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All Eyes on Seoul

A youth-driven creative renaissance is lighting up South Korea.

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SEOUL'S AIR IS thick and muggy. Monsoon season has yet to crack so the wet heat simply hangs in heavy-handed anticipation. Seemingly unaffected by the weather, Seoulites move through the city in crisp, cool looks mostly limited to three colors — black, white, and beige. I log more visual details: The vertical neon signage on bars and restaurants; the pupil-enhancing contact lenses worn by Korean girls; the plant-filled, pastel-colored cafes; and the massive beauty billboards featuring K-pop idols with gleaming skin.

The city, otherwise closed to foreigners for almost three years because of the pandemic, has continued to develop in dynamic, grassroots ways. And despite a block on tourism, Korean cultural exports — K-pop groups like BTS and Blackpink, kimchi and K–beauty, “Squid Games” and “Parasite” — continue to spread in popularity across the world. I’ve come to Seoul to explore the country’s latest area of buzz, the art scene, with a trusted translator in tow: my mother. She grew up in the capital many years ago, when it was, in her words, “a different Seoul.” “My daughter is taking me home,” she says in Korean to the flight attendant as we board the plane.

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On our first morning, we load up on bowls of broth (Korean dried pollock soup), dim sum, quail eggs pickled in soy sauce, bok choy, fried rice, kimchi, and all manner of fermented, tongue-tingling sauces. Cheeks bulging with food, I think to myself in earnest: If I could start every day with an Asian breakfast, my potential would be incalculable.

We begin our Seoul tour at the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, a spectacular center for both contemporary and traditional Korean art. The outdoor patio features towering Anish Kapoor sculptures: a giant stack of silver orbs and a super-sized gleaming disc. The contemporary wing is home to many monsters: Choe U-Ram’s enormous fish-like organism, wiry reeds sticking out between metallic gills, gently moving with the mechanized breath of its body; Anicka Yi’s hanging human-sized cocoons glowing from within stitched ivory skin; and a pile of tendril-tentacles the color of liquid mercury by Lee Bul.

Next is MMCA Seoul, a multimedia-heavy museum full of hyper-immersive video installations. Each exhibit shares a message about the digital age. Big, black-box rooms play mesmerizing video clips, interspersing live shots and animation, old footage and new — looping into a layered commentary on connectivity, isolation, and virtual reality.

The thought-provoking themes continue at Arario Museum, where collections explore social issues on an international scale. Making my way through the brutalist brick building, I stop before a stately marble sculpture of lovers with body deformities locked in a deep kiss — a work by Marc Quinn highlighting how narrow society’s representations of love are. Featuring tiny winding staircases and irregularly shaped rooms, Arario is made for the architecture lover. A provocative interplay between art and space is Sarah Lucas’ glowing red coffin formed with neon light rods, bathing the cement floors in a bloodred wash.

We dine that night at the Michelin-starred restaurant-in-the-sky, Myomi, located above Arario. With floor-to-ceiling walls of glass, the establishment’s tasting menu remixes traditional Korean flavors with a contemporary approach. Delightful moments are a conch fish cake dotted with tiny tapioca pearls, and a chilled tuna, tomato, and pickled plum dish in tangy white kimchi juice. We then make a last mad dash to the nearby Art Sonje Center. The bright, multilevel spot highlights big-name international artists, including a comprehensive Tom Sachs exhibit.

The next day I connect with two up-and-coming Seoul artists, female painters whose work shares a delicate, haunting quality. For the first artist, Jiwon Choi, a motif of porcelain dolls runs through her work: glossy white figures that stare into the distance with cryptically flat gazes. She’s fascinated by texture, “the contrast of perfect slickness with delicacy — the potential to break,” she describes.

Some of her dolls are placed as vacant viewers in front of chaotic scenes like fires and explosives, or near suggestions of violence — a thick branch of thorns or a burning sparkler inches away from the eyes. These scenes, Choi says, speak to the numbing impact of our endlessly traumatic news cycle. Like the dolls, her work suggests a societal tending towards inanimate states.

