From the mid- to late 1990s, the art world of Korea began to show signs of change. The Gwangju Biennale was held for the first time in 1995, and the art sector in Korea became more internationalized with a steady increase in the number of artists and curators who had studied abroad. The alternative exhibition spaces that appeared in 1999 brought in forms and systems of exhibits that differed from those of conventional art galleries, giving young artists opportunities to show their experimental works and taking on the challenge of bringing art audiences and contemporary art closer together, which had previously seemed impossible. The new generation of artists gradually came to enjoy a broader range of possibilities compared to the art contests, rental galleries, and such that generally formed the limited sphere of activity of artists in the 1990s and before. Exhibition planners sought out young artists who were exploring unusual forms and content, and rather than simply being flooded with bouquets and wreaths sent by well-wishers, exhibit spaces became places where artists, planners, and critics gathered to discuss art.
Even the national and other public art museums, which are regarded as the most authoritative, were influenced by the new types of art activities coming into play and began to vie with each other to hold groundbreaking exhibitions by rising new artists and instituted support programs for them, breaking out of the conventional boundaries of the artist’s domain and redefining the role of the art museum. Within the system of for-profit versus nonprofit artistic endeavors, the distinction between commercial and noncommercial artists began to blur with artists from one category readily crossing over into the other as needed. In 2006 and 2007, the art market saw unprecedented growth as the works of young artists came to be looked on as good investments, and artists took to debuting at a younger age. This whole period was a time when the Korean art world was turned on its head.
From 2010, yet another change came along. Students who had just graduated from college and had little or no practical experience in the field took to opening new exhibition spaces. The artists and planners who had not so long before been newcomers had now become the establishment, and with the art-market bubble, a new batch of up-and-comers needed to take their place. But there just wasn’t enough space for them in the Korean art world, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. They created new spaces, run by the artists themselves, which were dubbed “fledgling spaces.” Such artist-run spaces began to appear around 2012 and still mainly operate programs for artists on the rise. These new exhibition spaces abandoned conventional thinking, came up with their own systems and generated discourse that criticized the established institutions. To them, the brave new alternative spaces of the 1990s had become the old guard, and the artist-run spaces became the new alternative.
This new alternative, centered on the artist-run spaces, can be seen as a repeat phenomenon that is not so different from the alternative trend of 1999. Though this current alternative attempts to make up for the dissatisfying aspects of the existing art system, it still maintains some aspects of the previous alternative that are cause for uneasiness. While introducing the artistic trends of a new generation, the new exhibition spaces fail to make any distinction between fledging facilities, alternative exhibit spaces, art museums, and commercial galleries.
Two exhibitions that opened at about the same time in 2017, A Snowflake at the Kukje Gallery and O philoi, oudeis philos at the Atelier Hermès, are leaving strong impressions representative of these modern trends. It may seem extraordinary that such venues, known for showing the works of the top contemporary artists from Korea and overseas, would bring in exhibitions by artists with reputations that are still unproven, but in the context of the more than two decades of changes described above, it also seems quite natural. It is noteworthy that already in 2013, the Kukje Gallery held The Song of Slant Rhymes (April23 to June 30, 2013 ), which featured promising young artists, and every year since then, the gallery has held such exhibitions of works by up-and-coming domestic artists, basing the selections on merits other than commercial marketability. Atelier Hermès has maintained a program of exhibitions featuring established artists selected on the basis of their experience and on expert evaluation of their works. Its current exhibition celebrates the decade since the gallery opened in 2006 and presents works by artists whose activities have shared common ground during those ten years.
In view of the prestige enjoyed by these two venues, their focus on young artists may seem a bit reckless, but at the same time, it can be seen as a strategy to align themselves with the current state of affairs in the art world. It is also fascinating. They are huge, stereotypical representatives of for-profit and nonprofit exhibition venues. It is interesting for observers to note the relative differences between one that sees itself as a host, choosing to accommodate such exhibitions, and the other as the “doer,” directly setting up and carrying out such exhibitions. One thing worth watching is whether young artists can be fully devoted to presenting their own world in all its purity in a venue that is one of the top commercial galleries, and it is immensely interesting to see just how flexibly and intelligently such exhibitions are being handled at institutions that are so big. With these thoughts in mind, the poetic-sounding, philosophical titles of the exhibits, A Snowflake and, O philoi, oudeis philos seem to appropriately reflect the situation of the young artists at work in today’s art sector.
