Features / Review

2013 Korean Art Awards Exhibition The Winner Is...

posted 09 Dec 2013

This past September, the eyes and ears of the Korean art world were on the nominee exhibitions and award ceremonies for the country’s top two art award events, the Korea Artist Prize and the Hermès Foundation Missulsang. Important occasions for the local art community, they are considered two of the biggest events on the calendar. This piece takes a look back at how those events have developed, sharing expert onions on just what the 2013 exhibition means -- and what questions they raise.

The Uncertain Future of Today’s Korean Art Awards

This past September 10, the winners of this year's Hermès Foundation Missulsang and Korea Artist Prize were announced. The respective honorees were Jung Eun-young and Kong Sang-hoon. Both awards are seen as major accolades in the Korean art world in terms of prize money, reputation of the selected nominees at home and abroad, the panels, and public confidence of the organization. At the same time, it's impossible to shake the sense that the Hermès Missulsang is somehow losing out. The Korea Artist Prize is an outgrowth of the "Korea Artist Exhibition," a National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art tradition dating back more than 15 years. But compared to other art honors, the Hermès Awards -- which have "held out" for more than a decade since 2000 -- are incomparable in their impact on the Korean art world.

Hermès Foundation Missulsang and the Korea Artist Prize: Yesterday and Today

The history of the Hermès Missulsang, the competition that gave rise to the Hermès Foundation Missulsang, is more or less the history of Korean contemporary art itself. After founding a Korea branch in 1997, Hermès created the awards in 2000 as a way of "contributing to the development of the Korean art world."1) They were the first foreign company to do so in the nation's history. The first winner was Chang Young-hae Heavy Industries; since then, another 13 artists have won the award: Kim Beom, Bahc Yi-so, Suh Do-ho, Park Chan-kyong, Koo Jeong-a, Lim Min-ouk, Kim Sung-hwan, Song Sang-hee, Park Yoon-young, Yang a-chi, Kim Sang-don, Koo Dong-hee, and Jung Eun-young. So far, the nominees have included 36 of the leading practitioners and teams in Korean contemporary art.2) Award ceremonies and exhibitions for the winning artists were held at the Gallery Hyundai between 2000 and 2002. With Bahc Yi-so's win in 2002, the solo exhibition that was held the following year was now proceed along with the award ceremony.

In 2003, some major changes were introduced. To begin with, the new format had three final nominees selected to compete through a review of recommended candidates. This injected a bit of tension into the proceedings -- a characteristic of other awards ceremonies, but not traditionally of art awards. The Hermès Foundation Misulssang started to be called Korea's version of the Turner Prize or the Hugo Boss Price, and Korea's "art people" began placing bets on who would win.

With the sixth event in 2005, the location also changed, moving from the Gallery Hyundai to the Art Sonje Center, where the ceremonies and exhibitions were held until the completion of the new building, Shin-sa Ok, in Dosan Park in 2006. The nominees that year were Suh Do-ho, Yang Hye-kyu, and Hong Seung-hye, and the presence of Nicolas Bourriaud and Yuko Hasegawa on the international panel drew some attention -- it was seen as noteworthy that two of the five judges were internationally active figures from the overseas art community. Art observers recall the 2004 competition as the most heated of all, with Park Chan-kyong beating out fellow nominees Flying City and Jung Yeon-doo with his Power Passage. Rumor has it that a contractual clause requiring selected artists to attend the ceremony, regardless of whether they actually won, was introduced after winner Koo Jeong-a declined to attend the 2005 event.

The 2006 awards ended up being put off until early 2007 because of the delay of the Sin-sa Ok construction at Dosan Park. For the first exhibition in the new Atelier Hermès3) space, the nominees were Bae Young-hwan, Lim Min-ouk, and Kim Sang-gil. Many wondered whether Kim, the first photographer to be nominated, would claim top honors, but they ended up going to Lim. The 2007 nominees were Kim Sung-hwan, Sasa[44], and Rhii Jew-yo, with Kim taking the prize. The name was changed from the "Hermès Korea Missulsang" to the "Hermès Foundation Missulsang" when the titular foundation was established in 2008; the winner that year was Song Sang-hee.4)
For the following year's event, marking a full decade since the awards' establishment, a tenth anniversary celebration was held, with an accompanying exhibition catalogue. Numerous art world figures attended this anniversary celebration, including nominees and winners from past years. The 2009 winner was Park Yoon-young, who beat out fellow nominees Rho Jae-oon and Nam Hwa-yeon, whose birth year of 1979 made her the youngest person to be nominated. Some predicted a change in the generational guard, but artists in their forties continued to lead the pack. Yang a-chi won the 2010 award over fellow nominees Bae Jong-heon and Park Ji-a, who was only the second painter nominated (after Hong Seung-hye). Kim Sang-don won in 2011 over Part-time Suite and Che One-joon; Koo Dong-hee won in 2012 over Jackson Hong and Lee Mi-kyung. This year's nominees were Na Hyun, Noh Sun-tag, and eventual winner Jung Eun-young.

