The presentation of Korean Contemporary Art in London – a punter’s perspective

by Philip Gowman on 3 October, 2009 updated 12 March, 2016

in Conference reports | Cultural Promotion | Curating | Event reports and reviews | Exhibition reviews and comment | Opinion

Having fumbled my incoherent, jet-lagged way through a half prepared presentation at I-MYU a couple of days ago, here, Thucydidean style, is what I would have said if I had been better prepared.

Since LKL went online three and a half years ago, we’ve tracked over 90 exhibitions of Korean art and artefacts, most of which have been exhibitions of work by contemporary Korean artists. Given that all of us here tonight would want such artists to succeed, are there any lessons that can be learned from past exhibitions which would help?

Success can be measured in a number of ways, but the blunt question I shall consider is “what makes a punter get his cheque book out?” Clearly, not all the exhibitions considered by LKL over the years have been commercial in nature, but every exhibition in a public space has the potential to educate and raise awareness and understanding of Korean art and artists, and (if such a concept makes sense) to build the Contemporary Korean Art “Brand”.1 Building such awareness is crucial if Korean Art is to maintain a foothold in the international arts scene and to make its way into people’s homes or public collections.

Hong Young-in in interview with Ha Ji-na, I-MYU, 1 Oct 2009

Hong Young-in in interview with Ha Ji-na, I-MYU, 1 Oct 2009

Clearly some art buyers (such as interior designers or office outfitters) are interested in buying art by the yard. I shall not consider those purchasers.

Art as Investment

The more sophisticated buyers are interested in art as an investment. For such buyers the safest investment is work by dead artists: artists where there is a known quantity of work, and where the quality has been assessed and rubber-stamped by posthumous critical assessment. In investment parlance, these are the blue chip stocks: safe and liquid.

Then there are the mid-cap stocks: established living artists with a solid critical reputation behind them and a solid cv of high-profile shows and collectors. Finally, there’s the more interesting venture capital stocks: artists right at the start of their career, some of whom may go nowhere but others of whom may become the next hot property.

A dedicated and extremely rich investor may want to have exposure to all three asset classes. But even the most hard-nosed of hedge fund managers will want to buy works that appeals to their hearts as well as to their heads. And the dilettante collector or impoverished punter will probably ignore investment potential and stick to what gives pleasure.

The Pleasure Principles

So what is it that makes a work of art give pleasure? Here I’m going to refer back to the title of the talk and stress that this is from the punter’s perspective – someone who knows nothing about the theory of art or aesthetics, but maybe, sometimes (and I stress sometimes), knows what he likes. So don’t expect a sophisticated analysis.

On the surface, there are the obvious things that give pleasure:

  • Image: the object itself (colour, texture, shape, what it represents)
  • Execution: the quality of craftsmanship or technique involved in its production.

Beneath the surface, there are other things that can add to the enjoyment

  • Intention: a superficial image, abstract or otherwise, can take on a new meaning if you understand what the artist was trying to communicate in creating the work. Maybe sometimes it is obvious, but often, particularly to a punter, it might not be. For example, a not uncommon theme which Korean artists in London grapple with is the sense of alienation or distance: Kim Jin’s ghostly figures in oppressive Western interiors; Bae Chan-hyo’s uneasy self-portraits of himself dressed as aristocratic English women in Elizabethan costume; Kang Seung-hee’s raucously colourful cartoon-like dystopias.
  • Tradition: some categories of Korean art are well versed in the traditional techniques and seek to reinvent them for a modern audience. This is true in the performing arts as well as the visual. It is particularly true in the field of ceramics (remember the Traditional yet Contemporary show back in 2006?), but can equally be the case in painting. The tradition might be reflected in the subject matter (for example, use of motifs from folk art, such as Hong Ji-yeun‘s vibrant work) or the technique (in an imaginitive use of Choson literati ink painting – Koo Bona‘s flower paintings)
  • Context: understanding how the particular work fits in with other work produced by other contemporary artists or, more interestingly, by the same artist.

Each of the above five items can be enhanced, for a punter who might be (a) unsure of his own judgement and (b) ignorant of the Korean art scene, by appropriate added information.