The second artist I meet is Moka Lee. Lee’s subjects are women she finds on Instagram who resemble her in some way. “Up front, they look pretty and nice and clean but on the inside, there’s a strangeness,” she explains. Lee seeks to amplify the emotional impressions of these young Korean women, exposing the duality between what they show the world and their interior lives. “I want to make work that transcends the apparent ‘prettiness’ of these women. I want to draw curiosity to their more unexplained natures.” Lee’s never met any of her subjects in real life, which to her, opens things up for further interpretation. The lines blur between intimacy and anonymity, tangible and digital.


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The following day my mother and I explore the Seongsu-dong neighborhood, often described as the “Brooklyn of Seoul.” We begin where much of the area’s modern development began: Daelim Changgo. One of the first examples of the multiconcept space in Seoul — the bokhapmunhwagonggan (in Korean: 복합문화 공간) — this gallery and cafe, set in a soaring warehouse, put Seongsu-dong on the map as a cool creative zone when it first opened. We enter through thick, double-height wooden doors and take in the lofty venue, sun streaming through a skylight at the end of the hall, illuminating an interior garden. We then wind through narrow streets to find Grandma’s Recipe, packed with stylish Seoulites, for a lunch of fried pollock and salty, spicy dishes of banchan. We wash it all down with cold beer and makgeolli — a cloudy rice wine the color of milk.

Continuing through the industrial streets, we stop into what could almost pass for a gallery but turns out to be a clothing store: Mo-No-Ha. Within the voluminous, minimal interior, an employee in a long white lab coat helps me purchase a boxy black button-down with matching shorts in a techy fabric that looks cut from a parachute.

Seongsu-dong is where we encounter Punto Blu, another multipurpose gallery, and meet the space’s co-founder and art director Jane Lee. Punto Blu offers a tabula rasa of sorts for creatives of all mediums. “Everything can be built up or taken down,” explains Lee, “so that whoever wants to present their identity can really push their colors forward, and we can morph to their visions.” Punto Blu hosts art shows, performances, and music events, and even collaborates with luxury fashion brands and government cultural institutions. She explains the history of the bokhapmunhwagonggan, the Korean multiconcept space (the literal translation is “complex cultural space”). This concept evolved around five years ago out of a desire to have avant-garde spaces but also a need for financial sustainability, resulting in the fusion of gallery/cafe or cultural hub/bar. She provides context on the inaccessible history of the Korean art market, formerly limited to the elite and shrouded in corruption — art as assets for money laundering, art as a way to obscure. “But the nature of art is not like that,” she states. “The nature of art is to break boundaries and connect. I think that is why all these experimental spaces began, to speak to the people outside of the castle.”

Driven by the nation’s youth, Seoul’s art market is now booming. For years, Lee explains, the country’s goal was survival, with the nation severely wounded and the economy hard hit after the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. Industrial conglomerates rose up after the war, and simply executing corporate tasks was the path to success, followed by saving, buying a house, and having children. But with homes and schools becoming increasingly unaffordable, compounded by corporations no longer offering the same decades-long support to their employees, a cultural pendulum swing is currently in motion.

“The youth decided,” continues Lee, that “rather than just dreaming about this vague future unsupported by the system, to support themselves at this moment and actually consider their current tastes — investing more in the space they live in now, rather than the possible home they might not even be able to get. The rising art markets are in response to these new demands.”

Today, going to a gallery or museum event is the ultimate in-vogue activity. The luxury fashion market, for which Korean youth have a long-standing passion, is even tapping into gallery-style presentations, inviting creators from renowned institutions to select artists to tell their brand’s story, or simply choosing to host or sponsor exhibitions. A notable example was a collaboration between Dior and the prominent Korean artist Do Ho Suh. Further to this movement, the international contemporary art fair Frieze took place last September in Seoul for the first time, and a 2023 edition is already confirmed. The prestigious event has only ever been held in New York City, London, and Los Angeles, so the Seoul addition further acknowledges the city’s growing influence in the global art scene.

The next day, we meet up with Korean-American artist Mark Yang. Yang’s colorful, anatomical paintings focus on abstracted male nudes in various studies of movement. In many ways, the style is a product of his desire to be a sculptor, he says. “A lot of my paintings have a bit of a sculptural quality, and it’s because I think a lot about the planes, the dimension, and the space.” In depicting male nudes versus the historically gazed-upon female nude, his work inadvertently challenges gender norms. He was always interested in intimacy, the concept of sensuality versus sexuality, and an aspect of platonic touch that he feels is missing in today’s Western male society. In this way, Yang’s depictions of nude male figures physically engaged with one another confront our societal norms of who can be objectively studied — who can touch who.

