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Ten contemporary Korean artists you should know

Contemporary Korean Art from the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea
Korean Cultural Centre, 1 Northumberland Avenue, through 16 May 2008. Free Admission
Review by Grace Kim

Korean Contemporary Art has become something of a recent phenomenon in the western art world, despite developing in Korea with influences from abroad for over 40-50 years. The Korean War, its aftermath, national reconstruction and economic development caused both a disruption and then a subsequent burgeoning of creativity, which has redefined the Korean peninsula as traditional, ancient and eastern, yet international, innovative and modern.

The Contemporary Korean Art Exhibition at the Korean Cultural Centre, Northumberland Avenue near Trafalgar Square, includes works of 35 established and emerging artists in different media and styles, exploring the themes of globalisation, alienation, materialism, mechanisation, the change, loss or hybridisation of identity, the uses and implications of technology, and the meaning and symbolism inherent in the new iconography, media or artistic process itself.

The KCC exhibition provides a broad overview of what’s happening in Korean Comtemporary Art and makes for the general viewer or novice an accessible and interesting introduction to this hugely dynamic and diverse field. The Cultural Centre offered an excellent lecture by Dr. Sook-Kyung Lee, Curator in the Exhibition and Display department, Tate Britain, explaining the general history and background development, and the show was curated by Seungmin Kim, KCC Exhibitions Manager, who drew pieces from the National Art Bank, Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Korea.

The exhibition would take an experienced but not expert viewer of modern art about 30 minutes to an hour to visit and digest. The catalogue also serves as an excellent, quick and thorough guide to the show. The show is divided into three main parts: Embedded in Eastern Philosophy, Western Symbolism Fused with Local Ideas, Inspired by Ideology and Politics of Korea Today. For a 30 minute tour at lunch hour, I would suggest the following:

Park Seo-bo, Myobop, 2006, texture printed
Seo-bo Park, b. 1931, Myobob (Ecriture) 2006 Texture Printed, Copyright 2008 National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea.

Seo-bo Park, b. 1931, Myobob (Ecriture) 2006 Texture Printed
The small print, with its repetition of lines and striations which create an almost magnetic colour field– typifies the style and themes that preoccupied one of the great Korean Modernists. His work is usually on a larger scale and based on the traditional Korean philosophy and aesthetics of wholeness and unity. The richness of texture and color in the paper add an eastern expressionism to the abstract minimalist drawing.

Seung-ho Yoo, b. 1973, Love, soft breeze (2004) Pencil on Paper. The drawing looks from a distance to be light and airy ink strokes from a calligraphy pen, representing birds in flight or a swarm of flying insects. It is actually composed of tiny Hangul characters, similar to dots of pointilism or stipple, but gently combines words with image and shape, like his other drawings of a mountain or landscape.

Myeung-ro Youn, b. 1936, Tableau MVI-815 (2006) Lithograph. The artist uses powder ground from stone to create the visual effect of ink painting, evocative of traditional landscape or natural materials, such as stone, wood, water, marble.

Youn Young-myo, Tableau, 2006
Myeung-ro Youn, b. 1936, Tableau MVI-815 (2006) Lithograph. Copyright 2008, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea.

Myung-duck Joo, b. 1940, Daegiri (2005) Colour R Print. A departure from the artist’s established medium of choice, black and white photography, this print is quite dense and dark, not immediately recognisable as a colour photograph. Daegiri conveys the first impression of a painting, treating trees and forest as almost a fabric or mood, and thus creates a mysterious, atmospheric, brooding work.

Hye-rim Lee, b. 1963, Lash (2005) DVD Projection and Sound. This feminist video operates on a subversive, slightly disturbing inversion of Asian sexual stereotyping and virtual reality fantasy. The TOKI cyborg represents the typical, freakishly cute, anime femme, an alien beauty, who seduces with the blink of her eye lashes and the harsh, cracking sound of a whip, contrasted with the hypnotic feminine pastels swirling in the background.

Jung-heun Kim, b.1946, A long horned beetle, A Fly, and Resistance (2003) Acrylic on Canvas. The painting, historical and political, refers to the Japanese Imperial occupation and the Donghak Peasant Uprising of 1894. However, unlike most war paintings or political art, death, bloodshed, resistance are not depicted with overt, gruesome violence and horror, or propagandist kitsch. The fly and the beetle, dots of red, brown, green are superimposed over the image of guns and army.

Duk-Jun Kwak, b. 1937. Special Issues (1974 -1998) Silk Screens. The artist places the lower portion of his face wearing sunglasses over Time magazine covers showing the heads of U.S. Presidents, Ford, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton — omitting Carter, who famously vowed to withdraw American troops from South Korea. The dark glasses and attire of the artist may imply the look of a third world military dictator, and in spite of his coincidental resemblance to Park Chung-hee, Kwak avers the work is not political.

Ha Kwang-suk, Pond, 2003
Kwang-suk Ha, b. 1970, Pond (2003) Copyright 2008, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea.