1) Announcing the Missulsang's creation in 1999, the organizers posted an advertisement describing potential nominees as "prominent and emerging artists in the visual arts, including painting, sculpture, video art, photography, and architecture, who have demonstrated notable creative activity and produce work that reflects the artistic philosophy and traditional artisanal spirit pursued by Hermès."
2) The only groups nominated have been Flying City (2004) and Part-time Suite (2011).
3) Kim Sung-won and Park Man-woo previously served as directors of the Atelier. Today, the position is held by Baek Ji-sook.
4) Seoul Museum of Art director Kim Hong-hee also served as a judge for a second time, having previously participated in 2002.

L) The Hermès Foundation Missulsang trophy
R) Exhibition for 2013 Hermès winner Jung Eun-young. ©Hermès Foundation L) The Hermès Foundation Missulsang trophy
R) Exhibition for 2013 Hermès winner Jung Eun-young. ©Hermès Foundation

Meanwhile, the Korea Artist Prize, co-organized by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and the SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) Cultural Foundation, is still in its infancy, celebrating its second installment this year. Its institutional framework came from "researching and investigating characteristics of the different art awards in Korea and abroad." It is actually quite similar to the Hermès award in several says -- the competition among four individuals/teams, the initial review based on recommendations from art experts and the second portfolio review by five local or international art figures,5) the amount of prize money on offer,6) and the organization of group exhibitions in solo format.

It was supposed to not have any restrictions on artist age, but the event so far has been focused squarely on established artists in their forties. The first year's awardees included the team of Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho, Kim Hong-suk, Lim Min-ouk, and Lee Soo-kyung; this year, they were Kong Sung-hun, Shin Mee-kyoung, Jo Hae-jun, and Ham Yang-ah. The event leverages the weight of its public institution origins -- the focus is much more on "patronizing" the artists than on honoring them. There has been talk, for example, of developing different promotional channels to share Korean artists with a global audience. In terms of specific support, it has established programs with overseas art figure during the early preparation or exhibition period, publishing digital exhibition catalogues, and producing and airing documentaries about the artists and their work on the major SBS network. The first year's winner had a solo exhibition catalogue published and sent out to art museums around the world; meanwhile, the organizers purchased works and set up a one-on-one matching program with curators from the NMCAK. The one question here is how many people actually saw the fruits of those considerable labors -- the documentary and the digital catalogue, which uses an application.

5) The judges selected for the first event were Hans Ulich Obrist, Yilmaz Dziewior, Chong Do-ryun, and Kim Bok-ki; for the second, they were Jeong Hyeong-min, Kim Sun-jung, Lee Ken-shu, Pooja Sood, and Bernard Serexhe.
6) The 2013 prize money was increased by 10 million won, with a total of 40 million won(38,000 USD) awarded to the four selected artists/teams.

Art Awards as a Future Institution

Many people congratulated the selection of painter Kong Sang-hun for the first Korea Artist Prize. Part of this was a nod of respect to an established artist who has long dedicated himself to a single genre -- especially in the Korean art community that has been feverishly devoting itself to installation art and multidisciplinary genre work after 2000. It is clear that the award is about the artist who won it, not the organization giving it out. The Hermès Missulsang's seeming decline since celebrating its tenth anniversary may be a natural turn of events. There were a lot of incidental factors at play: art awards began cropping up all over the place -- substituting the pleasant-sounding role of "mécénat" for any kind of true vision -- while the artists themselves supplied a meager pool to pick from, certain genres remained overrepresented, and judges and awardees alike seemed to overlap. Today, art awards are an institution in Korean art. They seem to be about little more than awarding trophies and prizes and giving opportunities for artists to show their work. The Korea Artist Prize was created from studying the different art awards here and abroad; it started out from a position of not placing limits on its award system. It's nice to see that kind of proactive, flexible approach to a changing art world. But the problem will take more than the organizers' hard work to solve. The artists, awardees and nominees both, should be putting their heads together with the organizers and ask themselves what kind of meaningful turning point these prizes can mark in an artist's career.

L) Archive room for Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho, Korea Artist Prize winners from 2012/
R) Exhibition for Kong Sang-hun, winning of the 2013 Korea Artist Prize. ©National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea L) Archive room for Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho, Korea Artist Prize winners from 2012/
R) Exhibition for Kong Sang-hun, winning of the 2013 Korea Artist Prize. ©National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Kim Jae-seok

Creative director at Gallery Hyundai. Served as the chief editor of the art periodical Art in Culture and has written about art for publications in Korea and abroad.

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