Cultural fusion takes many forms. Exciting differences can complement and stimulate the senses. Think food, fashion or music. This week, young South Korean artists in London are also proving that Korean art and the British capital make for an intoxicating blend.
A new exhibition, Now X Here, just opened at London’s Korean Cultural Centre (KCCUK), showcases the considerable talents of nine New Wave South Korean artists. All have studied recently at London art and design colleges. Their pieces provide a compelling insight into modern London as seen through Korean eyes.
The new show follows growing appreciation of Korean art and culture in the UK. Turbo-charged by K-Pop, film and fashion, South Korean culture has taken London by storm of late. In the 1990s, when British art was in fashion in Seoul, the city’s media debated how Korea’s own culture played with western audiences. With Now X Here this dialogue is today in fascinating reverse. In recent years Korea has come to London in a big way. The number of Koreans living permanently in the capital has just passed 20,000 and rising. Increasingly, Korean art has entered the British cultural mainstream.
The KCCUK, founded in 2008 to foster closer ties between South Korea and the UK, has since its inception sponsored an annual exhibition selected from an open call for artists, judged by a panel of British art academics. The show is intended to kick start the international careers of young South Korean artists. Now X Here, organised by curator Ji Hye Hong, is the fifth such show and reveals how young Koreans view life in the British capital today. London emerges as a city of vibrancy and creativity, yet also a place which can isolate and alienate the outsider. The exhibition is particularly interesting because the nine artists trained in British art colleges. They are: Heeseung Choi, Han Byul Kang, Daewoong Kim, Woo Jin Kim, Fay Shin, Kyung Hwa Shon, Beomsik Won, Jin Woo Yoo and Hyesoo You.
A rich mix of East-West cultural experience is the result. It’s as though the waters of the Han and Thames Rivers have met and happily mingled.
Take the first of them, Heeseung Choi (Slade School of Fine Art). Choi’s collapsed wool and concrete cushions and her spectral white ladders, leading in all directions, mix the attractions of life in London whilst pointing to the constant potential for new arrivals to fail. The London-Korean theme is taken up by Han Byul Kang (Chelsea College of Art and Design) whose lunar-contoured wheels exhibit seemingly draws on shamanistic traditions in Korean art, all set in a London setting. London and Korea meet in a circle of shared hopes and traditions. Another Korean artist influenced strongly by Britain is Daewoong Kim (Royal College of Art). Kim’s claustrophobic interior photographs suggest the isolation felt by some Koreans in the UK.
The Korean-British cultural duet continues with the zinc plate etchings of Woo Jin Kim (Goldsmiths). The visitor sees his own mirror image reflected through anarchic portraits. As if to confirm that London’s mannered reputation belies its chaotic reality. Alongside sits a video installation – ironically entitled ‘In Wonderland’ – depicting monochrome figures moving along a soulless London street. The isolation theme again. One of Kim’s most arresting silver images – of a shaven-headed man screaming defiance – surely alludes to the Hogarthian spectacle of British pubs, on display in the UK each and every weekend.
The exhibition moves into more reflective mood with the collages of Fay Shin (Goldsmiths) which suggest that London can provide unexpected havens of calm amidst its daily bustle. This sense is reinforced by the paintings of Kyung Hwa Shon (Royal Academy). Shon’s geometric, sensuous visions of London include falling green leaves amongst brick architecture, suggestive of the city’s power to overwhelm nature and fragment the human experience.
Photographer Beomsik Won (Slade School of Fine Art) takes the London-Korean fusion theme to new levels with his extraordinary ‘Archisculptures’. These are photographic collages of famous British buildings given a Korean make-over. Traditional British architecture is rearranged to create entirely new edifices. The results offer Londoners an enjoyable architectural recognition game, of city symbols mixed, matched and manipulated through Korean eyes.
The last of the Korean artists, Jin Woo Yoo (Slade School) and Hyesoo You (Chelsea School of Art and Design) offer further competing visions of modern London. Yoo’s scarlet wall with white calligraphic-style etching intimates that London can erect barriers to outsiders who fail to embrace its idiosyncrasies fully. Finally, Hyesoo You’s gentle, faith-inspired abstract pieces resonate calm and the appreciation of difference in turbulent surroundings (an ever-present aspect of London’s long history).
Now X Here shows that artistic fusion is very much alive in today’s London. In fact, it has never been more relevant, as the British capital becomes an ever-more diverse city. This new group of South Korean artists have perceptively captured a city in transition. They also show that the UK and Korea, when blended expertly together, produce an interesting and highly addictive cocktail.
The Now X Here exhibition runs at the Korean Cultural Centre, London (KCCUK) from 12 December to 23 January 2013.
Ronan Thomas is a London-based journalist. He has reported on South Korea since 1995