Korean art is recently attracting much global interest in tandem with Korean pop culture. Seoul, the capital of Korea and a popular tourist destination, is now considered the new center of the Asian art market. Major art journals around the world have introduced the city as an emerging art hub in Asia,1) due to Seoul’s cultural infrastructure and market growth potential. With diverse museums, galleries, exhibition venues, fairs and colleges, along with the many artists and collectors based in the city, Seoul has grown into an attractive destination for the international art scenes. Many famous galleries abroad have recently opened branches in Korea.2). With more international galleries seeking to do the same, it seems a wider array of exhibitions and artists will be featured in Korea. Despite the devastating impact of COVID-19, the number of visitors to art fairs and galleries increased in 2021, and the art trade remained active. For instance, the late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee’s family donated over 23,000 artworks he owned, which had the effect of raising the country’s interest in art. Additionally, a more diverse selection of art spaces has emerged to keep attention fixed on the art scene with the establishment of the nation’s first public craft art museum, the re-opening of Leeum Museum of Art, and the opening of the exhibition space in the newly built Songeun Art and Culture Foundation building.3) With FRIEZE SEOUL, an event co-hosted by the UK’s Frieze Art Fair and the KIAF, scheduled for September, it seems Korean and overseas art collectors, enthusiasts, and associates’ interest in the Korean art scene will reach new heights this year.
TheArtro has drawn up three feature articles on Korea’s rich cultural infrastructure to shed light on Korea’s changing art scene. A variety of attractive spaces, art galleries, and museums are scattered throughout Seoul and host diverse art events. Yet new exhibition venues and art projects are comparatively less known and the art content is mainly focused on the exhibitions of large-scale public or private art museums and international art events. Thus, to exemplify the growing diversity of Korea’s art scene, TheArtro presents three serialized articles under the select keywords “public art”, “space” and “artwork.” The first article, “Publict Art,” introduces public art around Korea. It covers public art projects aimed at creating cultural spaces in cities and a wide variety of public art that people can encounter in everyday life. The second article, “New Spaces,” features leading art sites in the nation’s major cities—Seoul, Busan, Daegu, and Gwangju—to highlight the many art spaces that have newly emerged or remain unknown. Finally, to shed light on diverse urban aspects, the third article, “Cities in Artworks,” examines the works of artists who explore the theme of “city.” Together, these three articles seek to promote not only the relatively unknown aspects of Korea to the world, but aim to also enhance the global recognition and understanding of the nation’s burgeoning art scene. These three articles can serve as a guide to Korea’s cultural attraction for art lovers and visual arts enthusiasts visiting Korea from all over the world.
The first article introduces 「Seoul is a Museum」, a public art project promoted by the Seoul city government that seeks to allow residents to relate to and easily enjoy art in their daily lives by displaying public art throughout the heart of the capital. The project’s programs include interactive exhibitions and conferences about public art and its management. This venture is distinct from other existing projects in that it promotes active civic participation throughout its process from work selection to creation and also incorporates, a management system that allows for the artworks to be enjoyed in suitable environments. This article examines public art in Seoul by describing the process and direction of 「Seoul is a Museum」 and its leading works.
We often say “the eye of the beholder” or “rose-colored glasses” to make sense of blind love. These phrases are not exclusive to dating. When choosing an item or deciding a career path, we naturally gravitate towards what we like and what looks good to us. The same goes for cities we choose to live in. No matter the length of residence, it’s hard to appreciate places that feel rude, heartless, or upsetting. On the contrary, a space can be enjoyable though it has nothing but gray skies and streets as cold as concrete. Fortunately, cities in Korea are home to all kinds of beauty. We have mountains and trees, parks and traditional palaces. College towns vibrate with vitality. Every corner lives and breathes artistic soul.
Public art is an important factor in making the city an enjoyable space. Once touted as “architectural art,” public art is gradually moving towards its original intent in many ways. Its key virtue is communication. But communication requires connection, and to connect, we need public art to become an integral part of our lives. This is how public art is disseminated as the “material and immaterial” or “installations and programs.” By actively engaging in branding public art, large cities such as Gwangju, Busan, and Daegu, as well as the local governments of Gangwon-do and Jeju-do, attract public interest, creating artworks that serve as archives of local community culture. This large collection of public art encompasses not only the charm but the landscape of the city and is open to everyone’s enjoyment.
