Features / Focus

[Art in City] Public Art(2) Public Art in Seoul - How Well Do You Know Them?

posted 09 Feb 2022

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.

Public Art in Seoul : How Well Do You Know Them?

〈윤슬 : 서울을 비추는 만리동〉작품 설치 전경. 이미지 서울특별시 제공  〈윤슬 : 서울을 비추는 만리동〉작품 세부 사진. 이미지 서울특별시 제공

〈Yoonseul: Manridong Reflects Seoul〉 Full installation view. Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan City.

A few years ago, I happened to learn the word, “Yoonseul.” This beautiful word refers to “ripples that sparkle, reflecting the light of the sun or the moon,” and was lost in my memories until recently in 2017, where at Malli-dong Plaza, I came across the installation of 〈Yoonseul: Manridong Reflects Seoul (Artist, Yerin Kang)〉 — the first artwork in the series of the project 「Seoul is Museum」. This artwork is shaped like a giant 25-meter optical lens. It is a unique work that allows viewers to enter a space 4 meters below ground level to experience the spectacular wonders created by the scattering light. 〈Yoonseul〉 has become a strong presence since its installation. But when it was first introduced, it received ironic, amusing feedback: Numerous citizens had recognized the work as an outdoor performance hall or facility, and not public art. This sentiment stemmed from a preconceived notion that public artworks are defined as large-scale sculptures or figure-oriented work. But as time passed, citizens began to understand the “site-specific” element the artwork meant to express, and have accepted it as a natural part of their lives. It was around this time that many — including myself — began to take interest in 「Seoul is Museum」, the public art project pursued by the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Over time, we have come to place trust in culture and the arts to improve the quality of life. Based on this optimistic belief, we have continued to establish the essential foundations for cultural policy, with expectations and confidence that the culture and the arts will effectively perform its social roles. In 2016, the Seoul Metropolitan Government promptly noted this trend and implemented a public art project titled 「Seoul is Museum」. The goal of the project was to make “the entire city of Seoul, a museum. ”The project is part of Design Seoul, and has inherited the City Gallery project that was pursued from 2006 to 2011. It aims to expand and build upon the philosophy and directorial vision of its predecessor. The public art project 「Seoul is Museum」 touts as its core philosophy, "In pursuit of a better life for Seoul citizens,” and has been presenting public artworks and projects that the citizens of Seoul may experience and enjoy as an integral part of their lives.

〈홍제유연〉숨길. 이미지 서울특별시 제공.  〈홍제유연〉온기. 이미지 서울특별시 제공.

〈Hongje Yuyeon〉, The Path of Breaths. Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government 〈Hongje Yuyeon〉 The Warmth. Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government.

The public art project of the Seoul Metropolitan Government is gaining global recognition, as works implemented through the project have been selected for leading design awards such as the IF (’21 〈Hongje Yuyeon〉), SEGD (’19 〈Jahadam〉), DFA (’19 〈Jahadam〉), and Good Design Awards (20 〈Noksapyeong Station Art Project〉), etc. The project also gleaned positive accolades, such as the SEGD award review which noted, “The urban design was connected to the historical context from its planning stage, and also demonstrated a leap from the norms and traditions of urban design aesthetics. The work fosters communal interaction by creating a unique sense of space within the local community as a site for people to meet and interact.”

녹사평역 댄스오브라이트, 이미지 서울특별시 제공.

Noksapyeong Station, Dance of Light. Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government

「Seoul is Museum」 Organization and Operation

Under the principle of “citizens are the owners of public art,” the project is being carried out in three major categories to realize a Culture City Seoul where all citizens can readily embrace and enjoy culture in their daily lives.

서울로 미디어캔버스. 이미지 서울특별시 제공.

