Features / Focus

The Institutional Transformations of Korean Art

posted 19 Oct 2015

How has the art scene in Korea changed since 2005? As most are aware, the industry was energized by an unprecedented boom during 2007 and eany 2008, but the sudden financial crisis led it on a dismal downward slope during the latter half of 2008. What sort of circumstances and underlying currents did the art community undergo during such transitions? I suppose I can say that it broke down the so-called "tangible and visible" changes within Korea's art community from throughout the past 10 years.

Is it possible to historicize one's own times? After being contracted to dissect the transformations of Korea's contemporary arts scene within the past 10 years, starting from 2006, this is the question that has continuously racked my mind. That's because criticism and analysis stem from the temporal distance permitted to one on the "outside," as opposed to someone "within" the historical current that is washed along with events as they occur. Furthermore, capturing the breadth of a contemporary arts scene that's continually expanding and accelerating in a mere 20 pages appeared all the more impossible. After staring at a pile of table-of-contents pages from 10 years' worth of magazines, in addition to a mountain of other photocopies, I decided to limit my investigation to what was feasible. I've attempted a brief summary of the transformations of Korea's contemporary arts scene within the past 10 years based on perceivable and visible institutional shifts as well as spatial changes. Spotlighting specific exhibitions or pieces to represent a certain time period is undoubtedly a subjective process, but I concluded that I didn't have enough time or page space to conduct a fair critique—one that incorporated exhibitions that were excluded from widespread media coverage.

- Mid-2000s: Art Market Explosion

Let's begin with the mid-2000s, a time when the art market experienced an unprecedented fervor. Riding the wave of a global economic boom that aligned with the Roh Moo-hyun administration's lowered interest rates and regulations on real-estate speculation, the Korean art market enjoyed an unparalleled period of prosperity. Riding the peak of this wave, in 2007 the Seoul Auction and K-Auction enjoyed sell-through rates of above 70 percent, producing profits that more than doubled those of the same period for the previous year.
In May 2007 specifically, Park Soo-geun's Washerwomen by the Stream was sold for a whopping KRW4.52 billion (US$4.86 million at the time) at Seoul Auction, setting a new record among paintings auctioned in Korea. In November, among the 52 Korean artworks sold at Christie's Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art auction in Hong Kong, 47 pieces took away around KRW4.99 billion, setting another record. In 2007 alone, 92 new galleries were established, while the Korea International Art Fair (KIAF) received over 60,000 attendees, boasting a whole wave of new auctioneers.1)

1) For more information on this subject, please consult the following: Ban Ejung, “2007: A Year of Events and Markets: Slide-out of A Spring Dream”, Wolganmisool, September 2013, p. 182–185; Seo Jin-su, “The Accomplishments and Unsolved Issues of the Korean Art Scene in 2007”, Wolganmisool, March 2008, p. 164–166

This period of unprecedented market prosperity was closely linked to two other phenomena of the same period. One was the art boom in China; the other was emergence of young artists in the art establishment. From 2006 to 2007, to ride the rising tide of China's art market, which was being spotlighted as an emerging market, Korean artists started advancing upon the Caochangdi and Jiuchang districts and the 798 Art Zone in northeastern Beijing.2) Consequently, exhibitions of top Chinese artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, and Wang Guangyi thrived in Korea as well. With the advent of the global economic crisis set off by US financial disasters, interest in political pop art began to falter, thus deflating China's art boom. By 2010, just a few years later, most Korean artists in China had fled the scene, evidence of how susceptible the Korean art community is to external influences as well as how accommodating it is to trends. When the market somewhat recovered, galleries that had been seeking new artists to invest in started eyeing younger artists, whose work was relatively cheaper. The acceptance of younger artists by the art establishment was already set off by the first wave of alternative spaces that appeared in the late 1990s, but the market's boom during the mid-2000s was boosted by galleries and museums directly selecting their own artists, as opposed to relying on formal procedures (where museums and commercial galleries would absorb artists discovered by alternative spaces a certain period after their debut). Exhibition titles around this time usually fell along the lines of Discovering New Artists, New Start, Young Artists, Rising Young Artists, or Emerging Artists, and the age standard for "young artist" was lowered from the 35–45 range to the 25–35 range, a standard that continues today.

2) Key galleries include Eyoom Gallery (798 Art Zone, 2005), Arario Beijing (Jiu Chang, 2005), Pyo Gallery Beijing (Jiu Chang, 2006), Gallery Artside (798 Art Zone, 2007), Do Art China (Caochangdi, 2007), PKM Gallery Beijing (Caochangdi, 2006), and Keumsan Gallery China (798 Art Zone, 2007).

- Late 2000s: Museums and Biennales

As the established institutions began to directly recruit its own artists, the first generation of alternative spaces quickly became obsolete, having been stripped of their original function—a progression of utmost importance Alternative Space Loop, a space that reopened in 2005 after constructing a new building, has become an icon of this transformation. The following year, rising costs of rent drove Insa Art Space and the Art Space Pool to their current locations, becoming even more isolated, and the influence that alternative exhibitions spaces had on mainstream art diminished even further. The task of seeking out new artists and innovative exhibition methods that was traditionally carried out by alternative galleries was now becoming a standard practice across the scene, and the number of top-name galleries that directly recruited their own talent increased, thus eliminating the niche once held by alternative spaces. In the late 2000s, with the emergence of several new exhibition spaces, the center of artistic discourse shifted at an even faster pace. The mid- to late 2000s greatly expanded the material base that made today's Korean art scene possible. First, a number of today's hottest exhibition galleries were established during this period. Between 2006 and 2007, for example, a significant number of mid-sized commercial galleries were established. Notable additions during this period include Atelier Hermes(2006), the OCI Museumof Art(2006), the Coreana Museum of Art(2006), DOOSAN Gallery(2007), and the KT&G Sangsang Madang Gallery(2007). Exhibition spaces for national and public residency programs were also greatly expanded around the same time. Although national residency programs started in the early 2000s, 3) it wasn't until the late 2000s that they built up their current status in terms of financial stability, program management, and practical efficacy.