The need for information and discussion

Hong Young-in's monumental embroidery and its shadow

Hong Young-in's monumental embroidery and its shadow

A complete novice coming into a gallery might not be confident enough to know whether he likes a work or not (image), let alone have enough experience to opine on the quality of the work (execution). This is a normal problem for any gallery owner, to be addressed by the normal sales techniques (“look at the brushwork; look at how the x on the right counterpoints the y on the left” and suchlike).

When it comes to Korean artists, there is the added challenge. For a start, the artist will not have English as a first language, and therefore the intention of the artist might need some translation or explication. Similarly, when it comes to tradition, the history of Korean art will be a closed book to many people in the West. It is therefore vital that the curator / gallery owner has the knowledge, expertise and competence to explain some of the historical background in comprehensible English to your average punter. I’ll come to context later.

In general, your average punter might come into a gallery not knowing what to think. Looking at the image on the wall, his own mind might be a blank canvas. Artistically inarticulate, he or she needs something, ANYTHING, to help him get started as to how to react to a work.

Even if it’s badly written in Konglish, a press release describing the artist’s work, intentions and biography is a starting point. A decent catalogue might not be justified for a student exhibition, but a thoughtful handout to go with the exhibition containing the above basic information is the least that an organiser should invest in to do basic justice to the artist. Obvious, but not all exhibitions proceed to that basic first step.

As an aside, I think I omitted publicity. While LKL is not the only website devoted to the promotion or elucidation of Korean culture in London, it is possibly the most search-engine friendly and (when it comes to native English) best-written of the sites out there, but not all Korean exhibition organisers are web-savvy enough to know the available publicity channels. LKL remains at the disposal of all would-be curators to provide a notice and/or record of exhibitions by Korean artists in London. Simply having the notice of an artist’s exhibition available in English in a Google-accessible website (as any WordPress site is) can be of use to a Korean artist.

Kim In-sook: Saturday Night (2007). (Detail). From Christies Distinctively Korean Sale

Kim In-sook: Saturday Night (2007). (Detail). From Christies' "Distinctively Korean" Sale

But LKL tries to do more than that. If I can’t think of anything to say about an exhibition, and the wonderful Beccy Kennedy is unavailable to cover it, the least I do is put the press release on the site so that there’s something Google can reference. But for preference, I try to get something original on to the website early in the course of an exhibition to help others start their own thought process about how to react to an exhibition. Whether written by amateur or expert, anything in print in the blogosphere can help. It’s amazing how quickly something written in English can be picked up by other people and influence what is written elsewhere. I know from both active and passive experience.

Sometimes, though, my mind is a blank when I visit a gallery. If there is a well-informed gallery assistant to chat to, I start forming opinions. If not, I leave with nothing to say, and the artist is ill-served. When I come to I-MYU, even recognising that with some works of art there is no definitive right answer, I will always have a quick talk with Eun-bok or Jeong-ae and come away better informed. In my only experience in Sesame Gallery, James Freeman was equally informative. So a curator / organiser who knows their artists and is able to converse about them in English is, unfortunately, pretty much a must-have. That doesn’t always happen.

Alternatively, or preferably in addition, a gallery talk to explore the artist and her work is a desirable addition to any exhibition. For me, one of the most memorable exhibitions over the past three years or so has been “Through the Looking Glass” at Asia House, curated by Jiyoon Lee. One of the reasons for this was the series of Birkbeck-organised classes which went along with it. Not all exhibitions can justify or afford a series of talks, but a boozy opening reception is wasted if nothing intelligent is said about the work that all that alcohol is honouring. Opening receptions are when the maxmimum number of punters are looking at the works of art, but paradoxically are often the time when it is least possible to enjoy the art because of other guests guzzling and gossiping, usually in front of the piece you want to look at. Why not shut everyone up and talk a bit about the artist everyone is meant to be there to support?

What all this boils down to is information, opinion, and discussion. Anything to help a punter grow to appreciate a work. And not only a punter. Going back to the sophisticated investor I was talking about earlier, no investor forks out cash in a stock or a market without the benefit of research. When it comes to stocks, sell-side firms make a living out of research, and buy-side firms have their own research teams to form second opinions. An equity investor needs research and historical performance charts; an art purchaser needs discussion, information, criticism and maybe past auction results. Or for a stab in the dark, just a decent press release.

What about context?

