Tag Archives: Seoul

2013 – my year in review

I did a lot of travelling this year in Nth America and Korea this year. All this travelling meant that I now have a category for my posts about travel, mostly visiting art galleries and looking at street art in various cities around the world. Seeing New York was the personal highlight of the year. I needed to see to fill a gap in my in my knowledge of the art world with a few days worth of New York galleries that. I’m still processing all that information. One of the highlights of my trip was seeing the Barry McGee exhibition in Boston. Visiting galleries in Seoul filled in gaps in my understanding of art that I didn’t even know were missing. The rise of Korea in international art is impressive given that a century ago it was an antiquated colonised backwater. Seeing Korean contemporary art has changed my thinking in so many ways.

Barry McGee

Barry McGee

Meanwhile I was trying to keep my reviews of exhibitions very local this year for various reasons (cycling, ease, tired of public transport and keep mixing it up) while still trying to keep up with Melbourne’s street art and get a publishing deal for my history of Melbourne’s public sculpture.

HaHa robot in Coburg

HaHa robot in Coburg

Normally when I check the messages from the Black Mark Facebook page or my gmail there is another invite to an exhibition on the other side of the city, or some artist wanting attention. Rarely there someone is giving you a blog post or a story on a platter. This year, for sending me two stories, I’d like to thank Kevin Anslow, who created the Melbourne Street Art 86 site see my post “Melbourne Street Art Blogs” and also sent me the photos that made up the my post “Sexy Girls Girls Girls”.

I’d also like to thank all the guest bloggers who wrote posts this year: CDH (“Street art Salvage”, February), Pauline (“White Night with kids”, March), Jess Knight (“Refashioned: Sustainable Design Survey”) and Vetti (“Peter Fraser’s Lizard: A Box of Gaps”). I thought that I’d try having some guest posts – again to mix things up a bit.

I thought that I’d like to try having a monthly series of articles; I tried with my Persons of Interest. The Persons of Interest were people that had influenced my thinking about art so it was, in a way, autobiographical. I’m not sure how well that went as a series but it was interesting writing them.

Paul Yore, "Fountain of Knowledge", 2013

Paul Yore, “Fountain of Knowledge”, 2013

Meanwhile Australia’s own culture was going through a low point. On Saturday 1st of June in Melbourne Australia police raided the Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts and removed 7 collage works by artist, Paul Yore alleging that the art was child pornography. Then in September Bill Henson withdrew from the 2014 Adelaide Biennial after a campaign by an Adelaide police officer, Brevet-Sergeant Michael Newbury against art that he had not seen. With the police in Australia becoming the unofficial art censorship board any hope that Australia might become a liberal society capable of intelligent and informed debate has been dashed.

Enjoy the end of year festivities, knowing that I will be hard a work on my sculpture book during that time, and good luck for 2014 – I think we’re going to need it.

Phil Soliman, The Great Pyramid, Moreland Station

Phil Soliman, The Great Pyramid, Moreland Station


Wandering Seoul’s II

After being thrown in at the deep end of Korean Art on my visit to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul (see my post). I’m trying to learn more by reading Youngna Kim’s Modern And Contemporary Art in Korea (Hollym, 2005, New Jersey). The first thing about Korean modern art is that it is only a century old and most of it happened after 1953 when the Korean War ended in the present stalemate. In South Korea artists through themselves into the deep end of modern art and before they had finished with working through modern art post-modern art appeared.

Kwan Yuk exhibition at Gallery 500, Seoul

Kwan Yuk exhibition at Gallery 500, Seoul

I am considering Kim’s book in relation to the life of Kwan Yuk, an artist that I met on my wandering around Seoul. I saw a couple small galleries in the streets in the Insa-Dong district of Seoul amongst the antique dealers, the artist supply shops and second hand bookstores. In one of these modern commercial galleries, Gallery 500, I saw a solo exhibition by Kwan Yuk, it was a mini retrospective of his work. Kwan Yuk is an old artist with a young mind. I want to look at his art and life as a random sample of a post-war Korean artist, to test the accuracy of the Youngna Kim’s history against the life of this artist.

I like an artist who continues to change throughout his life and in the exhibition I could see that Kwan Yuk has roamed from Chagal like expressionist paintings to collage with spray paint.  Kwan Yuk and I could only communicate with gestures but when your subject is the art in front of you this rudimentary sign language comes alive. And he generously gave me both the two-volume book of his work.

I have put together a short history from Youngna Kim’s history and Kwan Yuk’s short year-by-year resume in his book.

Like many Korean artists Kwan Yuk studied in Japanese art schools. This was in part the legacy of Japanese colonial occupation of Korea and that Japan had the most progressive modern art education in the region. Kwan Yuk exhibited in Japanese University alumni association between 1952-57.

In 1961-64 Kwan Yuk then exhibited in the National Exhibition. The National Exhibition was another legacy of Japanese occupation. It continued under the post-war government until 1981 when the national exhibition was privatised. There were breakaway exhibitions from artists of the Art Informel movement in the 1950s when they were included in the National Exhibition in 1961. It doesn’t look like Kwan Yuk was one the hard core of Art Informel abstract artists and not because he was frightened to attempt it.

Kwan Yuk had his first of many solo exhibitions in 1963. He worked as an art teacher and exhibited in the Seoul Teacher’s Art Exhibition between 1974-82. He has won awards and participated in various invitational exhibitions. It looks like Kwan Yuk has worked his way through European modernism in his own way. And ending up with his most recent works are collages that use candy-wrappers and nude photographs with a light bondage theme. Are these elements the Minjin influence on Korean art or sexy interpretation of Matisee’s collage?

