People / Interview

Kim Hong-hee Director, Seoul Museum of Art (1)

posted 28 Jan 2014

“What I envisioned was a ‘post-museum,’ but it’s run according to a kind of ‘ambidextrous’ philosophy. The only way to achieve innovation is by being ambidextrous -- respecting the stability of the government bureaucracy and the history of the art museum, while blending in the leader’s innovation. If you don’t have support for this kind of innovation, then it’s not going to work, no matter how hard you try. So it’s about combining the two aspects -- the administrative ability and stability of the bureaucracy and the innovation of the art -- and modulating that clash. The exhibition planning at a public institution is closely linked to a coordination of these two aspects -- the ambidextrous approach, the glocal, the combination of the orthodox and the alternative.”

Taeyoon Choi / artist
Kim Hong-hee / Director, Seoul Museum of Art Kim Hong-hee graduated from Ewha Womans University with a degree in French literature. After receiving a master’s degree in art history from Concordia University in Canada, she returned home to complete a doctoral program in the same subject at Hongik University. She has served as director of SSamzie Space (1998--2008) and the Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art (2006--2010), as well as commissioner for the 2000 Gwangju Biennale and the Korean Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale and general director for the 2006 Gwangju Biennale. Her studies and books include Feminism · Video · Art (1998) and Good Morning, Mr. Paik (2007). She is currently director of the Seoul Museum of Art and a selection committee member for the artistic director of the 2017 Kassel Documenta exhibition.

From Center to Periphery, From Fluxus to ‘Post-Museum’

Kim Hae-ju : When you started work in the 1990s, it was a time of great change in Korean contemporary art. I’d like to hear you walk us through the process since then. Would you say that the real start came with the Seoul Fluxus Festival in 1993?

Kim Hong-hee : In 1992, I came back to Korea after living abroad for 13 years. I’d found out about Fluxus from Nam June Paik while I was overseas, and I’d been a spectator -- a bit more than that, really -- while attending the Fluxus Festival in Demark. I’d made the acquaintance of a lot of Fluxus artists, and I started work before the embers had cooled, so to speak. There was a competition for exhibition planning, where the prize was 10 million won in support from the Seoul Arts Center. And then I received 40 million won -- a lot of money -- from the Paradise Foundation (the Wookyung Foundation back then), which is the parent organization for Kaywon. So I was staging exhibitions and performances at the Seoul Arts Center, Kaywon, Gallery Hyundai, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. It was a kind of exorcism ritual, things they really weren’t doing back then. Nam June Paik was too busy to participate except in writing, but he created the title, “Fluxus Is the Rose of Sharon Flower.” The idea was that Fluxus was something more tenacious than the rose of Sharon (mugunghwa, or “the inexhaustible flower” in Korean). There were 15 original members working under that banner, including people like Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, and Jon Hendricks. There was also René Block, who was in charge of the program.

Kim Hae-ju : There were Korean artists taking part too, people like Hong Shin-ja, Lee Kun-young, Lee Bul, and Sung Neung-kyung. I’m curious about the links between Fluxus and the Korean avant-garde.

Kim Hong-hee : Every country has artists approaching things along similar lines. Japan had the Kutai group, and Korea had avant-garde groups with people like Kim Ku-lim, Sung Neung-kyung, and Jeong Chan-seung. They were catalysts, people who helped a zeitgeist blossom. The biggest link between Fluxus and the Korean avant-garde was Nam June Paik. When he performed the score for Affair on the Piano with Jeong Chan-seung, that was really the first time Paik’s work was introduced to Korean audiences. Hong Shin-ja also interacted with Fluxus artists when she was working in New York. She and Philip Corner worked together at one point. The artists involved in “happenings” in Korea provided a lot of support, since it was the kind of event that bolstered their own activities. It wasn’t so much a direct connection as something tied in with the zeitgeist.

Kim Hae-ju : One important exhibition for you was Patjis on Parade, the women’s art festival you planned in 1999. I’d like to ask about how that got started. There have been a few more of those since then, haven’t there?

Kim Hong-hee : In 1994, I worked alone on planning an exhibition called Woman, the Difference and the Power. Feminist theories had been introduced here, but no real relationship had been formulated with art, so it was a first example of a women’s art exhibition. The title of it was really quite serious. There had been an exhibition in the US around the same time called Bad Girls. So where I was still approaching things at a beginner’s level, Bad Girls took the kind of humorous approach that appears after you’ve been through a bit of history and practice with feminist theory. You could say that by the 1999 exhibition, which had the somewhat comical title Patjison Parade (Patji is the name of the “wicked stepsister” character in a popular Korean fairy tale), my serious approach from 1994 had finally developed into something more along the lines of the Bad Girls attitude. Lee Hye-kyung had organized the Women’s Film Festival around the same time, and her Women’s Culture and Arts Planning was also involved. It seemed like the women’s political element would be stronger if we did it as a group instead of me doing it by myself, so we divided the exhibition up into sessions, with five curators working on it -- Baek Ji-sook, Lim Jung-hee, Oh Hye-ju, Kim Sun-hee, and me. There were sessions that focused on feminism, the woman’s sensibility, and historic modern works by women. It wasn’t directly tied in with feminism, but we showed the work of artists who had contributed to helping Korean contemporary art to grow. There had been support for the Women’s Film Festival because there were a lot of organizations that were considering the power of the cinematic medium, but art doesn’t have that kind of popular appeal, so we had to come up with the funding ourselves. Seven of the women artists from the exhibition made prints, and Lee Hye-kyung and I went around taking those works to all the different galleries and selling them to pay for the event. In most cases, it was female gallery directors who bought them. It honestly doesn’t seem real when I think about it now. We had that popular title, Patjis on ParadeMi, and we had five curators giving their heart and soul, so the response was very positive. We got ideas about feminist art, and a lot of the resistance to feminist art seems to have disappeared since then.

