45 minutes from the downtown area of Seoul is a rather special place. Take line 4 to Seoul Grand Park (Gwacheon, 과천), and board the free shuttle bus which runs from near the exit. The Lonely Planet says it would take 20 minutes to walk to the gallery, but it seemed to take the bus about that long to get there.
You are greeted by a rather spacious sculpture park. Walking up the sloping path towards the gallery entrance, the first thing you see is a giant steel sculpture of a human figure, his mouth opening and closing with a regular rhythm. He stands there presenting himself to the sun, gazing out over the parkland to the mountains beyond.
There is chattering all around you, coming from your excited fellow-visitors, but behind all the noise some strange music is emerging. You think someone has got their personal stereo on too loudly, but it’s not the sort of music people in general choose to listen to. You then realise that the sounds are coming from the statue. Behind his mechanical jaw is a loudspeaker which is revealed each time the mouth opens. Part absent-minded humming, part lamentation, part prayer or religious chant, you are drawn to it. You want to sit behind the sculpture, look out over the valley with it and let the haunting sounds permeate through you. This first exhibit is worth a 15 minute pause, and you haven’t got to the front door yet.
Further diverting sights distract you on the way. One of them demands you to interact with it: a giant shiny steel ball, with four life-size male figures, one at each point of the compass, struggling against each other with futile effort get it rolling. Kids feel compelled to join in.
Beyond the lofty entrance hall, and having paid your 1,000 Won to get in, is the giant video work of the recently-deceased Paik Nam-June. Given pride of place in the lobby, the whole museum is built around it. You can walk all the way round it courtesy of the Guggenheim-like spiralling pathway which takes you to the main exhibition areas. Truly a landmark.
I only had time to visit the Korean abstract art and contemporary drawing galleries. They benefit from huge amounts of space which allows you to contemplate each work without being distracted by the other works. The collection is impressive, with most of the big names in the post 1950’s art world represented and all the key movements present – though minjung art, being neither abstract art nor drawing – is not to be found.
In a rushed visit I had no time to sit and absorb the work, and I’m left with a keen desire to go back as soon as possible. When that will be, I do not know.
Links: National Museum of Contemporary Art website