul citizens as “the silver giant UFO that made an emergency landing downtown,” the building has a fluid form covered with 45,133 aluminum tiles, each with slightly different tones and curvatures. And the building’s interior spaces, three stories below and four stories above ground, are covered mainly with white glass-fiber-reinforced concrete, giving a bright and warm ambience. The fluidly curved walls, without any straight lines or pillars, are linked organically.
The multicultural space houses mainly exhibitions and events related to design and architecture. Among the ongoing events is the first edition of the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, co-organized by the Seoul Design Foundation and the Seoul Metropolitan Government, which runs through November 5. The exhibitions focus on the identity of a city as a whole.
The almost forty-year-old Arko Art Center, a public museum operated by the Korea Art Council, is in the pleasingly old-fashioned Marronnier Park surrounded by many small theaters and cafés. The museum, whose exhibitions have mainly featured Korean contemporary artists, presents a solo exhibition of artist Kang Ik-joong entitled Things I Know from September 22 to November19.
The nation’s biggest private art museum, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, opened in October 2004 based on works collected by Lee Byung-chul (1910–1987), founder of Korea’s largest business group, Samsung, and his son Lee Kun-hee, chairman of the multinational conglomerate.
Within its buildings designed by famous architects Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, and Mario Botta, Leeum holds a vast collection that encompasses old Korean art pieces in the Museum 1 space, including those designated as national treasures, and works by popular modern and contemporary artists such as Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Nam June Paik, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, and Murakami Takashi in the Museum 2 space.
In Museum 1, traditional Korean art pieces are juxtaposed with modern and contemporary artworks that have similar visual elements or ambience. For example, Goryeo Buddhist paintings are installed alongside Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s skinny bronze figure, which can be associated with Buddha under self-mortification, and American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko’s painting of a sublime ambience.
The space operated by Hyundai Card focuses on exhibitions of experimental and multidisciplinary art. The Architecture and Design Film Festival is running until October 29.
The museum is a new branch of the Daelim Museum, which is located in the Seochon village west of Gyeongbokgung Palace. Like Daelim, D Museum has emerged as a hot spot for hipsters and Instagrammers since it opened in 2015 because of its exhibitions focusing on design, fashion, and photography and for the many parties held here. The Plastic Fantasticexhibition running until March 4, 2018, features over 2,700 pieces of furniture and other artistic commodities made of plastic, many of which are products by Italian design company Kartell.
The SongEun Art and Cultural Foundation, which was set up by Samtan Co., will open a new museum in 2020 at the energy company’s new headquarters to be designed by Swiss architect team Herzog & de Meuron in the very heart of the Gangnam. The site is a ten-minute walk from the foundation’s existing gallery SongEun Art Space.
The second and third floors of a building that stands in the space, which will eventually become the company’s new headquarters, host a free exhibition titled SongEun Art Storage: Not Your Ordinary Art Storagerunning through May 26, 2018. The show features works by the finalists and winners of the SongEun Art Award including Suki Seokyeong Kang, Donghyun Son, and Choi Sun.
The Park Ryu Sook Gallery, located near the Cheongdam crossroads, is one of the oldest Gangnam-based galleries. Now running in the gallery until October 14 is a solo exhibition of Korean ceramist and artist Lee Seung Hee.
The ten-year-old Atelier Hermes space for contemporary art is inside the French luxury brand Hermes’s Seoul flagship store, Maison Hermes Dosan Park. The space now presents When Two Galaxies Merge, a part-exhibition, part-performance solo show by Korean artist Yangachi. It runs through November 22.
The Platform-L Contemporary Art Center was opened by Korean fashion brand Louis Quatorze last year in a building designed by a Korean architecture and design lab Joho Architecture.
Another museum that newly opened last year in the heart of Gangnam, K Museum of Contemporary Art hosts a group exhibition of Korean contemporary artists with the paradoxical title The Anti-Art Museum Showthrough October 25.
The large-scale public art and culture complex Seoul Arts Center, which opened in 1993, is better known for its opera theater and concert halls, but it also has art museums that mainly hold exhibitions friendly to the general public.
Among the several ongoing exhibitions, the first-ever retrospective in Korea of legendary Chinese art master Qi Baishi (1864–1957) is running at the Seoul Calligraphy Art Museum until October 8. It features fifty-three of the artist’s ink and color paintings, calligraphy pieces, and seal carving art. Designer Karim Rashid’s solo show featuring some 350 pieces of furniture, objets d’art, design sketches, and more is running at the Hangaram Art Museum until October 7.
Culture Desk Chief at the Korea Joongang Daily and Adjunct Professor at Sungshin Women's University's College of Arts.