Korea Modern

Overshadowed by neighbors China and Japan, Korea has often been an art world afterthought. But as Barbara Pollack reports, attention should be paid.

As contemporary Asian art continues its full-throttle ascent, Korea is something of a sleeper, tracked by those in the know but largely overlooked by art-trend addicts. With Japan’s Superflat painting stars priced sky-high and China’s post-Mao art- ists fueling escalating prices, Korean works come off as best buys. Deservedly so. Absent the hype of other Asian art hot spots, Korea has developed a strong, stable gallery scene, producing artists whose track records more than back up their prices. Which leads savvy art watchers to wonder, Why isn’t the country a recognized brand in the global market?

Over the past 20 years a sophisticated art scene has blossomed in Korea with prominent international galleries, first-rate museums, artist-run alternative spaces, and major corporate and private collections. Last fall Korea was the epicenter of the contemporary art world, when it played host to a pair of biennial exhibitions in the cities of Gwangju and Busan. The country’s top commercial show, the Korea International Art Fair in Seoul (this year, May 9 through 13), continues to draw interest from dealers and collectors abroad, and Korea was the special guest nation at the high-profile ARCO contemporary art fair in Madrid in February.

Overshadowed by Japan and China, Korea has often been dismissed as a mere conduit between those two megacultures. Or just plain bland. But as Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society museum in New York, points out, "Korea has one of Asia’s most sophisticated art scenes. Because of the internationalism of cities like Seoul, there isn’t an ethnic marker to the country’s contemporary art, and that is one of its strengths." Without a history of political isolation, like China’s, or an insular culture, like Japan’s, adds Chiu, "Korea is more globally integrated. Its culture is the most adaptive of all the Asian nations."

Natsuko Hidaka, a Los Angeles-based specialist with Sotheby’s, believes the country will catch up with Japan and China in the marketplace. "The quality is there," she says, "but since there is no major movement to characterize the art, it’s more difficult to get an overall grasp of the Korean market."

In fact, there were distinct styles in Korean art in earlier decades—the Informel movement (abstract painting of the late fifties and sixties) and the Minjung movement (political art pushing for democratization and the end of military rule in the eighties)—but for the past 15 years the country’s artists rarely have been identified with a single aesthetic or national theme. If anything, they have succeeded by doing what so many businesses in their homeland do best: seamlessly integrating themselves into the international arena.

"What’s exciting about work emerging from Korea today is that the attention has been slow in coming, which has given these artists the opportunity to develop," says Mary Dinaburg, a New York-based art consultant who has been drawing Western eyes toward Korea for more than a decade. "They take from their own culture a proficiency of execution, a dexterity with material, and a thoughtfulness about artistic concerns."

Few Western artists can top the visibility of Do-Ho Suh, a 44-year-old sculptor who commutes between the United States and his studio in Korea. One of two artists to represent Korea at the 2001 Venice Biennale, he has had major exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum, the Serpentine Gallery in London, and the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. He is represented worldwide by the New York gallery Lehmann Maupin, where he will have a show this fall.

At first glance Suh’s sculptures—such as the ghostly rooms made of transparent fabrics that replicate spaces he has lived in—don’t look especially Korean. Instead they are seen as exploring universal themes of displacement and transience, expressing the rootlessness of an urban nomad who transcends national boundaries.

Yet anyone familiar with the sublime perfection of Korean celadon and the country’s magnificent textiles can find comparisons with the precise scale and meticulous construction of Suh’s Reflection, an installation shown at the Maison Hermès in Tokyo in 2005. Using thin steel tubing and delicate blue nylon, he fashioned an ethereal rep- lica of the traditional brick gateway out-side his parents’ home in Seoul.

"We may be talking about interna-tional artists, but those who have studied Asian art will find Korean influences in the work," says Thalia Vrachopoulos, a leading expert in this field who teaches at Parsons the New School of Design and the City University of New York. "There is a particular finesse with materials and a preoccupation with detail."

SEO, a young Korean artist living in Berlin, creates subtly textured collage paintings by painstakingly applying thin strips of colored rice paper to the canvas. The effect calls to mind the Expressionist brushwork of her mentor, German painter Georg Baselitz, while her imagery of figures in romanticized landscapes are based on memories of her homeland.

