In which we have our customary day visiting the contemporary art museums.
Eulji-ro, Seoul, Sunday 15 June, 9am. For the first time in recent memory I haven’t scheduled in a trip to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon this visit. And that’s because, since the last visit, the big construction project on the site of an old US military building in Samcheongdong has been completed. The Seoul Branch of MMCA opened in November 2013, in a project that cost some Won 100 billion. And while there were accusations of favouritism in one of the opening shows, the downtown exhibition space risks drawing the crowds away from the main museum in Gwacheon.
It’s an interesting building – or rather, buildings: because intentionally the museum is a hotch-potch of architectural styles, incorporating some of the pre-existing buildings – including the Joseon-era Jongchinbu (종친부 – Office of Royal Genealogy) and the nicely scrubbed-up 1928 building which originally housed the Gyeongseong Medical School and more recently (until 2008) was home to the Defense Security Command – into a campus with distinct spaces for different purposes.
What was slightly confusing was the museum’s policy about photography. For the special exhibition that was on show – Korean Beauty: Two Kinds of Nature – there was a no-camera policy. But elsewhere in the museum you were free to snap away. So I have plenty of shots of Suh Do-ho’s eye-catching installation of Home within home within home within home; and a few of the Choi U-ram installation, but none of the special exhibition, which had work by Bae Bien-u among others. And although I have a leaflet of the Korean Beauty exhibition, not much of it sticks in the memory.
Walking into and around Suh Do-ho’s translucent blue installation gave a feeling of profound peace. His first Seoul home (a small hanok in Seongbuk-dong) was suspended inside a lifesize replica of his first American home (a period brownstone building in which he had an apartment in Providence, Rhode Island); and these blue gauze structures were installed inside their temporary home in the Hanjin Shipping Box Project Space within the MMCA, itself in Suh’s home city of Seoul – hence the nested homes of the title of the work.
Down the corridor was Choe Uram’s Opertus Lunula Umbra (Hidden Shadow of the Moon), what looked like the skeleton of a massive curled-up woodlouse. According to the curator, Chuyoung Lee:
A magnificent spectacle is created by the slow movements of tens of its huge symmetrical wings, which resemble the oars of a Viking ship. This work in the form of a colossal caterpillar emanating mysterious light is the latest version of the work of Choe for which viewers highly praised at the Liverpool Biennale in 2008. .. According to URAM, Opertus Lunula Umbra that has shown up at the Seoul branch is a new kind of life form that is found mostly in the vicinity of harbour cities. When the sun’s rays radiate off of the moon’s surface, certain light energy is generated and this radiated energy has an effect to amplify the human ability to fantasize. And this energy increases in its amount in areas surrounding water. Thus, as the amalgamation of the lunar energy, wind and human fantasy are facilitated in seashore cities, this new species are often seen in coastal cities. It is also reported that they are in various sizes and their anatomy shows the organic amalgamation of a wide range of nautical devices culled from both those sunken ships of the past and modern ones.
If the animatronics were working when I visited, they were so slow that the movement was imperceptible, but nevertheless the installation was rather majestic.
Other attractions on offer at the museum was an interesting photographic archive of its construction process (Birth of a Museum: The MMCA Construction Archive Project); the temporary exhibition Korean Beauty: Two Kinds of Nature; an exhibition of work by a European video artist; and there was one space in the museum where the art could not be photographed for other reasons: the central garden courtyard (a real sun-trap) featured a sound installation by Kim Soungui, Listen to the emptiness, which she produced by working with traditional dancer Lee Aejoo. The work is edited together from clips of a shamanistic dance (gut-chum) that Lee performed on 29 April 2014.
According to an information board set up next to the inner courtyard,
Lee Aejoo was friends with Kim Soungui, sharing each other’s feelings as well as being fellow artists for a long time since high school days. The performance was completed through the two artists’ collaboration with the showground as their performing stage, where the installative sound art Listen to the Emptiness is located. Although they have been taking different paths – one on the traditional dance, and the other on the modern arts – the two artists have been monitoring and advising on their art world for a long period. Their ‘collaboration’ based on the respect and understanding of each other’s art therefore has a profound significance.
After a refreshing lunch of cold noodles in a small local restaurant in Samcheongdong, I make my way in the direction of Jeongdong to see what’s on at Seoul Museum of Art. At the back of my mind I had an idea, which had implanted itself from my daily perusal of the Korean press, that there was an exhibition I needed to go to.
Once I got there, I was none the wiser. The name of the exhibition, Malfunction Library, rang a vague bell, but still I wondered what it was that had registered in my mind. According to the museum’s press release, the exhibition “pays attention to the highly developed ‘knowledge information society’ in which an access to all sorts of information and knowledge has become easy but choosing the one has become difficult.” It was not until I climbed the stairs to the first floor and saw a familiar installation that the memory came flooding back.