The Inter-Korean Transit Office resides at a location undetectable by GPS trackers. Adjacent to it is the art museum UniMARU, whose name means a “platform championing the unification of North and South Koreas.” In fall of 2021, this art space became the first of its kind to open at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Thirty-two artists, both from Korea and overseas, were involved in this large-scale exhibition of contemporary art representing the keywords “peace” and “ecology.” The artworks shied away from views that idealized, exoticized, or excessively otherized the DMZ and became a sensation in the art world — despite the physical and figurative inaccessibility of the exhibition.
The DMZ is a painful remnant of the Korean War, a boundary and space forbidden to civilians. It is a military buffer zone yet still harbors UN troops and an ongoing history of the Cold War. In this space removed from the temporality of the present, Professor Yeonshim Chung of Hongik University showcased an exhibition that incorporated the boundaries of a buffer zone as well as material and immaterial characteristics that go beyond borders. The resulting artworks were embodied in public art that resonated with everyone, whether from the North or South.
Dorasan Station is the northernmost station of the South Korean segment of the Gyeongui Line and first in the path up North. It is also a part of the exhibition. Located approximately 700 meters from the Southern Limit Line of the Civilian Control Zone, this station is doubly meaningful in its status: a symbol of division on the Korean Peninsula and a historic gateway to inter-Korean exchange. When unification or inter-Korean exchange becomes reality, the station will be an important hub connecting North and South. Installed in the lounge of this hub to be is a unique media wall, on which artist Yeseung Lee’s Ruffling Landscape – calling us “we” and other spectacular videos from artists Yiyun Kang and Minjeong Geum are displayed. These waves of light and video, expanding the possibilities of peace and interconnectivity, will be part of a permanent exhibition.
Meanwhile, artworks have also been installed at the Paju Guard Post (GP). Demolished via mutual consensus as a follow-up measure to the Inter-Korean Agreement of 2018, the Paju GP symbolizes our will to maintain peace in the DMZ and prevent rearmament. It now features as its protagonist a new work by artist Haegue Yang: 〈Migratory DMZ Birds on Asymmetric Lens – Kyott Kyott Vessel (Pale Thrush)〉 (2021). The artist conceived the work during the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit where, trying to record a private conversation between the two nations’ leaders, reporters picked up only chirping birds and the intermittent sound of camera shutters. The installation is a model of the pale thrush, one of the many birds heard during the summit. Cut apart, the two halves of the thrush appear either united or divided, depending on the viewer’s perspective. This serves as an apt metaphor for the situation in Korea.
The highlight of this exhibition is the large-scale typography installed at Dorasan Station Yard by artist duo Sulki and Min entitled 〈Here/There〉 (2021). The massive letters, spanning the length of 1,430 meters, read “here” from the South and “there” from the North, emphasizing the inevitable divide between two places that are looking to the same goal. The public art in the northernmost tip of South Korea concurs, proclaiming, “There are no borders in art!”
The planning of Gwangju Folly began at the 2010 International Seminar, and its construction was completed the following year. In architecture, “folly” refers to a decorative building that has lost its original function. Historically, buildings with zero practicality were constructed in the gardens of European mansions to serve a decorative purpose, as seen in follies of Britain and France. Since then, the modern concept was established by the French architect of Swiss origin, Bernard Tschumi, who built 35 follies at the Parc de la Villette in Paris. The way Tschumi’s follies provided civilians and experts with a source of research, observation, and enjoyment, eliciting interactivity between visitors and the park, led to the idea of Gwangju Folly. In short, Gwangju Folly refers to architecture that contributes to urban regeneration by assuming a decorative as well as functional role in a public space.
Gwangju Folly resolves to “exert influence in the city by forming patterns as a united whole in lieu of separate entities.” It conducted numerous experiments in the 2010s, imparting strong cultural power to old downtown Gwangju, which was undergoing population cavitation. In addition to the 2011 project involving world-renowned maestros of architecture, a total of 30 follies were installed throughout Gwangju, starting with Gwangju Folly I (11 follies on the theme of “Restoration of History”), Gwangju Folly II (8 follies on the theme of “Human Rights and Public Space”), and Gwangju Folly III (11 follies in theme of “Folly & Everyday Life – Taste & Beauty”). In May 2020, Gwangju Folly IV – The light of Moodeung was completed in time for the 40th anniversary of the May 18th Gwangju Democratization Struggle. Embodying the theme of “Gwangjuness,” it stretches from old downtown to the tollgates of Gwangju, unfolding the city’s aesthetic for all visitors to enjoy.