Adding to this confusion—Korean? International?—is the fact that so many Korean-born artists are educated in the West (mostly in the United States) and maintain residences here. When asked if her works are representative of Korean culture, video artist Kimsooja hesitates. "I work as a cosmopolitan artist rather than as a Korean, although this identity asserts itself from time to time," says Kimsooja, who has filmed herself in crowded cities around the world, carrying bundles of traditional Korean fabrics or standing absolutely still as pedestrians swarm around her.

Even Korea has stretched the definition of "Korean." Michael Joo, who corepresented the country at the 2001 Venice Biennale, was born in the United States.

The country’s best-known contemporary artist is the late Nam June Paik, the pioneer in video art whose family fled their homeland during the Korean War. As the first artist to incorporate television sets into sculptures and installations, Paik was a central figure in international avant-garde circles from the fifties until his death last year. A museum dedicated to his work is under construction in Yongin, south of Seoul, and is slated to open later this year.

Like Paik, Lee Bul, 42, is an international artist, though she lives primarily in Seoul. She combines sci-fi, silicone, and Japanese anime in sculptures and installations that have been shown at museums around the world. Recently turning away from the feminist monster "Cyborgs"— think prosthetics meets plastic surgery—that brought her acclaim in the nineties, she is now considering the impact that changing landscapes have on our lives. Her 2005 sculpture Mon grand récit: because everything only really perhaps yet so limitless combines ghostly white models of utopian architecture—including Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International—with the bloody red forms of some futuristic organism. Lee, who will have an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in late 2007 or 2008, has explained that these new works are about the collision of architecture erupting in Seoul as the city has undergone rapid modernization.

Even without high-tech fireworks, many young Korean artists are combining tradition with a global pop sensibility shaped by Japanimation, video games, and fashion. In her "Ultra Immortality" series, Choi Sang-Ah, an artist represented by the Gering & López Gallery in New York, replaces Buddhist and Korean symbols of everlasting life (deer, turtles, trees) with emblems of American consumerism (Bambi, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Christmas trees). Noh Sang-Kyoon, who shared the Korean Pavilion at Venice in 1999 and is represented by New York’s Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, covers figures of Buddha and Jesus in tiny colored sequins. Lee Dong-Jae, who shows at the Gana Art Gallery in Seoul, has done portraits of the Venus de Milo and Buddha using tiny colored grains of rice.

"These works attract collectors from both Korea and abroad," says Sabin Lee, of Kukje Gallery. "I don’t think there’s a distinct difference between audiences."

At the same time, the meditative simplicity of Korean abstraction, pioneered by artists Park Seo-Bo, Chung Sang-Hwa, and Chung Chang-Sup in the sixties, is also resurfacing. Kim You-Sun, who shows with the CAIS Gallery in Seoul, covers monochrome canvases with shimmering strips of mother-of-pearl. Chun Kwang-Young, a Kukje artist, builds rugged surfaces across his canvases—which he calls "Aggregations"—by arranging folded paper triangles in varying sizes. "While Koreans appreciate his skill with traditional paper folding," says Kukje’s Emma Son, "he is popular with Western audiences looking for something Korean in the work."

This return to a more traditional, homegrown abstraction—using subtle coloration and earthlike tones reminiscent of Korean pottery—is seen by many as proof of a growing confidence, buoyed in part by the willingness of Western collectors to travel to Asia and find new artists. Exhibit A of this trend is the Gwangju Biennale, the higher profile of Korea’s two biennials held this past fall. A world-class exhibition that began in 1995 as the first of its kind on the continent, the Gwangju show has greatly furthered the internationalism of Korea’s art scene. Appropriately, the theme of the most recent edition, "Fever Variations," fo-cused on the contagiousness of Asian art and its spread across the globe.

The historical portion of the exhibition made bold claims for Asia’s influence on the West by mixing works by Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono with pieces by John Cage, George Maciunas, and Ben Vautier—and that was only the beginning of the global reach. For anyone who thinks of Korea as less cool or savvy than other Asian art centers, there were plenty of surprises in the contemporary section. One highlight was Michael Joo’s mesmerizing Bodhi Obfuscatus, a tradition-meets-high-tech installation featuring an antique stone Buddha in the middle, surrounded by surveillance cameras trained on every inch of its surface and dozens of screens displaying the details.

Outside Biennale Hall in Jungoei Park, Choi Jung-Hwa’s gigantic inflatable flowers soared 60 feet into the sky, blossoming periodically as a generator filled them with air. They seemed an apt metaphor, capturing the prevailing spirit of Korea’s art community: that this burgeoning scene is too big and too globally minded to be contained by any boundaries—national or otherwise.

