Features / Focus

2023 Dive into Korean Art: Seoul

posted 11 Dec 2023

After a 14-hour flight on Korean Air that flew by with the help of shockingly good food, attentive flight attendants, and the time-warping magic of a never-ending stream of movies on the seatback monitor in front of me, I landed in Seoul on a humid September afternoon. Much to my surprise, the gentleman holding my name up at the gate recognized me immediately, extending a warm smile and wave. As we walked to the car that would take me to my hotel, Sam explained that it was his great honor to welcome me as he aspired to one day visit the Smithsonian, where I work, and he had already mapped out how he would spend a full ten days exploring the museums on the national mall in Washington, DC. An American civil servant who is unaccustomed to being treated like a celebrity, I decided that I quite liked the experience and, after posing for a bedraggled, post-flight selfie, I settled into the roomy black SUV for a scenic ride into Seoul, timed perfectly with an extravagant sunset.

Although I wasn’t yet aware of the full size of the group, I had traveled to Seoul as one of sixteen art curators and writers gathered from around the globe by the Korean Arts Management Service (KAMS)--an organization I knew little about prior to receiving a tantalizing invitation in my inbox to join them for "Dive into Korean Art," four days of studio visits, networking opportunities, and cultural immersion leading up to the opening of the Frieze Seoul and Kiaf art fairs. During this time we would spend several hours a day on a bus which shuttled us from studio to studio in far flung corners of Seoul—some nestled in the sanctuary of art spaces and others tucked away in nondescript buildings otherwise occupied by an assortment of businesses. What we came to learn quickly was that studio space in Seoul comes at a premium and early career artists are constantly on the lookout for support structures that help sustain their practice. This is why organizations like KAMS are crucial to their development—in addition to bringing an international group of arts professionals to their studios, KAMS promised to extend financial support for publications and exhibitions throughout the coming year.

The "Dive into Korean Art" program began first thing Sunday morning with an illuminating overview of Contemporary Korean art delivered by the charming and impressive Dr. Yeon Shim Chung, a Professor at Hongik University who was a student of renowned feminist scholar Linda Nochlin at NYU in the late 90s/early 2000s. Dr. Chung primed us well for the studio visits to come by explaining the idiosyncrasies of the development of contemporary art in Korea; pointing out the division between the rival avant-gardes promoted by Dansaekhwa and Minjung artists—the first rooted in a highly experimental engagement with abstract painting beginning in the 1950s that could be compared to Japan’s Gutai Art Association and the second emerging later in the 1980s as a politically engaged movement dedicated to promoting Democracy with aesthetic roots in traditional Korean culture. Dr. Chung emphasized that neither Dansaekhwa nor Minjung had a unified aesthetic or philosophy but rather were composed of small groups of highly individualistic artists in dialogue. This trend has continued in recent history as artists have moved through the postmodern generation in the late 1980s—accompanied by the rise of consumer culture, K-Pop, and K-Drama—and into the present post-internet generation, which is perhaps most resonant with the artists we were about to meet.


Lee Heejoon‘s studio (SeMA NANJI Residency)

Bolstered by this foundational knowledge, we boarded the bus toward our first studio visit with Lee Heejoon, who is currently in residence in Seoul Museum of Art’s SeMA NANJI program. Lee’s layered canvases, which combine acrylic paint and photo-collage in a manner that verges on sculpture at times, are abstractions of moments found within the cityscape—both architectural and remembered. Lee refers to his process of assembling disparate elements into a single image as an act akin to mining; digging deep to access the elements that make up the character of a place. The next artist we visited, Keem Jiyoung, was similarly invested in abstraction and capturing the essence of a thing—in her case, it is the essence of life and death that she attempts to reify in Glowing Hour, a series of oil paintings that she creates while gazing directly at the flame of a burning candle. Symbolic of resistance, remembrance, and mourning, these abstractions of fire are fitting companions to her Blue Series paintings of disasters, which she created between 2016-18to highlight the prevalence of tragic accidents in contemporary society and the incapacity of systems of governance to predict, prevent, and remediate them in time to save lives.


Keem Ji young’s Studio

Over the course of the next several days, we visited with ten additional artist studios, highlights of which include Ryu Sungsil who regaled us with the scandalous and outrageously detailed fictional narrative of Big King Travel, a morally bankrupt tour company CEO who is the subject of her newest body of work, which she adapts into every medium imaginable: painting, performance, video, web design, and even marketing as she seeks to crowdsource funding for her project from the online masses; Min Sunghong who charmed us with large-scale sculptural assemblages created from elements of furniture and other traditional objects that he collected from the streets around his community where they had been discarded when people were forced to leave their homes behind; and Lee Jinjuwhose delicate paintings made with traditional Korean pigments conflate disparate vignettes of traumatic memories that she would normally try to repress into intimate representations of the dark corners of self-knowledge.


Hong Seung Hye’s exhibition (Kukje Gallery)

Although KAMS sought to amplify awareness of early career artists who could greatly benefit from international exposure in their selection this year, there were several exceptions to this rubric, including Jaye Rhee, an artist currently based in New York who seeks to capture the ineffable in works such as "The Perfect Moment", a two-channel video which brought me to tears as a former Merce Cunningham dancer recounted moments from her career on-stage that achieved that often unattainable note of perfection while a younger dancer quietly rehearsedthe movement she described on the adjoining screen; and Hong Seung Hye, the self-described "big sister" of the other artists who was an early adopter of computers, seizing the pixel as the primary building block of her practice as early as 1997. One work that stood out was an animated self-portrait constructed from stacked pixels which shape-shifted genders ala clip-art convention to represent the complexity of identity that Hong herself feels as she vacillates between masculine and feminine.

Looking back on this action-packed week, it’s difficult to sum up exactly what it meant for me as a curator who works with an international roster of artists but so rarely has the opportunity to travel to a place and soak up its culture on the ground. KAMS understood this and prioritized it as a focus of their programming: just as they worked to promote the visibility of Korean artists on an international stage, they also strove to facilitate personal connections and cultural understanding for those of cultural understanding for those ofus who had come from afar. Tucked in and around the studio visits were exhibition tours, opening celebrations, and magnificent communal meals that doubled as opportunities to connect with our colleagues working in the art sphere in Seoul. After four very full days in Seoul, I returned home nourished, energized, and ready to go back for more.

Betsy Johnson

Betsy Johnson is an assistant curator responsible for the photography collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. At the Hirshhorn, she has curated Tony Lewis: Anthology 2014–2016 (2018); The Evidence Room (2019); Feel the Sun in Your Mouth: Recent Acquisitions (2019), Ai Weiwei: Trace, Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles (2021); Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory (2021); One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection (2022); Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green), Wrightwood 659, Chicago (2022), A Window Suddenly Opens: Contemporary Photography in China (2022), and Jessica Diamond: Wheel Of Life(2023).
Prior to the Hirshhorn, Johnson worked for Glenstone in Potomac, Maryland from 2011 through 2015, where she guided the development of its visitor experience and education programs.

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