Sea Art Festival
Busan, a coastal city, features the Sea Art Festival. Recently, in fall 2021, Indian director Ritika Biswas presented at the event under the title 〈Non-/Human Assemblages〉 — but this festival actually dates back to 1987. Beginning as a pre-Olympic event at the ’88 Seoul Olympic Games and held annually from 1987 to 1996 at the major venues of Haeundae and Gwangalli Beach, the festival was famed for its mainstream and distinctive outdoor exhibitions. Then, from 2000 to 2010, it was integrated into Busan Biennale and since 2011 has been held biannually under the auspices of the Busan Biennale Organizing Committee and Busan City Hall, which aim to develop it into its own cultural brand.
The 2021 Sea Art Festival was held on a small beach near a fishing village — Ilgwang Beach at Gijang-gun. It boasted a modest team of 22 domestic and foreign artists who set up paintings, installations, and videos at the village hall, on beaches, on a river bridge, in residential areas, and on the outer walls of apartment complexes, prompting a reviewer to conclude, “The art has become a part of the village.” From the planning stage, Biswas had shown interest in Ilgwang Beach because of its modest size and uncommercial nature compared with large-scale venues, especially in a time when mass gatherings are difficult. He felt that a place with rivers, bridges, parks, and a fishing village by the port was the right choice for the festival.
Ilgwang Beach, a shallow, family-friendly shore, is one of the Eight Sights of Gijang. Many well-known figures have cruised its waters since the Goryeo Dynasty. The Sea Art Festival broke new ground there by exploring different modes of exhibition and imbuing areas that lacked much cultural and artistic content with artistic vitality. The festival was highly received by the public and media, raising expectations for the next event. The Sea Art Festival claims mainstream likability and communication as its key virtues, pioneering public art in terms of history and tradition.
Anyang Public Art Project (APAP)
Visitors may be surprised to find masterpieces of contemporary art in numerous corners of Anyang, Gyeonggi-do — one example being 〈Earth Potential〉 (Lizard, Earth) by Katja Novitskova. Installed in 2019, this sculpture consists of approximately 2 meters by 2 meters of steel aluminum armature and was commissioned for the sixth event of the Anyang Public Art Project (APAP). In an era of biological crisis, Novitskova is an artist who probes modern culture’s obsession with media, approaching through an ecological lens the discourse on relationships among technology, science, and the physical world. For this project, she meshed downloaded images of the Earth and celestial objects with living organisms — such as the flora and fauna used in biotechnology and genetic research — into a permanent installation.
In the middle of Anyang, one may also spot the work 〈Hello, Anyang with Love〉 (2007) by Yayoi Kusama, an artist who breaks records daily at auctions all around the world. Commissioned for APAP 2 in 2007, this work consists of five puppies and a giant flower peppered with dots. The artist, known for expressing unique fantasies and dreams, appended a poem to her work that starts with the line, “When I was feeling down, accompanied by five brightly-multicolored dogs, I came to Anyang, a place like dreamland.”
The APAP is a good example of how the city actively utilizes the concept of public art. Recently, it focused on the theme of “symbiotic city” via “urban regeneration,” tackling boundaries and problems pertaining to modern urban society. This was an effort on the hosts’ part to address dichotomies like oil and water that refuse to mix — ancient and modern, old and new downtowns, natives and migrants — with the “power of cultural synergy.” The APAP 6 touched upon the symbiotic relationships among “art, technology, city, and the environment” and focused on the three directions of “environmental, cultural, and social values.”
The Gangwon International Triennale is a part of the Gangwon Triennale that began as a legacy of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. The Gangwon Triennale is a nomadic project that travels all over Gangwon-do every three years, with the goal of turning the entire province into an art park. The Gangwon Artists Triennale was first held at Hongcheon in 2019, followed by the 2020 Gangwon Kids Triennale and, last but not least, the 2021 Gangwon International Triennale.
In 2021, the Gangwon Triennale curated four location-specific exhibitions stemming from a will to revitalize and recover from modern crises such as disasters, environmental pollution, and COVID-19. The Wadong Branch School came to house paintings, videos, and installations that explored ecological revitalization and brightened its now-obsolete classrooms. The greenhouse in its yard displayed ecological art centering on crops like four-leaf clovers, wildflowers, and corn. The Architectural Café Pavilion, clad in recycled outdoor materials, showcased a novel kind of public art: noodles were sold as Korean fast food along with jeotgal (salted seafood) and honey as Korean slow food.