Kim Hae-ju : There seems to have been a real sense of solidarity among women for the exhibition process itself.

Kim Hong-hee : Women’s solidarity is a pretty important part of the early stages of feminism, and that kind of thing was only just emerging in Korea. There were second and third events that arose as an extension of it, as Asian women’s art festivals. They attracted a lot of Asian artists, but they didn’t have the impact of Patjis on Parade. When I did the Eonni Is Back exhibition at the Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art, it was because I wanted to try to revive feminism again. At some point, I’d still like to work outside the “system,” so to speak, and try another Asian women’s art festival. Last year, the major artists at Seoul Museum of Art’s exhibitions were all men. For next year, I’m planning to have female artists in SeMA Gold(a series of feature exhibitions for prominent artists). In particular, I’m working on something on the theme of a diaspora, gathering together the work of artists who are all working in different places overseas -- people like Min Yong-soon, Yoon Jin-me, and Jo Sook-jin. I’m not trying to emphasize the feminist line directly, but I am incorporating the intent in the planning.

Kim Hae-ju : I have to ask about your experience at SSamzie Space, which touched off a kind of alternative space boom. I’d like to hear from you about what it was supposed to provide an alternative to, what your conclusions were at the time. Can you talk about where you tried to go with SSamzie Space?

Kim Hong-hee : Mine is kind of a minority perspective, as someone who was a housewife studying at a relatively late age. So that may be the reason, but I think my work has always been about looking at the periphery and trying to put it at the center. In institutional terms, it was the alternative spaces that played that role, but people weren’t really talking about “alternative spaces” yet. That time, the late 1990s, with the foreign exchange crisis, was a very tough working environment for artists. Not only did the people coming back from overseas have nowhere to go, but a lot of them hadn’t even been able to finish their studies because of the exchange rates. That was the environment when SSamzie built its new building, leaving its old one to be used for residencies. That was in 1998, with the SSamzie Art Project in the Amsa neighborhood of Seoul. Today, the artists who did residencies at Amsa seem like a veritable galaxy of stars -- Kim Hong-seok, Park Chan-kyong, Chung Seo-young, Rhii Jewyo, Hong Soon-myung, Kho Nak-beom. They did two of those in Amsa, and then when SSamzie’s business picked up, they bought the building in front of Hongik University, and that was the opening of SSamzie Space as a general cultural center. It was intended as an alternative space with things like underground rock bands, residencies, and galleries. The slogan was “Alternative culture changes society,” so it was advocating the alternative as a way of changing the existing paradigm. As SSamzie got more and more famous, the competition to get in grew more and more intense -- a one-in-ten rate of acceptance. The judging was done by curators and artists who had participated before, and the effects were really very positive. Excellent artists were moving into the place I lived and contributing to sustaining that kind of atmosphere. They were serving to produce output from the transformation as the “alternative” motto incorporated the culture outside Hongik University, and it ended up producing a lot of talented artists.

Kim Hae-ju : One particularly memorable exhibition for you after SSamzie Space opened in 2000 would have been the one you worked on with Lee Kun-yong and Koh Seung-wook.

Kim Hong-hee : With that exhibition, we linked established avant-garde artists with younger artists through a project called “Title Match,” which was done once every two years. Unfortunately, I had to stop when I left SSamzie, but I’m starting it up again with women artists at the North Seoul Museum. This time, I’m envisioning something that pairs important female artists in art history with suitable members of the new generation.

Kim Hae-ju : Can you give any hints about who’s taking part?

Kim Hong-hee : I decided to do an exhibition with Kang Eun-yeop. She had a tremendous sense and aesthetic avant-gardism. The younger artist hasn’t been decided yet. There’s also an exhibition of minjung artists on a different floor of the North Seoul Museum around the same time.

Kim Hae-ju : Would say that the different things you tried at SSamzie serve as a kind of toolbox for your curating today?

Kim Hong-hee : There are things that were just kind of vague attempts back then that I use in a sort of free interpretation today where it suits the character of the museum. The idea is to use the parts as fuses, things that transform the museum rather than just being incorporated into it. It’s about using them as a mechanism of achieving the kind of “post-museum” I’m envisioning.

Continued on the next →

Kim Hae-ju / Independent Curator

Kim Hae-ju is an independent curator. She has worked as a researcher for the National Theater Company of Korea’s academic publishing division and assistant curator at the Nam June Paik Art Center. Her exhibitions include Memorial Park(Palais de Tokyo and Paris, 2013), Sand Theater(from Playtime, Culture Station Seoul 284, 2012), and The Whales -- Time Diver(National Theater Company of Korea, 2011).

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