Hyun Seewon, curator of A Snowflake at the Kukje Gallery, says that rather than simply framing the exhibition around the youth of the participating artists, the intention is to draw attention to the world of new-generation works and to look at the works in microscopic detail in order to answer our questions in regard to the things the works reveal about the individual characteristics of their creators. It takes as its point of departure the question “ What shape is a snowflake,” posed by mathematician and author Ian Stewart. Though each snowflake has its own unique shape, we do not usually think of snow in terms of the individual flakes but in terms of snowfall, snowscapes, and things made of snow, such as snowmen. The exhibition artists—GIM IKHYUN, Mire Lee, Junghae Park, and Choi Yun—work in the genres of photography, painting, sculpture, and mixed media. They question the very foundations of these traditional forms, expanding them and pulling them forward, presenting them as a kind of energy that is independent of the physical dimension of matter and space or exploring painting in which the gaze no longer stays within this world. The exhibition space is lined with imagery suggesting that the artist is no longer the only agent that can reprocess the appearance of the world into something different from its actual state.
Just as lots of individual pieces have to bring together the characteristics they share in order to make “snow,” artists become “snow” by establishing their work-world, bringing together the individual forms they have created into works identifiable as their own, but they also become “snowflakes” by bringing those works together with other artists into one big joint exhibit. An individual snowflake probably doesn’t have to have any particular consciousness of “snow” as a whole in order to show its creativity. Clumping the smaller bits of snow together to make something bigger out of it is part of the job of the curator.
It is no accident that the exhibit O philoi, oudeis philos at Atelier Hermès takes place within a similar context. Since its opening in 2006, Atelier Hermès has featured established artists in a way that is different from that of commercial galleries. The exhibit celebrates the 2017 reopening of the gallery, and curator Kim Yunkyoung says it was put together to bring back some of the exhibits of the past decade and explore the common ground shared by young artists. A nicely structured display of works by six artists— Kim Minae, Kim Yunha, Kim Heecheon, Park Kiljong, Baek Kyungho, and Yoon Hyangro—fills the modest-sized exhibition space. Baek Kyungho’s anthropomorphic paintings stand aligned on one side and look down over the entire tightly arranged space, which along with Kim Minae’s mazelike structure that you have to pass through at the entrance maximizes the impression that the space is fortified. The videos, two-dimensional works, photographs, and installations of objets are at the same time independent and mutually harmonizing, creating an unusual scene. The text introducing the exhibition describes links between the works presented and exhibitions previously held separately here by the artists, but the current exhibition does not really make those past connections clear. There are only subtle links that the curator has managed to find, but links seem to be the result of the artists’ purposeful efforts. Thus, as the curator has written describing the aim of the exhibit, “Rather than calling this a retrospective of the past ten years, we are calling it a prospective of what is to come.”
One cannot help wondering whether these young artists should regard these exhibition spaces as places where they can acquire a satisfactory amount of experience or as strategic places where they can gain attention for themselves. Atelier Hermès and the Kukje Gallery are firmly established exhibition venues that are part of the system, so some opinions that see contradictions in the attitude of the artists exhibiting there are understandable. They have entered the system by means of these exhibitions, but this does not mean that they have been accepted by the system; they are merely “experimentally on loan.”
The title A Snowflake can serve as a metaphor for what these two exhibits represent: Like snowflakes, the participants are fragile and hard to distinguish one from another; they have been bunched together to create a “snowscape,” and with a change in the weather, they may melt and disappear. These artists do not yet fit into the establishment nor can they show off their talent as they could as established artists. They are still sensing their own changes and do not seem to be fully aware of the categories of full-fledged commercial galleries and the established framework. On the other hand, the participating artists have consistently been classified and presented as good, and changes in the way art is judged happen so confusingly fast that we cannot say that it is too early for their works to be displayed in established institutions.
It is trite to talk about how they have diverged from traditional genres, but in the Korean art market, which is still quite conservative, the mere fact that such works are being shown at a top gallery whose customers are among the best collectors in the country is a positive sign for these artists, regardless of whether any of their works are sold. We see the forms and concepts that set the young artists apart also at Atelier Hermès. Here again the artists’ intention is to link material from everyday life and the surrounding environment to the themes of their works. Seeing all the elements specific to this generation brought together in one place, we can tell that the artists saw this as a futuristic space. They have created the effect of looking ten years into the future rather than ten years into the past.
Discourse about “young artists” has always been a mainstay of conversations in the world of art, and in the case of these exhibitions, this topic sticks out as a requisite consideration, whether that was the intention of the organizers or not. At the same time, it is also an indication of the limitations of the current art world in Korea. Artists who have a solid reputation in the art market and whose works sell have had to build a career by proving themselves over a period of time. Participation in exhibits at such established venues as the Kukje Gallery or Atelier Hermès by artists whose careers have run little more than five years and whose staying power has not yet been proved has sometimes generated concern, yet every year the average age of “young artists” gets younger. We need to delve into a couple of questions: Have the young artists fenced themselves into being stuck in the nonprofit system? Has the for-profit system considered “young artists” only in terms of whether their works are worthy of investing in, narrowing the structures within which they can operate? Everyone agrees that the working environment for artists in Korea is tough, and as art professionals, we need to reawaken our awareness of the need to reflect on these considerations.
※ This article was originally published in Wolganmisool magazine (July 2017) and reprinted under authority of a MOU between KAMS and Wolganmisool.