The exhibition at the abandoned ammunition maintenance plant on the outskirts of Hongcheon drew immediate attention. The space brimmed with video art and works of cutting-edge technology, starting with kinetic art that triggered nostalgia for the analog era. An outdoor deck was built upon a slope where the observatory and artworks mingled in harmony. Sculptures were scattered throughout the space as well. The Hongcheon Art Museum became an archive featuring a digitized collection of videos and pictures from the Gangwon Artists Triennale and Gangwon Kids Triennale, while Hongcheon Joongang Market became a venue for performances and media art shows involving merchants. Visitors to Gangwon-do will enjoy not only beautiful scenery and distinctive food, but also captivating art.
The public art 〈Project Jeju: In Our Time_At the Same Time〉 is launching on January 9, 2022, at the Jeju Museum of Art. As the mastermind behind the event’s production and execution, the museum presents it as “an experimental attempt that considers Jeju’s natural and artificial characteristics, which encompass both the ins (natural aspects) and outs (artificial aspects)!” Thirteen teams were invited to this event, consisting of artists who have actively shown persistent interest in Jeju's many resources. The artists structured the interior via media artworks that connect art to our daily existence — ultimately revealing how art affects our lives, surroundings, experiences, and perceptions.
One may ask how the title came to be. 〈In Our Time_At the Same Time〉 combines the titles of a story collection by novelist Ernest Hemingway and a posthumous collection by critic and novelist Susan Sontag of lectures and manuscripts from her later years. The dual meaning in Sontag’s title At the Same Time — “simultaneously” and “nevertheless” — was much emphasized. Lee Nayeon, the director of the Jeju Museum of Art who oversaw the event, quotes from the collection: “Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. … The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.” She believes it is possible to replace the words “fiction writers” with “artist, curators, and entrepreneurs,” that Sontag’s words apply to anyone attempting to create something or build an organization.
The exhibition 〈In Our Time_At the Same Time〉 utilizes the limited space of Jeju and its resources. It boasts the ambitious title of “our time,” but actually focuses on two things: the role of a museum, the mediator of communication, in a rapidly changing world; and the expanding value of artworks that connect art with technology and region with region, providing a deeper understanding of local culture that all can enjoy.
The exhibition aspires to be environmental, social, and flexible in governance. Sustainability was key to the design of its installations and promotional materials. In lieu of artists dominating the stage, the spotlight is on the communication process that arises in implementing the exhibition. Here, visitors will find novel artworks such as the visual art experience of Gotjawal in the lobby rest area. A gotjawal is a type of forest that naturally occurs in Jeju’s biome, and one was recreated in the museum’s courtyard by a team of three Jeju artists. The museum lobby’s unused space also underwent a transformation and is now a rest area that makes use of social distancing, a space designed by a team of interior designers and curators.
The sky has never been so clear. It is captivating, and the mind goes where the body cannot. Lately, all I can think of is traveling. We find ourselves noting, “There’s a lot to be gained from the experience of the Pandemic,” and I dare say that discovering an appreciation of local surroundings is one of them. The virus refuses to die, and we may be discouraged; but in various parts of the country, abundant nature and sophisticated public art are just a stone’s throw away from our homes. From far north to far south, from the Demilitarized Zone to the island of Jeju — there is art for the public, art for all.
1)The related articles are as follows:
Wallpaper, ‘Art and Seoul: global galleries are flocking to Korea’s capital’, 2021.07.11.,
ARTNews, ‘The New Art Hotspot in Asia: Seoul’s Fast-Rising Scene Is Attracting International Attention’, 2021.06.08.,
The Art Newspaper, ‘Korean wave: could Seoul become the art capital of Asia?’, 2021.10.15.,
2)The French gallery Perrotin opened in Samcheong-dong in 2016, and Liman Maupin, a gallery in New York, and Pace Gallery and Various Small Fires (VSF) opened their Seoul branches in Hannam-dong in 2017 and 2019, respectively. In April 2021, König Galerie of Germany opened a branch in Cheongdam-dong, and in October, the Austrian gallery Thaddaeus Ropac opened its first Asian branch in Hannam-dong.
3)A combined 142 exhibition venues were opened in 2021. Seoul Art Guide, “Changes in Exhibition Venues, 142 Spaces Opening,” 「Seoul Art Guide」, vol. 241, January 2022, 58–61.
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Editor-in-chief, Public Art