Seoullo Media Canvas. Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government

The first category consists of the project 〈Local Attractions〉, where key works are installed. It includes programs such as the 〈Realization of Public Art Works at the Regional Unit〉, which transforms everyday places into public art sites, 〈Realization of Citizen Ideas for Public Art〉, which implements work based on the stories of citizens. The second category involves participatory projects, 〈Public Art Festival〉 ,〈Public Art Partnered with University Student〉, and 〈Seoullo Media Canvas〉. The third and last category involves the foundational leg of the project, and drives the vision, direction and expansion of policies pertaining to 「Seoul is Museum」.
Included in this category is the 〈Seoul City Public Art Committee Operation〉 and 〈Documentation Project〉, as well as the 〈Seoul is Museum Public Art Conference〉 where, every year, a theme has been provided for dedicated public art discourse since its inception in 2016.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government has been sparing no efforts in engaging the public to explore new and expanded artistic and cultural experiences. In fact, it has been strengthening its existing infrastructure and leaning on expert reviews and advice by the Public Art Committee to reinforce and innovate.
The planning and operation of public art projects are centered on the core tasks corresponding to each category. In the case of installation art, a public poll is held to determine target sites among the city and district estates, after which their suitability is reviewed based on areas in need of public art. From then on, business planning and an open call for artworks are conducted based on the characteristics and context of each site. The open call is promoted via nomination or open recruitment. There are also opportunities for interested citizens to participate in the selection of works, such as by civic screening or civic preference surveys. As for citizen participation projects, the public art festival fosters a viewing experience as well as a hands-on experience. Citizens can actively engage and participate in completing the work at an open space in the city. “The Seoul Art University Program (AUP)” experiments with the vivid ideas of art students, who themselves will go on to contribute to public art. The program emphasizes the importance of the process of completing a given work and highlights mentoring and consultation. Above all, the city continues to hold public media art exhibitions as well as operate a “citizen video exhibition” where citizens can directly contribute. This is conducted through Seoullo Media Canvas, which has expanded nonphysical media art into the realms of public art.

Project Context and Specialization

In the name of public art, 「Seoul is Museum」 promotes 5-8 various projects annually. The project is divided into: two art realization projects; three participatory projects involving citizens, universities and media artists; and two policy-based projects. Concurrently, the project is trying to incorporate “contemporaneity” to compensate for the shortcomings of existing public art policies that were focused on images or relationships (community). In line with this emphasis on contemporaneity, “life cycles” were applied to artworks. The Seoul Metropolitan Government recognizes that the meaning and value of a given work will evolve as time moves on, and also, that the city is a shared property of the citizens. As stated by experts and citizens, public art should adhere to the flow of time. It should not remain sedentary, merely because a large investment was made at a certain time. Thus, when installing an artwork, a life cycle is implemented based on materials used and the characteristics of the work. Upon its conclusion, a decision is made to extend, preserve, relocate or dispose of the said work. Projects such as civic festivals, exhibitions, conferences and civic discovery groups are implemented under a temporary life cycle to select short-term topics pertaining to the current trend for suitable discourse.
This strategy of a life cycle allows public art to come alive in the everyday lives of the city and its citizens. Its purpose is to sustain the relevance of public art as well as embody the zeitgeist of the times by supplementing the shortcomings and limitations of both long-term installation works and temporary events.
Additionally, the project raises the question of why public art should occupy the limited space available to the city of Seoul. There will be continual discourse on public space. Public space should go beyond its role as an exhibition hall for artists; it should restore alienated resources to citizens, revive memories of forgotten areas, and above all, expand upon the shared experience of citizens enjoying and appreciating its site-specific spatiality.