3) One of the earliest residency programs was Amsadong Creative Studio (Exhibition at SSamzie Space), which opened in 1998, along with Youngeun Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in 2000; the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art ’s Chang-dong and Goyang residencies, which started in 2002 and 2003, respectively.

The most poignant example of this is Seoul's creative space campaign, part of the city’s larger effort to transform into a cultural metropolis, which involved recycling public buildings or sites of former factories to build creative exhibition spaces. Starting with the Seoul Museum of Art(SeMA) Nanji Residency in 2006, material support for artists continued to expand and improve with the establishment of Seoul Art Space Seogyo, Seoul Art Space Geumcheon, and Sindang Creative Arcade in 2009; Seoul Art Space Mullae and Seongbuk Art Creativity Center in 2010; and Seoul Art Space Hongeun in 2011. Two prominent public residency programs in Gyeonggi-do Province were also founded during the same period. The Gyeonggi Creation Center, the biggest institution of its kind nationwide, and the Incheon Art Platform both opened in 2009, thus completing the basic hardware of Seoul's public residency network. By offering a support line (workshop and exhibition sponsorship) for young artists who struggled after the art market crashed in accordance with the global financial crisis in 2008, these residency programs filled the vacancy left by diminishing alternative exhibition spaces. They also offered the opportunity to network, meet critics, engage in international exchange programs, and partake in various workshops, thus performing some of the other functions (networking and informational exchange) of alternative exhibition spaces.
The late 2000s also saw an increase in the number of larger museums and biennale events. For example, the Nam June Paik Art Center opened in 2008, while Culture Station Seoul 284 opened in 2011. The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, which temporarily shut down due to a slush-fund scandal, and PLATEAU(formerly Rodin Gallery) both reopened in 2010 after nearly three years of inactivity. Among provincial galleries, the Daegu Art Museum, which opened in 2011, enjoyed great success with the exhibition "KUSAMA YAYOI, A Dream I Dreamed(2013)", allowing the museum to overcome its regional label. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art(MMCA), Seoul, a long-cherished brainchild of the art community, opened in 2013, with the MMCA placing an international and contemporary focus on its exhibitions. The emergence of biennale events, however, which obliged a grand tour of the local art scene every even-numbered year, were forced to compete with events hosted by local governments seeking increased tourism, resulting in a saturated market. Adding to the three main biennale events of Gwangju(1995–present), Busan(2002–present), and Mediacity Seoul(2000–present), the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale(2004–present), Daegu Photo Biennale(2006–present), and Project Daejeon(2012–present) joined the scene as well. Furthermore, Platform Seoul(2006–2009), Anyang Public Art Project(APAP)(2005–present), Incheon International Digital Art Festival(INDAF)(2009–2010) and other biennale-like events only added to this supersaturation. The various problems plaguing biennales—mobilization with no purpose other than movement, themes conflicting with the artwork they present, hackneyed event conditions exceeding one's fatigue threshold—are still present, but in today's world of exhibitions that are as commercial and attention-seeking as department stores, no real alternative exists.

- In 2010s: The rise of independent galleries

What I'd like to address last is independent art galleries, which, despite their underwhelming size, are leading today's art discussion. The rise of independent galleries is closely related to the ubiquity of smartphone use because, starting around the latter half of 2010, social media has gradually become a decisive factor in determining trends. Early examples of this phenomenon are Space Hamilton and Ccuull pool, which made brief but intense displays of popularity in early 2010; and the independent publishing efforts of The Book Society, which opened in 2010, and Mediabus(opened in 2007). Recent cases include the COMMON CENTER and Audio Visual Pavilion(AVP), which opened in late 2013, and the diverse range of new galleries 4) that sprouted up between 2012 and 2014. Although each of these spaces is able to appeal to the aesthetic tastes of younger audiences through sensory exhibitions and flexible approaches that transcend genres, their tendency to focus exclusively on a single perspective or target audience(whether this is intentional or not) can make outside viewers feel uncomfortable. Regardless of whether this is a fatal flaw will be determined by how their physical and ideological accomplishments can benefit the art community. Thus, the pending fate of new exhibition spaces—which have acted as survival experiments for struggling young artists outside the establishment—is a fascinating topic. Will new platforms and managerial approaches offer a new paradigm for entering the art scene(even if only temporarily), or will they simply become another path to access the establishment? A hint of hope, however, is that independent galleries can not only adopt different managerial approaches or support non-mainstream views but they can operate from their own perspectives on the art community. After all, the best reward for audiences who put time and effort into seeking a gallery is quality exhibitions, is it not?

4) Key galleries include Gutakso, Gyoyokso, Nowhere, Hapjung Jigu, OPEN CIRCUIT, 800/40, and No Toilet. They were all founded by artists who realized the limits of the establishment. Such galleries are usually located in areas where rent is cheap and tend to have an open-concept layout.

※ This article is published as part of a collaboration between Artlink magazine and Korean Arts Management Service. It first appeared in Artlink's special bilingual issue KOREA contemporary art now,V.35:4, Dec. 2015 for which KAMS provided advisory and translation services. Copyright the author and Artlink.



Hye Jin Mun / Art Theory

Hye Jin Mun is a critic, translator and lecturer at Korea National University of Arts. Her major interest is technology-based media and cross-media study in contemporary art.

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