Some background on Korea’s participation as guest of honour at ARCO 2007, direct from the ARCO press office.
SOUTH KOREA AT ARCO’07: A SPECIAL LOOK AT ASIAN ART
For the first time ever, the Madrid International Contemporary Art Fair, ARCO, will welcome a special guest from one of the most artistically effervescent and emerging international centres: the continent of Asia. Following Asia’s major presence at ARCO ’06, and the interest aroused by its proposals, South Korea will be the centre of attention as the 2007 special guest country, with the chance to show a new artistic dimension with its attractive selection of projects from artists that are well-established in the region.
A pavilion designed by Jung-Hwa Kim, Director of Museums Korea in Seoul, and curated by Jeong Ah Shin, Chief Curator of Sungkok Art Museum and a professor at Dongguk University, will show a group of 15 South Korean artists, all represented by leading galleries from that country. These high-profile artists will present work created both in traditional media and incorporating the latest technology, and which even question traditional art. South Korea’s programme at ARCO will encompass painting, installations, video, electronic art, and a wide variety of themes and artistic intentions, ranging from aesthetic exploration to socially conscious themes. At the time of going to press, the selection process is still underway.
The programme serves as a link to the continent of Asia — one of ARCO’s main branches of internationalization — and to contemporary art galleries that are becoming more familiar on the international art circuit, while, at the same time, it provides the chance to take a proper look at art and other cultural expressions from South Korea. As is the case every year, this section will have its own parallel programme of exhibitions and cultural events around the Spanish capital which will round off the organisers’ vision of South Korean art and culture. These will be part of the South Korea Now cultural programme, aimed at enhancing the knowledge of South Korean contemporary art and culture in Spain.
An “unknown” country
South Korea is a country that is known only superficially to Europe as an Asian state divided in two, or as one of the great IT powers of the 21st century. However, its history is almost unknown to us, as are its traditions, culture and art. South Korea entered the modern era at a cost: 40 years of colonization, the division of the country during the Cold War, and a brutal civil war that sunk the country into poverty and increased the split between North and South. It was only after all these years that the southern half of the peninsula was able to develop, in a process that turned South Korea into the country we know today. Many of us have the impression that South Korea has become an exciting and surreal place that has undergone many sudden changes. The opening-up of the country and the work of South Korean artists — such as the recently deceased Nam June Paik — propelled Korean contemporary art forward during the 1990s.
Now, in the 21st century, South Korea’s cultural output is based on immediacy. Artists react to ever-changing social, cultural and political pressure in order to satisfy the demand imposed by the speed of our current socio-cultural development. The rapid pace of urban growth and the heavy economic transformation of the region have even modified our perception of the contemporary cultural order, which is enhanced by the huge variety of proposals from Asia. South Korea’s status as special guest country at ARCO’07, will enable us to discover the diverse contemporary cultural and artistic expressions of a country that, despite its plural nature, remains deeply rooted in a unique tradition.
South Korea is currently undergoing a period of cultural effervescence, within the artistically emerging area that is Asia. South Korean contemporary art suffered a change of direction with the recent death of Nam June Paik, last January. The artist left a major legacy, and is considered the father of video art, a format considered to have great future prospects, and the origins of which were his 1960s installations, using television, which were intended to be truly transgressive. The South Korean programme will focus on this Korean-born American, whose work combined Western technology and an Oriental way of thinking, in a retrospective at the TelefÃ³nica Foundation in Madrid. The exhibition will be the first to be held since Paik’s death, and is intended as a recovery of his “Korean-ness”. It is also the last in a series of tributes to the artist and his work organized by institutions and museums worldwide, including New York, Bremen, Berlin, Barcelona, Tokyo, Buenos Aires or Seoul. In South Korea, his contribution to art will also be acknowledged by the inauguration of a Museum bearing his name.
The South Korean art market is growing, and has great potential for a number of reasons. The rise of a major domestic market, the standardised or institutionalized state ownership of museums and the private participation of art institutions, are all factors that are helping to boost contemporary art in South Korea. The Samsung Leeum Museum of Art, for example, plays a major role in the art scene, with an immense complex comprising three buildings, one of which is devoted to children. The Korean market is currently an active one, thanks to auctions and galleries; the most highly-prized contemporary paintings are by artists such as Park Su-geun, Lee Joong-seop or Kim Hwan-ki, who worked in the 1950s and 70s, although the most valuable pieces on the secondary market are by video art pioneer Nam June Paik. Private collecting in South Korea has noticeably increased of late, and there are a number of major international collections.
Two biennales confirm the importance of the South Korean art market: one in Busan, from early September to 29th November, and the other in Gwangju, which takes place at the same time, as part of the Shanghai-Singapore circuit. It is an area that is seeing the appearance of a great quantity of emerging art. The year 2006 was the year of Asian biennales, beginning in Shanghai, China, with “hyper design” as the theme, and followed by Singapore, the two South Korean fairs, and Tapiei.