Participatory Public Art

The Seoul Metropolitan Government has been conscientious in its operation of programs that foster citizen participation, such as with the 〈Seoullo Media Canvas Citizen Participation Program〉. But some public art projects undergo trial and error, having not factored in the changes that may occur due to non-experts, namely, the citizens. The city responds as such: Director Hyeyoung Lee of the Seoul Metropolitan City Design Policy Department says, “We must tread lightly when it comes to citizen participation in public art projects. But this doesn’t mean they are secondary to this process of artists creating their works. Public art, at its core, is something that should be ‘jointly created by’ and ‘enjoyed with’ citizens. It is a process of empathy and harmony, not division between experts and non-professionals. For the sake of public art, artists and citizens alike need to take a step back and move forward as a group. While we can’t claim that revising a plan in accordance with the opinions of artists or citizens is an absolute necessity, it can be viewed as a chance to bridge the gap between positions and suggest new alternatives.” She further expresses, “Of course, there may be conflict. This is why it’s important for us to have an open forum where artists, citizens and experts from other fields can intervene and exchange opinions. Over the past five years, 「Seoul is Museum」 has in various ways broadened the dialogue with artists and project leaders to dispel stereotypes, namely, the preconceived notion that the will of policymakers play a more significant role than that of the artist’s. We understand that preconceptions towards ‘institutions’ may create barriers in dialogue. We are seeking more stable and progressive ways to promote public art, based on our accumulated data of successes and failures to date. The Seoul Metropolitan Government is facilitating communication between artists and citizens by pursuing consulting across fields, briefing sessions and the operation of public art committees.”
There are persistent concerns and criticism over projects that involve citizen participation, such as the downgrading of quality or the reduction of artist capabilities in projects. The Seoul Metropolitan Government has established clear principles regarding this matter. First, we recognize that public art and its functions are different from that of art galleries that display fine art or contemporary art. The Seoul Metropolitan Government understands that the taxes paid by citizens enable the installments and performances of public art at the city center. These artworks are shared property and occupy the same spaces and facilities of countless citizens. Therefore, a social and emotional consensus is a prerequisite above all other criteria.
Let’s take the example of Richard Serra’s 〈Tilted Arc〉. In 1989, the work was installed in Foley Federal Plaza of Manhattan and was later demolished at the request of the public. Another work, called 〈The Vessel〉, was recently installed in New York, only to be closed due to several cases of suicide. We can observe here the importance of civic intervention and involvement in public art. Because public art occupies the space in the lives of citizens, it needs to go beyond mere interaction. Citizen involvement plays a key role in closing the gap between artistic value and social sentiment.

〈타원본부〉설치 작품 전경. 이미지 서울특별시 제공. 〈타원본부〉작품 이미지. 이미지 서울특별시 제공.

〈Oval Camp〉 Installation View. Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government.

In this context, the Seoul Metropolitan Government considers 〈Oval Camp〉 (Jihyun Jung, 〈Public Art Citizen Idea Realization〉), an installation at Yongma Falls Park, Jungnang-gu, an excellent model of a public artwork conceived by citizens. A citizen’s story about the place became the seed of an idea that sprouted in the hands of an artist into a beautiful work of art. This, in turn, further expanded the artist's artistry. By virtue of the process, the artist is able to broaden his artistic abilities via the advice, consultations and collaborations with experts in other fields such as architecture and design.

Success and Failure in Public Art

녹사평역 지하 4층 정원. 이미지 서울특별시 제공.

Garden in basement four at Noksapyeong Station. Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government

