Korea’s trendy but baffling contemporary art scene in London

Coinciding with rather too many events for London Design Week, three galleries competed with each other last Friday, 23 September, with opening events to show various eccentricities of the contemporary Korean art scene in London. After a quick look in at the dozen or so Korean MA students from Kingston University who were holding their degree show downstairs at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, and a chat with two visiting Korean designers exhibiting their work upstairs in the same building as part of Tent London, I set off for the first of the art shows.

Some Korean shopping in a City gallery
Some Korean shopping in a City gallery

MY SHOPPING BAG: allegories of Seoul 2011 was a funky pop-up show held at the confusingly addressed La Scatola Gallery: officially at 1 Snowden Street, but actually on the corner of Appold Street and Worship Street, not far from the Broadgate development. A DJ was spinning some tracks from a laptop in the corner of the vast space, while around the walls and on the floor were artfully arranged … well, bits of shopping. I wouldn’t have minded grabbing the Cho Yong-pil double album I spotted on the floor, but I suspect that the container, like the soju bottle nearby, was empty.

Ku-Hyeyoung sings Faure
Ku-Hyeyoung sings Faure

Ku Hye-young’s performance at MokSpace, close to the British Museum, followed on from similar events at the KCC as part of the Crossfields show two years ago and at Goldsmiths. All involved performances of classical music while dressed in a bin bag. This time, a heavily tailored dress confined Ku’s legs as if she were a mermaid, as she shuffled around singing along to the Libera Me from Fauré’s Requiem. Her photographer / lighting technician rolled on the floor taking pictures while grunting the melody two octaves lower.

Last destination for the evening was Unlasted, Hanmi gallery’s 5th “interim” show – while they’re still waiting for the council to give them planning permission for upgrading their space. I was getting seriously footsore by this point so I probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind for a third conceptual art show. In one room a phone was hanging on the wall, beeping. I think you were expected to pick it up and answer it. Loudspeakers were placed everywhere throughout the building, producing interesting noises – indeed the audio experience was more stimulating than the visual. I can’t remember what was in the other upstairs rooms, but inevitably, because Hanmi’s shows ask artists to respond to the space, they will have been ephemeral. The most interesting work was down in the basement, where Yun Yeji had smeared the walls with luminous dabs of paint, done the same with what appeared to be a model battlefield on a table, and dug a hole at one end of the room above which was suspended a wire sculpture of an eye. Pitch black except for an ultra-violet light, and made more spooky by the unending tape loop which was playing all over the building, this particular installation stuck in the memory more than the others.

I think these three gallery openings caught me on a bad day. It had been a long week, and I’d just seen, at the Truman Brewery and the day before at Earl’s Court, the work of some talented Korean designers. So I was in the frame of mind for things of beauty or practicality, and didn’t really know what to make of what I was seeing at these three shows. All three venues were buzzing with young, hip people who seemed to be enjoying themselves and the exhibitions on offer, but I went home with aching feet, gasping for a beer. Maybe on another day I would have known what to make of it all.

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