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The Birth of the YKABs (Young Korean Artists in Britain)!

4482: Korean Contemporary Artists London’ exhibition, 16th – 19th October.
Seminar, ‘How to promote Korean Art Abroad,’ 18th October 2008.
Both at Bargehouse, Southwark.
Report by Beccy Kennedy

Take forty contemporary artists, a fervent independent curator, an unexpected art space, four floors of art works in throngs of media and genres, and a thriving spot by the Thames, and what do you get? A distinctive, cutting edge art show and a journey on a possible zeitgeist. Aside from the presence of this effortless multiplicity, ‘4482’ is also an opportunity to see what Korea has to offer the British art scene. The answer to this would be that to some degree, Korea is the British art scene. Over the past ten years or so, Koreans have increasingly come to Britain, in particular London or New Malden, primarily to study art in London’s prestigious arts colleges. Art from Korea is now occupying British art spaces, Chelsea College lecturers, the psyches of British based curators and the collections of British art buyers. As the audience, it’s your chance to experience art works made by Korean artists, and here, by Korean artists who have lived or are living in Britain, who have faced double the cultures, twice the art scenes and who may or may not choose to combine or hybridise these encounters within their art. The accompanying seminar was less about how living and working in Britain has affected the subjects of Korean artists’ art works and more concerned with how artists can make their art visible to the public eye in Britain.

L to R: Jari Lager, Sunhee Choi, Eunice Yu, Seahyun Lee
L to R: Jari Lager, Sunhee Choi, Eunice Yu, Seahyun Lee

The seminar panel offered four different narratives concerning contemporary Korean art in Britain. Curator of 4482, Sunhee Choi, chaired the panel and commented on the views of the other panellists, assimilating their spoken experiences to inform the seminar topic of the promotion of Korean art abroad. Curator Jari Lager, whose Southwark-based Union Gallery held the exciting exhibition of young contemporary artists from Korea, ‘Give me Shelter,’ in 2006, represented the place of the non-Korean but well travelled curator; who discovers, shows, and thus ‘promotes’, Korean contemporary art outside of Korea. Lager has also worked on the Korean art circuit and described how gallery curators in Seoul tend to select a handful of artists with which to work regularly, making it difficult for most young artists to find an outlet. Eunice Yu, Korean curator and co-founder of the Korean/Asian art gallery, I-MYU, near Old St, signalled the role of the persevering and permanent Korean curator in London. The final speaker was Seahyun Lee, renowned painter both in Korea and Britain, and slightly older than most of the artists in the show, who signify the post division, democratised 2030 generation. He described his experiences of working and living in Britain and how this has instigated a repositioning of his self reflexivity regarding the Korean origins of his work. Lee articulated, “In Korea I wasn’t interested in my country being divided. I was not one to say political things. But in London, I started probing about my country.”1

There were a few reoccurring threads of thought throughout the talks, such as the comparison of the Korean to the Chinese and Japanese art scenes. The conclusion of the speakers’ East Asian art focus appeared to be that the Chinese art scene is highly competitive, exclusive and capitalist in mind-set, whilst the Japanese art scene is less of a scene and more of a function, based on the nation’s demand for design and purpose. Korean art, conversely, is more fluid, innovative and open to new crossings. The discussion also emphasised the concept of the ‘contemporary’, over the notion of the Asian or Korean. Yu described galleries in London (the V & A springs to mind) which represent Korean art as Asian, focused on an audience which “loves,” or rather fetishizes, “Asian art.” In establishing I-myu, Yu decided she wanted to attract the contemporary art lover, thus focusing on “the contemporary side of contemporary Asian art.”2 None of the speakers defined what exactly might be meant by ‘contemporary’ or whether the term has Western-centric origins. This is perhaps another area for discussion at future seminars on Korean art. Yu’s point was that the British public needs to see that there is an international language to current art practice and, suggesting there is no dichotomy of Eastness and Westness, or Koreanness and Britishness. At I-MYU, Yu combines Korean artists with artists from a variety of other nations in order to attract a broad audience who otherwise may have been initially led by their pre or mis conceptions of Korean art. As curators working in London, Yu and Lager recognise the growing number of young, talented Korean artists and hope for this trend to continue and for London galleries and curators to offer opportunities, which are difficult to find for up and coming artists in Seoul.

Choi concluded the session by revisiting the title of the seminar, examining how to promote Korean art abroad. By ‘abroad’, Choi was mostly referring to Britain, although, being a Paris based curator, she also mentioned the scarcity of Korean art in France. She described London as “more active than any other country”3 in terms of the art scene. Choi’s advice to artists was to use generous funding bodies, such as Arts Council Korea or city specific public bodies and to build networks with galleries and curators. Lager, Yu’s and Choi’s experiences are testimony to the significance of building long term trans-national working relationships in the arts world. With the opening of the Korean Embassy’s Cultural Centre (KCC) this year, the continuing number of quality Korean art students in London and the omnipresence of various private Korean art shows around the city, it’s likely that Korean/British networks will continue to develop.

  1. This quote is as near to word-for-word as possible given the seminar wasn’t recorded, but documented in detailed note form. Bargehouse, 18/10/2008. []
  2. Eunice Yu, Ibid []
  3. Sunhee Choi, Ibid. []

3 thoughts on “The Birth of the YKABs (Young Korean Artists in Britain)!

  1. A little bird told me that each artist had to contribute £80 in order to participate in this group show. You are probably better placed than me to know whether this is true or not, but I’m told that as a general rule it’s not the “done thing” to get people to chip in to cover costs in this way. I’m also told that at least two artists refused to participate because of it (though whether this was a matter of principle or whether they couldn’t afford it I don’t know).

    Maybe the funding from Arts Council Korea and DM Technology wasn’t enough to cover costs. Hiring that huge gallery space can’t come cheap.

  2. Yes, it is true. But one thing clear is that it was not the condition for the participating in the show. Total funding for the show was GBP5,000 coming from Arts Council Korea. DM Tech only sponsored for the five TV screens displayed for the video works. The hiring cost and insurance alone was GBP 5,100. To make the matter worse, a Korean bank who promised the funding cancelled it due to economic crisis. As a curator, I was going to finance for the catalogues etc. but the participating artists made their own decision to contribute for the show. I could have changed the venue to New Malden for more economical venue but who would travel to New Malden for a group of young and emerging Korean artists during the Frieze week? Maybe just few people… I witnessed myself last year that those artists made wonderful show in their studio building in New Malden but there were just few audiences. That was the reason why I decided to help them to curate the show when some of artists asked me to do the project together this year and it was a big pleasuer for myself and the artists in the show to see the huge Barge house was packed by visitors at the opening night!

    You can imagine how myself and two coordinators (Kyujin Hwang in London and Sooyeon Ban in Seoul) and Minchan Ko who desgined the invitation, poster and catalogue had to devote ourselves without any compensation. We just wished that the show would give as much as opportunities to Korean artists in abroad.

    I just hope the show could continue next year with more funding, more help and more interests from Korean and British public, improving many things that we could not acheive this year.

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