Saturday 1 May 2010. It’s the weekend, and Seoul Grand Park is busy. The funfair rides are full of fun-seekers, and there’s a queue to get in. There’s even a queue to get in to the car park of the National Museum of Contemporary Art: not, I would have thought, the most popular destination. But even though the car park is full, inside the gallery there is plenty of space and it doesn’t feel crowded at all.
It’s a place I always try to go whenever I’m in Korea – a fantastic selection of some of the best of Korean modern and contemporary art, with usually a special exhibition or two going on at the same time.
My initial encounter with Korean contemporary art was as a result of a foolish favour I volunteered to do for a Korean friend: I proofread the text of a book arising out of her PhD thesis on the art produced by the minjung democracy movement in the 1980s. Since democratisation, the art establishment seems to have sneered somewhat at the sometimes naïve, always vibrant style of the minjung artists. I hear that the National Museum of Contemporary Art has some minjung work in its collection but it seems they never dare hang it on their walls: the work is either artistically or politically incorrect, or both. But that doesn’t stop me returning to the museum hoping to catch the curators in a more rebellious frame of mind.
On this occasion there’s no time to visit the permanent collections. Instead, we head to the special exhibitions: the museum’s artist of the year 2010, Park Kiwon (neither Morgan nor I felt able to engage with his work – whole rooms full of wire wool or giant plastic pillows), and a retrospective of 30 years of their Young Korean Artists exhibition.
In London, we get plenty of Korean contemporary artists displaying their work either in commercial galleries or at the Cultural Centre. But being in a foreign land rather than in the centre of things in Seoul I’m never quite sure whether we’re being fobbed off with the B-list artists. It was therefore gratifying that on temporary display outside the museum, as part of the 30-year anniversary show, were two works by artists very familiar in London: Lee Jae-hyo and Choi Jeong-hwa.
Inside, the special exhibition was a good retrospective of the quality and variety of contemporary Korean art. There was plenty to enjoy, plenty to find alternately strange or familiar, and some fun items too. Suh Do-ho, the first Korean artist along with Michael Joo to represent Korea at the Venice Biennale, was represented by his signature piece Some/One.
In one room, an old-fashioned desk and open book thereon is being drenched with a downpour of late summer rain (Rhee Kibong: Extraordinary Late Summer). Other rooms contain artists familiar in the London scene: Koh Myung-keun’s Stone Body series was featured in the Cultural Centre two years ago, while Koo Bohn Chang’s In the Beginning series was seen at the Christie’s Distinctively Korean sale last year.
In one darkened space, webcams are trained on a cardboard model of the 9/11 atrocity, broadcasting to a TV screen outside (Zin Ki-jong: CNN). The most fun pieces could easily have been from an episode of Monty Python: a video camera is set up to record the scene at European tourist destinations – the Brandenburg Gate and other familiar landmarks (An Jung-ju: Lip-Sync Project). Instead of the natural soundtrack, a team of beatboxers and vocal artists try to mimic the sounds that seem to be implied by what is on the screen: footsteps, conversations, cameras clicking, flags flapping in the wind. Is it art? Who knows? Whatever, it’s fun. And the gallery attendants in the museum were keen to point out some of the most interesting features. They wouldn’t let me pass until I’d tried the headphones on the Brandenburg Gate videos. Without their attentiveness, I’d not have had half as much fun.
The National Museum of Contemporary Art is a must-see destination while in Seoul. It’s not too far on the subway (Seoul Grand Park on Line 4), but for those who are too time-constrained to venture out of town, I hear that there’s an outpost being built in Bukchon, just north of Insadong, due to open soon. But if you don’t go to Gwacheon, you’ll never capture the atmosphere of the place. The sculpture park overlooking the hills, and the big Nam June Paik installation in the foyer are alone worth the trip.
The Young Artists exhibition runs until 6 June 2010.