There’s putting an artist in context with fellow contemporary (or even non-contemporary) artists. And then there’s putting an artist’s work in the context of his / her oeuvre. The former objective is of some interest. I find the latter of greater interest.

It’s very easy to put an artist in contemporary context. Put together a bunch of student (or even established) artists in a gallery together, and it’s arguable that you’ve achieved that objective. But that’s the lazy way. And it’s not only student shows that fail in this way. There have been expensive failures of this type.

Moon Generation: the first hanging was not a success

Moon Generation: the first hanging was not a success

Here I have to stress that my opinions are based on the information and education that I personally have received in respect of an exhibition. But probably the most expensive, and most disappointing, group show of 2009 was Korean Eye: Moon Generation. One work per artist, with few connections to be drawn between the individual artists. A similar mistake was made by the Korean Cultural Centre in its opening exhibition, Good Morning Mr Nam June Paik. I went to the show several times, and never figured out why Nam June Paik had a cello fetish, still less what the other artists were all about.

Even if both exhibitions were commercial (the latter was not), my cheque book would have stayed resolutely in my pocket. With both exhibitions, you needed to know about the artists beforehand in order to understand and appreciate what was being presented. The practice of displaying one work per artist, particularly when the works are so disparate, and there’s little apparent curatorial vision or input, does the artists and the audience no favours.

That’s not to say that group shows with one exhibit per artists can’t work. For me the most artistically satisfying show of 2009 was paradoxically a blatantly commercial exercise: Christies’ intelligent juxtaposition of photographs by English, Japanese and Korean photographers over a few days did credit to every photographer and to the auction house, and showed respect and provided artistic satisfaction to the audience (the punters).

But Christie’s was the exception. In my view, three or four works per artist is the absolute minimum for a group show.

But that doesn’t mean that all solo shows are satisfying experiences. Regardless of the quality of the work, the quality of the space and the accompanying information can let an exhibition down. A solo show in a Soho bar is potentially a waste of everybody’s time, whether artist or art-lover, barman or boozer.

Successes and failures

I think I’ve highlighted some of the best and worst of the Korean Contemporary Art exhibitions above. Hits: Through the Looking Glass (group show) and Distinctively Korean (group sale). Another intelligently curated group show was Korean Aesthetics at the Albemarle gallery: enough work from each artist to get some idea of what they were about, and the work of the different artists complemented each other, making for a highly satisfying show. Misses: Good Morning Mr Nam June Paik (group show) and Moon Generation (group sale). Of the solo or near-solo shows that have worked, Odd Couple (Kang Seung-hee), Waiting (Kwon Dae-hun) and Hangeul Spirit (Francesca Cho): what they lacked in written information they made up for in presenting an interesting and detailed perspective on one aspect of the artist’s work.

Francesca Cho's Hangeul Spirit exhibition in Fulham

Francesca Cho's Hangeul Spirit exhibition in Fulham

Conclusion

I haven’t mentioned in my list above any of the exhibitions organised by our hosts tonight at I-MYU or by James Freeman at Sesame Art. That’s to avoid embarassing them. Because the only time I went into Sesame the conversation I had with James added so much to my enjoyment and understanding of the works that I would have got out my cheque book, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had only recently got my cheque book out at I-MYU for similar reasons. I’m only a humble punter, not a wealthy investor, and my wall space is limited. So my enjoyment of contemporary Korean art is of necessity limited to viewing it and writing about it. I hope others will buy it, and I envy them.

Thanks to Eunice at I-MYU for twisting my arm to get up and say something. Sorry I didn’t get my thoughts together enough in advance of the event.

Keywords:

  1. To be fair, it was James Freeman from Sesame Gallery who introduced the concept of such a “Brand”, and this prompted some lively debate: is a concept of a Korean Art “Brand” helpful or useful? The more commercially-minded of those present considered it an absolute necessity if the market for Korean art was to be successful, and went some way to trying to define what the brand’s characteristics were – maybe a topic for a future seminar. The less commercially-minded had a horror of categorising Korean art into a particular pigeon-hole, a process which would inevitably exclude non-conforming artists. A related discussion point was why we think of “Korean Art”, “Chinese Art” and “Japanese Art” and not “Swedish Art”. Another seminar. []

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