Going Global An Artist’s Story

Even in 2000 it didn’t really mean much to be famous in Korea," says Yeondoo Jung, a 37-year-old artist who creates colorful, playful photographic mis-en-scènes. "Your career would start and end here. Now being an artist in this country helps you get attention from all over the world."

Jung has appeared in major exhibitions like the 2005 Venice Biennale and the recent Taipei Biennale, and he shows with Kukje, one of Seoul’s premier galleries. He is probably best known for his 2004 "Wonderland" series, in which he re- created 17 children’s drawings in photos, such as Princess Twins . Using actors in custom-made costumes and meticulously built props (one involved a trampoline, for a flying magician), he captured the world of the children’s imaginations, down to the smallest details.

"In a way, these are an umbilical cord between a child’s perception and an adult’s, a display of the drastic change in how we see things," says Jung, who wears a scruffy goatee, stylishly disheveled hair, and violet horn-rimmed glasses. "My work is about the people around me, their stories. It has layers like an onion, with multiple narratives rolled into one."

Like many Korean artists of his generation, he has lived in the West, including New York and London, where he got an MFA from Goldsmiths College (famous for turning out British stars such as Da-mien Hirst). "It was hard to survive as a Korean artist there," he recalls. "Now I’m lauded for being Korean. It’s funny."

Identity is at the heart of Jung’s latest project: a video that uses photos he took of New York’s ethnic enclaves, narrated by individuals with heavy accents from each group. "I’m trying to show these in-between creations, a place that is not China but not New York, not Italy but not New York," Jung explains. "Because of the dramatic lighting and its theatrical effects, it becomes a sort of imagined, unreal place." —Christina Ko

Project Arario: The Ultimate Collector

Five years ago Korean retail tycoon and art collector Kim Chang-Il was looking to create cachet for Arario Small City, a redevelopment project in Cheonan (50 miles south of Seoul) that includes shops, a bus station, and an entertainment complex. So he decided to launch the Arario Gallery (82-41/551-5100; arariogallery.co.kr), a 30,000-square-foot space for exhibitions that often draw from his vast personal collection. In addition to providing a prominent stage for Korean artists, Arario has also brought in Westerners such as Anselm Kiefer and Keith Haring. Kim shocked the locals when he displayed Damien Hirst’s Hymn, a 20-foot-tall anatomical model of a man he’d acquired for some $2 million in 2001.

"I’ve been collecting art for twenty-nine years, and I buy works to show them to the public," says Kim, 56, who also paints Pop-inspired canvases under the name Ci Kim. In the past two years he has opened branches of Arario in Seoul and Beijing. The latter is a five-building complex in Beijing’s Jiuchang neighborhood. Hugely influential, it has paved the way for what is emerging as that city’s next big art district.

Working with New York art advisor Mary Dinaburg, Kim has expanded his holdings to include more Western works. He says many Korean artists have lagged in the market, but he remains committed to homegrown talent. "With Arario Gallery, I wanted to establish a system of representation and support for younger artists," Kim says. His next big plan? To open a museum for his collection in Cheonan in 2010. —;B.P.

The Short List

For advice on collecting contemporary Korean art, New York consultant Mary Dinaburg (212-807-0832; dinaburgarts.com) definitely knows the scene. Natsuko Hidaka (310-786-1883) is the specialist in this field for Sotheby’s, which holds its next sale of contemporary Asian art in New York on March 21. Seoul has a number of top-notch galleries with English-speaking staffs. The most prestigious is Gallery Hyundai (82-2/734-6111; galleryhyundai.com), which features a stable of artists on par with those of leading dealers in New York and London. Kukje Gallery (82-2/735-8449; kukjegallery.com) has the hippest roster, representing Cho Duck-Hyun and Yeondoo Jung as well as Ed Ruscha, Kiki Smith, and Rachel White-read. And CAIS Gallery (82-2/511-0668; caisgallery.com) shows Choi Sang-Ah and Hong Kyoung-Tack alongside Lisa Ruyter and Gary Simmons in its first-rate program of local and international artists. In Seoul, Jung Yun-Ah, a professor at SangMyung University, leads tours of artists’ studios and galleries on the third Saturday of every month (e-mail requests to yunah012@yahoo.com). All the country’s major art venues have Web sites, including the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art (leeum.org), which houses a not-to-miss collection of traditional and contemporary art. —B.P.