Among the numerous projects planned and carried out through a complex process, the Seoul Metropolitan Government cited the regional public art 〈Noksapyeong Station Underground Art Garden〉 as a success that received the greatest attention. This piece was internationally featured in more than 150 media articles, magazines, TV and radio broadcasts. This is partially due to reports covered by visiting foreign institutions and media companies such as the Quebec Design Association, Hong Kong Journalists Association, press tour of foreign correspondents in Korea and the press tour of reporters in the department of culture, as well as the increase by 117% in the number of passengers getting on and off following the installment of the project in March 2019. This was a significant increase compared to the previous month. Additionally, the artwork was selected as a “Place to Visit in May” by the Korea Tourism Organization and won the grand prize at the 2019 Korean Public Design Awards hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. This project is a work of art and greenery installed throughout Noksapyeong Station. The installation permeates the main hall, the dome from the first level of the basement to the fifth, the waiting area and the platform, and is promoted in collaboration with the Seoul Metropolitan Government's Cultural Headquarters, Seoul Transportation Corporation and Yongsan-gu.
At this point in time, one may question the “what and why” of key performance indicators for evaluating the sustainability and potential success and failures of public art projects. In response, Director Lee of Seoul Metropolitan City's design policy department explained as such: “Key performance indicators of public art projects are citizen participation and citizen satisfaction. Citizen satisfaction is crucial, as they are the ones enjoying the work. We survey the number of citizens participating and gauge satisfaction to determine the direction of public art preferred. Since participating artists and prospective artists (university students) are also citizens, they too need to be satisfied. To achieve this, consulting is mandatory. Through this process, we can open up more opportunities for artists of public art, paving the way for enjoyable and optimistic involvement in the city of Seoul’s public art projects. In summary, the key performance indicators pursued by the city are: the development of potential in public art artists, citizen participation and expansion of opportunities to enjoy high-quality artworks.”

Public Art vs. The Public vs. The Media

When it comes to the public art projects of Seoul, citizens provide immediate feedback. Reactions to public artworks pour in real time via social media (SNS) such as Facebook and Instagram and have a significant influence on determining the direction of policy in regards to public art. At the same time, policymakers comment on the importance and impact of delayed feedback. This is due to the change in the public’s preconceived notions and misunderstandings over time. In this sense, delayed feedback is also a crucial part of policymaking.
〈Yoonseul: Manridong Reflects Seoul〉 is an installation in the series of 「Seoul Is Museum」, and was mentioned at the beginning of the article as an artwork that broke down the notions of public art being limited to large-scale sculptures or figurative works. Following installation, time and word-of-mouth brought the public to the now much beloved space. The public is enjoying and embracing this space of integration and unique experiences.
Public reaction and the media are crucial criteria in reading the thoughts of citizens as well as the meaning and direction of public art. For this reason, the Seoul Metropolitan Government is implementing policies to capture citizen feedback as a method of fostering interest and participation.

〈달빛노들〉이미지 서울특별시 제공.

〈Moonlight Nodeul〉, Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government.

The Future of Seoul’s Public Art

In November 2021, the Seoul Metropolitan Government plans to showcase two public artworks that embody the citizen’s story, where citizens and experts collaborate to create new experiences based on the stories of citizens. 〈Cotton Candy Elephant〉 by artist Bora Lee is a 22-meter installation that is a large-scale reproduction of the poem titled 〈Cotton Candy〉 inspired by Seoul Grand Park. Sand-Time by artist Sehui Seo depicts the cycle of nature, and was created under the motif of a parenting diary that involved Oil Tank Culture Park as one of its subjects.
Since its inception in 2016, the 「Seoul Is Museum」 project ran for five years, presenting the public with high-quality artworks and events that promote the value of public art, even earning a global design award in the process. The Seoul Metropolitan Government is now focusing on establishing the foundation for a mid-to-long-term vision that advances and promotes public art policies. The goal is to establish a vision for Seoul public art, one that may encompass a global cultural vision. This is essentially the vision of public art project 「Seoul Is Museum」 2.0 that aims to be the driving force behind “Culture City Seoul.” This new vision will become the “Vision of Seoul Public Art,” from which we may pursue “Urban Art” that goes beyond public art in its embodiment of global cultural vision.
The public art of Seoul aims to realize an “Emotive City.” Public art is not the work of an individual artist but a shared experience. The city recognizes that the true meaning of public art lies in its open ability to grow from the attention and love given by citizens of the city. With this in mind, the Seoul Metropolitan Government continues to plan public art projects, the likes of which we have never seen before.

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.


Design Seoul Website

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Jung Iljoo

Editor-in-chief, Public Art

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