Seoul, Sunday 1 May 2011. The Leeum Gallery founded by the Samsung family is always a reliable place to visit in Seoul. Even if there is not an interesting special exhibition on they have a fantastic permanent collection containing some wonderful celadon and buncheong ceramics, as well as Joseon dynasty paintings, calligraphy and Buddhist art. Today my objective was their special exhibition entitled Korean Rhapsody: A Montage of History and Memory – a panorama of Korean art and history from the late Joseon period to the present day.
I’m glad I went, but it’s really one of those exhibitions you need to go to several times to digest properly: with such an overwhelming amount of content you can really only take in a small amount at a time. As I review the catalogue writing this article a full five years after the event I realise how much I missed: I virtually ignored the section containing documentation and photographs of ground-breaking performances by avant-garde artists of the late 1960s and 1970s (including Lee Seung-taek, Lee Kang-so, Kang Guk-jin, Jeong Gang-ja and Jeong Chan-seung); I completely missed the video work by Park Chang-kyong (Flying, 2005) focusing on the historic meeting between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il, which was accompanied by a soundtrack of Yun Isang’s Double Concerto; and I also pretty much skimmed over the photographs of some of the performances from the late 1930s by avant-garde dancer Choi Seung-hee who life story I would encounter at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. Damn. Can the Leeum please reassemble the works and put on the show again. I’ll come back to see it all over again. Several times.
At the time I was content enough, though. It was a rare opportunity to see a few works by Minjung artists, all too rarely displayed in publicly owned galleries, and to get to know other works by more familiar artists such as Choi Jeong-hwa and Cho Duck-hyun. But the work that kept drawing me back was a portrait of Park Chung-hee by Park Young-geun that was at the same time monumental and delicate.
So in retrospect an exhibition that was both rewarding and frustrating. But on balance more the former than the latter.
After the exertions of a long stroll around the palace and garden in the morning, and a slow traipse around the Leeum in the afternoon I was beginning to tire. I headed back to Myeongdong for a rest before dinner, stopping off at Seoul Station on the way to buy a ticket for the KTX to Busan the next day.
Myeongdong was lively: a rally held by the Federation of Korean Trade Unions was being watched by hundreds of riot police lining the streets and standing in reserve on subway steps. Things seemed to pass off without incident, and soon it was time to make my way to Daehakro for dinner.
Dinner with Yi Chul-jin
I don’t have much recollection of the evening. I will have gone to Hyewha subway station. I will have met up with various friends – including this time Morgan Park (my interpreter from last year’s Ministry of Culture-funded trip) and Charles Montgomery from KTLit.com. I will have handed out some of my books and maybe autographed some of them. We will have had some excellent food, probably involving sashimi. Of this part of the evening I have a few photographs.
After that, we will have gone to 2차 and probably 3차 for more alcoholic punishment. And I think that someone kindly made sure that I made it back safely to the hotel.
- Why Performance in Authoritarian Korea? Joan Kee, Tate, 2015