Kwang-suk Ha, b. 1970, Pond (2003) Video installation, powder sugar. This pleasant, artificial replication of a goldfish pond allows a moment of calm and reflection amid the hectic surroundings of Trafalgar Square, Embankment tube station, or Seoul, Korea. Set in a dark room of its own, Pond utilizes the sculptural surface of sand on the floor, illuminated by DVD projection of fish swimming in a bowl.

Jung-ju An, b. 1979, Their War – 3 (2005) Single Channel Video (5 mins.)
The short but unsettling video shows the Pakistani and Indian military meeting at the Joint Check Post at the Wagah border crossing, which recalls the stand-off at Panmunjom between North and South Korea. The jarring repetition of stomping, grunting and jerking movements express the universal tension and ritual of military, political conflict and division.

Myung-keun Koh, b. 1964, Stone body-33 (2006) Film and Plastic. Quite haunting and beautiful, the sculpture represents the delicate, transient nature of life and beauty as well as the complex relationship between mind, spirit and body, using translucent films of classical western sculptures wrapped around a hollow plastic box. The graceful, ghostlike figures seem almost trapped inside the misty ephemera of the plastic coffin.

Koh Myung-keun, Stone Body, 2006
Myung-keun Koh, b. 1964, Stone body-33 (2006) Copyright 2008, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea.

The Korean Cultural Centre exhibition is on loan from the National Museum of Contemporary Art, (MOCA) Korea which was founded in 1969, opening at Gyeongbokgung in Seoul. Four years later, the Museum moved to Seokjojeon of Deoksugung, also in Seoul. By 1986, the Museum had expanded again and moved into its new buildings in Gwacheon and later, in 1998, the Deoksugung Museum Annex of MOCA was opened. The Museum presents the exhibitions of its permanent collection, special exhibitions to focus on specific themes and to exchange exhibitions with major museums throughout the world. The many Contemporary Korean Art works on view at this exhibition make a visit to the Korean Cultural Centre a pleasant and worthwhile lunch time break or unhurried morning or afternoon.

3 thoughts on “Ten contemporary Korean artists you should know

  1. To the Dear Editor: The title of this review should have been TEN CONTEMPORARY KOREAN ARTISTS YOU SHOULD KNOW. [Now fixed – Ed] The LKL link to the Hye-Rim Lee article from New Zealand was fantastic. From your Comrade Author

  2. Thanks for the review Grace. You easily beat me to it, and there was no way I was going to get my own review polished up before the exhibition finished.
    For the record, here belatedly are the bullet points that were floating round my head and which I would have organised into something more articulate if I’d had time.

    • Despite having many more artists on display than the KCC’s inaugural exhibition, this second show seemed less cluttered and more coherent. There were certainly fewer logistical infelicities, and a good attempt had been made to organise the widely disparate nature of the different works into three sections.
    • The first section, branded “Embedded in Eastern Philosophy” I found most accessible. But even within this section there was a wide variety of approaches. If I had a bottomless bank account, Park Seo-bo’s Myobop would be the one for me, but I also appreciated Yoo Seung-ho’s homage to old Korean ink painting, Love, soft breeze – from afar looking like watery washes of ink, but up close made up of tiny Hangeul characters in pencil: the work chimes in with Jiyoon Lee’s comment about there being a category of contemporary Korean art which involves an immense amount of painstaking work. Kim Jin-ah’s pixellated kimchi cabbage and Park Hyung-jin’s table-top barbeque floating like a flying saucer didn’t mean much to me. I enjoyed Cha Kyu-sun’s landscape painted like buncheong pottery, and Han Ki-joo’s work moulding hanji paper onto sculpted wood.
    • Kim Sang-woo’s Generations, an innocent looking large oil of a Seoul street scene, had some poignancy, depicting an old man walking with a slight stoop, lost in his own thoughts, followed by a child wearing a T-shirt with Disney cartoon characters. Rather unremarkable and understated in terms of style, but I found myself standing in front of it longer than I expected.
    • I probably need to educate myself in respect of video art. Given that some of the sponsorship of the KCC comes from LG in the form of flat-screen video displays, my guess is that video art will be a recurring feature of the shows here. But given – as your review suggests – that many people will be paying the exhibition a visit for a quick half an hour at lunchtime, there’s no time to figure out the video works. Lee Hye-rim’s pink doe-eyed anime woman? Afraid she’s not my type, and the “whiplash” sounded more like a camera shutter than anything more exotic. Kim Hae-min’s TV Hammer engaged with the viewer more directly than one normally expects. And as you point out, An Jung-ju’s video work of the antics of the Kashmiri border guards is immediately accessible and fun to watch, with the obvious connection with Korea’s own internal border.
  3. I have a vase by Keun Hyung Yoo 1894-? He was born in Kyunggi province.
    I would like any more info on him if you have some.
    Thank You,
    Wes Bender

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