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I refer back to Youngna Kim’s book again to consider the Minjin, folk art movement. In describing Korea’s introduction to modernism Youngna Kim discusses the introduction of the idea of an artist, the continuity of tradition in modernism and the change of the role of Korean woman. And briefly looks at the Soviet-realist direction that modernism took in North Korea. This different history of modern and contemporary art full of references to tradition while seriously engaging with the modern, both international and local in focus and all happing very quickly.

Kwan Yuk, my random artist must have seen much of this history in his life and had an influence on a younger generation of Korean artists. And his art continues to develop becoming more colourful, playful and sexy.


Wandering Seoul’s Galleries

For a traveller visiting commercial contemporary art galleries in Seoul. There are many, maybe not as many as in New York City, but there are a lot. And many of these galleries are in along Samcheong-Ro in the Jongno-gu district, you hardly need a map to find these galleries, there is one next to another.

Lee Yongbaek,“Pieta: self-death”, 2011

Lee Yongbaek,“Pieta: self-death”, 2011

Jongno-gu district is a great place to explore and see exhibitions in commercial galleries, there is interesting architecture, lots of great places to eat and lots of young Korean women in short summer dresses or short shorts. The galleries are often purpose built spaces with large well-designed spaces.

Galleries are closed on Mondays and on Tuesdays many of the art galleries are still closed for installations with the exhibitions opening in the late afternoon of Wednesday.

My one complaint about the Korean art scene there are too many flowers. Yes, I understand there is a tradition of floral art but I saw three or four floral painting exhibitions on my walks around Seoul’s smaller galleries. As well as all the paintings of flowers there are garlands flowers at exhibition openings – flowers are not necessary for art. Aside from the exhibitions of floral art (enough with the flowers) I saw some world-class exhibitions of contemporary art in my wandering between Seoul’s galleries.

Korea Gallery

Choi Jung Hee’s solo exhibition wasn’t floral at GMA (Gwangu Museum of Art); Choi was paintings of bamboo in a screen of large coloured dots or the reverse of that screen. The colours, optics and concept of this series of paintings all came together in one painting where Choi had added another screen of writing. Bamboo forms are connected to Chinese writing in a deep sense, the European alphabet is also said to be connected to trees, and in Choi’s painting the painted bamboo and the writing approach unity again.

“In a Moment, We Awe” at Hakgojae Gallery is an awesome group show (I always worry that with a title like that you won’t but in this case they definitely did awe). “Broken Mirror” by Lee Yongbaek was so awesome; watching mirrors break in slow motion on a gold-framed mirror was great, watching it in a room with four large mirrors doing that was awesome. He is great with a paintbrush as I could see from his plastic fish painting, as well as any other media and represented Korea in the Venice Art Bienniale 2011. (His sculpture, “Pieta: self-death” was on the roof of the gallery combining both the positive and negative parts.) All of Lee Yongbaek’s work in the exhibition was from his Venice Art Biennale exhibition. Other artists in this exhibition also impressed (if not awed) including Seok Lee paintings and installation play with the image of the gallery space. And Heo Suyong’s painting of caterpillar with nepenthes was a creepy antidote to all the flower paintings.

Choong-Hyun Roh’s exhibition “Prosaic Landscape” at Kukje Gallery was just that paintings of prosaic landscapes. Often the landscapes are the same riverside locations but at the wrong time of year in the mid-winter snow or the summer rainy season. Snow on a 7/11 convenience store is as prosaic a landscape as you could encounter.

At Gallery Doll there was carved and painted wood by Shin Jeong Eun; the work is like paintings by Magritte carved in low relief and more yonic than Magritte would have dared.

GuGu Kim

One more gallery before they shut at 6pm – finger painting by GuGu Kim. GuGu Kim’s finger painting technique roamed from photorealism, to cheeky designs to primitive, raw and childish- I liked it best when he did them one on top of the other. I don’t know why I haven’t seen more artists doing this but GuGu Kim is the only finger painter I’ve encountered.


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).


Not Gangnam Style – Korean Street Art

There isn’t much Korean street art, well, I didn’t see much on my recent travels. Most Korean graffiti is traditional, back before old school; people writing on the wall with pens. The absence of aerosol graffiti or street art is not due to Korean respect for property; Koreans write on the walls, in stairwells, on rocks and even in museums.

Korea graffiti wall

Writing on the stone of Inwangsan Mountain, Seoul

Writing on the stone of Inwangsan Mountain, Seoul

There is even traditional Korean writing on the rocks of Inwangsan mountain in Seoul.

Isadong wall, Seoul

Isadong wall, Seoul

In Seoul I saw more street art than old school aerosol graffiti and I saw more aerosol art in the lanes of Gyeongju that I did in Seoul. I’m told there is some in Seoul but Seoul is a very big place and although I followed up some leads and looked down many streets and lanes, I never saw it. This post comes with my usual caveat about commenting on the graffiti and street art of other cities applies here; I probably didn’t know the best locations to visit, that street art is ephemeral and I was just seeing what happened upon during my travels. Normally I see some graffiti along the railway tracks when I travel by train but there was none in Korea. I saw some in the many laneways of Seoul and Gyeongju.

Gyeongju wall

Gyeongju wall

Paste-up in Bukchon, Seoul

Paste-up in Bukchon, Seoul

I saw a great paste-up (wheatpasting) in the Bukchon district of Seoul. There were also some stencils and other work in this attractive and cultural significant area.

Bukchon wall, Seoul

Bukchon wall, Seoul

Of course there was some tagging and stickers in Seoul – mostly by Zacpot, he is everywhere with stickers and pens.

Zacpot sticker, Seoul

Zacpot sticker, Seoul

There is lots of potential for some truly great street art in Korea, there are a lot of great walls it just needs artists who want to do it (along with better cans and caps).

Merecat stencil, Seoul

Merecat stencil, Seoul


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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