The 2nd Busan Biennale of Contemporary Art, The Tale of Two Cities: Busan/Seoul-Seoul/Busan, curated by Manu Park, brought together 140 pieces by artists form 40 countries, with a central theme: the urban concentration of Seoul, an issue that once again refers to the dynamic modernization process and the frantic changes taking place in South Korean cities. At the same time, the city of Gwangju held its 5th biennale, Fever Variations, curated by Kim Hong-Hee, director of the Ssamzie space in Seoul, who presented an attractive two-part proposal: Unfolding Asian Stories, a display of Asian roots in contemporary art and culture, and Remapping Global Cities, a project on the global similarities of cities in the five continents. Over 600,000 visitors attend this biennale, most of whom were teenage students, which underlines the one of the biennales main purposes: education. The aim was to show the many ways in which Asia is portrayed throughout the world, with its cultural plurality, energy and enthusiasm for change.
The government of South Korea is developing the project “ART BANK”, organized by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in order to promote contemporary art. In it, the administration plays the role of art patron, as does the Committee for Artistic and Cultural Promotion, whose purpose is to promote artists’ work, and to organize exhibitions in South Korea.
South Korean museums, galleries and alternative spaces
The South Korean museum infrastructure has been undergoing a process of “standardization” or public institutionalization of late, and this is becoming one of the most relevant factors for emerging art. Added to this, over the last four years, the country has also been building new museums, revealing both the central and regional governments’ intention of promoting contemporary art amongst the Korean people. These include the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the Kwangju Art Museum, the Kumho Art Museum, the Daelim Contemporary Art Museum, the Daejeon Municipal Art Museum, the Deoksugung National Art Museum or the Busan Metropolitan Art Museum. Others, such as the Samsung Leeum Art Museum, the Seoul Art Museum, the Sungkook Art Museum, the Arko Art Centre or the Artsonje Centre, are also noteworthy.
The central state museum is the National Contemporary Art Museum, which was moved in 1988 to its current location in Gwacheon, near Seoul, and which has a large collection of works dating from the 20th century onwards. The centre has a branch in the Deoksu Palace in the centre of the capital, which receives over a million visitors each year. An exchange exhibition with the Reina Sofia in Madrid is currently being discussed. The country’s main cities, such as Busan, Gwangjuu, Daegu, Daejeon and the provincial governments of Gyeonggi, Jeolla-namdo, and Gyeongsang-namdo, either have large museums already, or are about to build them.
The role of private museums built by large corporations, via their cultural foundations, is extremely important. The most significant example is the Leeum Museum, which belongs to Samsung. Its collections are very well organized, and encompass both classical and contemporary art. In South Korea there are also “single-artist” museums, founded by the heirs of well-known deceased artists, such as Baek Nam-jun, Hwan-ki, Park Su-geun, Lee Eung-ro or Kim Jong-yong.
There is also South Korean Gallery Association, which represents over 110 South Korean galleries worldwide, although there are others who do not belong. South Korean galleries began to appear in the 1960s, although it was not until the end of the 1980s and during the 90s that they reached their peak. Some are large and already have a track record, showing the work of contemporary South Korean artists who work with traditional art while, more recently, others have been appearing that show the work of very young artists influenced by Pop Art or kitsch. Many venues also show work by foreign artists. There has been a “picture for every household” campaign by some galleries, who sell their works at affordable prices so the general public has access to art. There is currently a movement in South Korea aimed at promoting exhibitions in provincial galleries.
Other fundamental features of the South Korean art scene are independent art galleries and alternative spaces, such as Loop Alternative Space, the Alternative Space Pool, Brain Factory, Ssamzie Space, Art Center Nabi, Insa Art Space or Project Space Sarubia, which play a crucial role in showing cutting-edge proposals. Many of the latest artists are not shown by galleries, but by these independent art venues, which are very popular and successful in terms of divulgation.
South Korean art today has a tendency to be slightly “rough” in comparison to other oriental art, such as Chinese or Japanese, but this can also be interpreted as being simpler and purer in character, with fewer decorative elements, based on the oriental concept of “Zen”. Connoisseurs refuse to discuss trends, as such, in contemporary art, stressing the unique nature of emerging artists’ proposals; however, there seems to be a predominance of painting, a legacy of contemporary art. Contemporary Korean painting began in the 60s with the “Informal” trend, which underwent rapid transformation, and the acceptance of Postmodernism. In the 1980s, there was an increase in “citizen/people-art” dominated by socio-political issues. From the 1990s onwards, socio-political protest made way for the individual quest for human identity.
The South Korean art critic, Tae Man Choi, states in an article that installations are also a dominant format: “installations, similar to sculpture, seem to be one way of finding a new direction” for the traditional discipline. For example, he explains, the artist Shin Hyung Joong began his career as a sculptor, but realized that he was unable to express his ideas using the traditional approach, and so he began to produce installations. The expert also points out the influence of the mass media on contemporary Korean art, as well as the Feminist movement, although this is interpreted in a different to way to the West, dealing with the suffering of women during the colonial period, or women’s search for bodily and sexual identity, beyond the realm of family.
Younger Korean artists also use new media, such as video for neo-kitsch works, and works that deal with the concept of “alternative space”, which are presented at the major biennales, such as Gwangju. Despite the fact that the acquisition of digital or media works has increased of late, the Korean public still favours painting or photography, which are easy to hang or display at home. In fact, photography is a major component of South Korean contemporary art.