Jukhee Kwon, who has recently been making a name for herself in several shows in Europe, had a work exhibited centre-stage at a group show of artists in their 30s and 40s. The museum had installed her paper sculpture hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the room, lit beautifully, enabling visitors to walk around it and appreciate it from all angles. The hand-cut pages cascaded down from the opened book covers like a Greek pillar, and then lay on the floor like Rapunzel’s hair. Also included in the exhibition in a darkened room was work by Kim Ayoung, who has been regularly exhibited in London.
Up on the second floor of the museum was a pleasant surprise: an exhibition that was a by-product of a reality TV show. Art Star Korea is a CJ E&M survival show in which emerging artists compete against each other and progressively get voted off the show. It is hosted by actress Jung Ryeo-won, known from the TV drama My Name Is Kim Sam-soon and the movie Castaway on the Moon.
The three surviving contestants on June 8 (Ku Hye-young, Shin Je-hyun, and Yu Byeong-seo) were given assignments the results of which were on display in this exhibition entitled Secretly, Greatly, along with “works that explore much heavier and darker themes”.
The winner of the show was promised a prize of KRW100 million, and although some viewers raised an eyebrow at the populist format of the TV show it gave the artists a medium to get their work before the public. Goldsmiths-trained performance artist Ku Hye-young was runner up in the contest.
After a heavy dose of contemporary art it was a pleasant relaxation to enter the “Spirit of Chun Kyung-ja”, a semi-permanent exhibition held by the museum since 2002, made possible by the artist’s donation of over 90 of her works executed throughout her long creative life (she was born in 1924). Her vibrant colour palette reminds one of Henri Rousseau, the French painter of exotic jungle landscapes, while her portraits of women whose tresses are adorned with flowers transport you to a slightly hippy utopia. It’s worth visiting the museum just to see this enjoyable exhibition of a representative Korean female artist.
Outside the museum the artwork in the city’s public spaces seems to be proliferating. In the museum grounds various sculptures stood in the shade of the trees while a bright plastic floral tree Choi Jeong-hwa stands proudly in the sun, and outside the Deoksugung palace walls where public art exhibitions were held in the 1950s there was a new installation since my last visit, the humourously squat, distorted human figures created by Yi Hwan-kwon and named after the kimchi-jar storage area in a Korean household – the Jangdockdae.
A meal at Sanchon now seems to be my favoured way of spending my last night in Seoul. This is now at least the third time that I’ve agreed to meet up with people there, and it’s a great way to have some good food while getting some bite-sized traditional entertainment.
I always struggle to find the place, but I eventually locate it, at the end of the alley next to Park Kyung-sook’s pottery showroom, which is almost opposite the Lee Geon Maan store. The latter is always a dangerous spot for me. The ties are so desirable that I usually decide to go in and suffer being told for the umpteenth time that the ties are Korean “calligraphy” or Korean “language”, so that I can browse and select one to add to my collection. I can usually bet that since my last visit I will have spilled something on my favourite tie, and need a replacement.
I am joined by Suzy Chung and Paul Matthews, and we settle down to some excellent vegetarian food and some makgeolli, and then decide on some more makgeolli to see us through the performances. We head off in search of 2cha somewhere south of the Cheonggyecheon and set about the beers and barbecued meats. The walk back to the Lotte Hotel is pleasant, and I make a half-hearted attempt at packing before crashing out on the bed.
- MMCA exhibition notices for
|5-6 June||Harassed in Haeundae
Arrival in Busan | Dinner with friends
|7 June||Orchids for the altar
A literary lunch | Travelling to Sancheong | Suseonsa
Sena’s funeral | Return to Donguibogam Village
|9 June||The reappointment
The new mayor | Rearranging the diary | Epic sashimi dinner
|10 June||타종식 — New beginnings
The hike to Beopgyesa | The ceremonial first ringing of the temple bell | Back down the mountain | Off to Seoul
|11 June||Modern design and ancient mysteries
Treasures from the Kansong Museum at Dongdaemun Design Plaza | Conversations on mountain spirits with the Goodwill Ambassador for the Baekdu-Daegan | Dinner in Suyu-dong
|12 June||The concubine, the eunuchs and the gisaeng
Another literary lunch | The tombs of the royal eunuchs | The temple donated by a courtesan | The Tie Museum
|13 June||Two museums near Yongin
Ho-am Art Museum and Hee Won Garden | Paik Nam June Art Center | Pungmul in Daehakro
|14 June||The RASKB Garden Party
A third literary lunch | The Garden Party | Sewol memorial at City Hall
|15 June||Two art museums and a reality show
Suh Do-ho and more at MMCA Seoul Branch | Malfunction Library and more at SeMA | Art Star Korea | San Chon
|16 June||Return to London
The most expensive breakfast ever | Reflections | Thank-yous