Tag Archives: nam june paik

Seoul’s Big Art Museums

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) at Gwacheon was my first real exposure to Korean modern and contemporary art. I had thrown myself in the deep end. The collection was 99% Korean and all from after 1954. That was okay Korean art had thrown itself into the deep-end of modern art after the Korean War and were still giving it everything they can.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

It is a massive collection of Korean art – it is hard to know where to start. I started with the large retrospective exhibition of Youn Myeung-ro paintings. In Youn Myeung-ro’s paintings I could see references to precursors in traditional Korean ceramics. I then worked my way through the rest of the three floors of the museum with painting, photography, sculpture, installations, architecture and jewellery. There is lots of exciting contemporary art. Park Jaeyoung’s showcase of mind-control devices from the “DownLeit Corp.” and Gu Minja’s installations about places of display from the shop display of the “Atlantic – Pacific Co.” to “The Square Table: Public Hearing of the recruitment requirements for artist –position civil servant.” Kim Tae-dong’s “Daybreak” series of photographs was a vision that haunted my view of Seoul at night.

The MMCA is surrounded by a large and pleasant sculpture garden with the disconcerting sound shrieks of pleasure of the fun park across the road. And this is all set within the Seoul Grand Park, a lot of parkland. The museum building was completed in 1986. It is large and designed around Nam June Paik’s pagonda of 1000+ TV sets and videos “Dadaikseon <The More, the Better>”. It was created for the Seoul Olympics and it is now in the museum’s central tower with a circular ramp going up and around like a mini Guggenheim. I was hoping and expecting to see more of Nam’s art in Korea, I only saw a few works but what I did see was great.

I notice that they are building another branch of the MMCA in the centre of Seoul next to the grand Gyeongbokgung Palace (that will be more convenient for international tourists like me) and that there is another branch already open at Deoksugung.

Nam June Paik, “Dadaikseon ” 1988

Nam June Paik, “Dadaikseon ” 1988

Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea

Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea

The Leeum Samsung Museum of Art would have been an easier start on Korean art world and more complete introduction with traditional, modern and contemporary Korean art, along with world-class, international modern and contemporary art. The elegant museum building opened in 2004.

I was expecting that the Korean art collections might be more biased towards the American art rather than the European or British art for reasons of geopolitical influence, but the Leeum collection’s certainly wasn’t, there is great balance to its international collection (better than MOMA). The only bias that I could detect was for Korean art and Leeum has a fine collection of traditional celadon ceramics, Buddhist paintings and sculptures from the ancient Silla Dynasty in the 4th century to the recent Joseon Dynasty.

It also has the best collection of contemporary art that I’ve seen in a single gallery space. You entered the space through a Felix Gonzalez-Torres curtain of beads to find yourself reflected in an Amish Kapour hexagonal mirror. Around the corner is a recent Gilbert and George, both of them looking like My Favourite Martian with the stems of gingko tree leaves sprouting from their heads, or rather the mirror image of half their heads. The mirror backed medicine cabinet by Damien Hirst is facing and reflecting a Cindy Sherman wall work with mirror images in the background. I laughed out loud at another kind of mirror reflection image by Nam June Paik “My Faust Communion” with demonic images on tv sets arranged in an altar piece. Lee Bul’s white cyborg sculpture was hanging from the ceiling. There were also two floral artworks one by Koons and one by Warhol (I will get to flowers in my next post about Korean art galleries).


Seoul Man

I’m back from a holiday in Korea where I saw some awesome art and met some warm generous artists. I was also impressed with Korea’s public sculptures, urban design and the public toilets are the best in the world.

Public toilet in Gyeongju, South Korea

Public toilet in Gyeongju, South Korea

When I travel I like to visit art galleries, from the major official art galleries to what smaller galleries I can find; I try to avoid the tourist focused commercial galleries. I try to find some street art but that’s not always that easy because it is generally not in the guidebooks. Along the way I see historic buildings, public sculptures, travel on public transport and eat at local food at local restaurants but seeing art is my primary objective. I have written so many blog posts about art tourism that I have now created a separate category for them. Maybe I should write a book about them; I haven’t been finding Lonely Planet that useful a guidebook when it comes to this side of travel.

Seoul does contain two of the top 20 museums in the world (based on visitor numbers) the National Museum of Korea (Seoul) with 3,1289,550 visitors last year is in 12th place (according to Art Newspaper’s annual museum attendance figures for 2012) and in 15th place the National Folk Museum of Korea (Seoul) with 2,640,264 visitors. (Melbourne’s NGV was in 25th place with 1,571,333 visitors.)

I didn’t know much about Korean art before my trip; I was vaguely aware that Korea was promoting itself as a centre of contemporary art. But the only Korean artists I knew was Nam June Paik and Lee Bul. Nam June Paik was the man who cut off John Cage’s tie and who did video installations before it was commonplace. Lee Bul who makes white contemporary space-age alien kind of sculptures that hang.

Before I left I tried to familiarize myself with the Korean art scene by reading Seoul Art Fiend! Earlier this year I walked in to Doosan Gallery in NYC Chelsea gallery district (See my post Black Mark in Chelsea). It was certainly distinctive as a not-for-profit space amongst all the commercial galleries. I wasn’t sure about the art on exhibition it was very neutral and very studied.

I saw a lot art, ancient, modern and contemporary as Korea does have some great galleries and museums large and small. There are many contemporary public sculptures in the streets of Seoul of varying quality and there is a small graffiti and street art scene in Korea. More blog posts to follow about Korea when I have copied my notes and read more of the literature that I brought back. (Not Gangnam Style – Korean Street Art, Seoul’s Big Art Museums, Wandering Seoul’s Galleries and Wandering Seoul’s II.)

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen sculpture in Seoul

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen sculpture in Seoul

I particularly liked the use of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen sculpture that marked the start of the urban redesign masterpiece of Seoul, the Cheonggyecheon. The stream side walk is such a relaxing place to be but just a few steps away from the centre of Seoul and it goes on for kilometres.  It is like the reverse of Boston’s new park, a great reinvention of an urban space, a raised hight way demolished to recreate the urban space.

Korea2

Korean folk art has a lot going for it too – could these be the new tikki?

Aside from all the art, the buildings, the food and the hard mattresses my strongest impression of Korea is of the excellent public toilets that are there where you need them. I am not just talking clean and functional but automatic motion detector lights and music. And there is always access for the disabled. The public toilets in the streets and parks were well design and not simple utilitarian constructions. Korean public toilets are the paradigm for public toilets and made my trip so comfortable.


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