We connect at Gwanghwamun — the main gate of the sprawling Gyeongbokgung Palace, completed in 1395 — a grand marker of Seoul’s new role as capital city after the founding of the Joseon dynasty. The opening to the ancient royal compound is lined with oxblood columns and topped by a double-tiered roof, ornately carved and painted in shades of green with gold Korean characters. We walk through the historic square, passing women in hanbok, the traditional Korean dress marked by voluminous baby doll–cut skirting and a wrap-style upper. Their figures dot the dusty expanse like spinning tops in shimmering shades of emerald, peach, and lilac.

Yang takes us to art hub Boan 1942, featuring an exhibit full of little mechanical robots engineered by artist Moonjung Hwang. The space is a raw, unrenovated former inn in the historic Bukchon Hanok Village. Upstairs is a slick store where I leaf through compact art books with technicolor covers. Next, we stumble upon a vintage shop at the end of an alley, Wish You Were Here, a treasure trove of delicate pieces with a tiny cafe tucked to the side. We continue to Barakat Contemporary, which Yang explains is an excellent example of a noncommercial gallery — meaning the art isn’t catering to buyers (no paintings or sculptures one could easily picture in their home). Instead, the large, stony setting features more experimental work, like sound art.

We end with dinner at Hwangsaengga Kalguksu for kalguksu, knife-cut noodles in a rich broth, beef-stuffed mandu (dumplings), and chilled bowls of red (spicy) and white (not spicy) kimchi. Slurping on floor mats over a low table, we discuss the unique qualities of Korean culture and identity — its pride and insularity, juxtaposed in equal parts by its warmth and hospitality. It’s all a bit foreign to me, having grown up in New York with a limited connection to my mother’s heritage — except for the food, of course. “I need to eat Korean food once a week,” I admit, “or else I get sick. Other foods begin to make me nauseous.” Yang bursts into laughter over his kalguksu. “That’s so Korean,” he chuckles.


In the district of Gangnam, an infamously high-octane area marked by bright lights, modern skyscrapers, ritzy shopping, and wild clubbing — there is an ancient Buddhist temple called Bongeunsa that dates back to 794 A.D. My mother and I enter this hushed pocket of history on one of our last days in Korea to the sound of Buddhist mantras echoing through the grounds. Passing under a canopy of white paper lanterns, we behold a 75-foot Buddha statue placidly watching over Seoul. I feel light-years away from the buzzing metropolis. And yet, this too represents the aura of the city, a place thick with layers of spirit.

I reflect on my conversation with Jane Lee. Looking ahead, she’s curious to see how Korean art will define itself in the market. She believes they are still in search of their set keyword, their “ism.” Dansaekhwa, an art movement rooted in monochrome minimalism, emerged after the war. That was 70 years ago. What’s next? Branding and self-promotion aren’t considered virtues in Korean culture. So identifying this keyword will be challenging. It’s another reason why, to her, there’s no coherent theme in the cultural assets making such a splash right now. “What is Korean about K-pop?” she asks. “What is Korean about the Korean movie? And then the attraction of the Korean movie is so different from the attraction of K-pop. Same for the food. These assets are captivating, but I cannot really connect the dots between all of them. There’s no grand keyword that we can attach ourselves to.”

There is a soul-stirring beauty though, I think to myself, in the idea of a country no bigger than the state of Kentucky, containing a dynamism too great to be labeled.

Where to Stay in Seoul, South Korea

  • Park Hyatt Seoul

    Slick and soothing, what I love most about this hotel is how, despite its size, it feels somewhat boutique. You enter through the ground floor between natural rock formations and go up an elevator to the lobby. Light-filled, with a glass wall interspersed with stone slabs, this main floor provides a chic “ahh” moment. The long hallways (a part of hotels that usually freak me out thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”), are oddly some of my favorite parts — lined in broad, light-wood panels, with glowing embedded displays of that same rock material enclosed in glass. With no direct light, fixtures are instead flush below the wooden lips of those wall panels, cloaking the ground in a warm glow. The rooms are vast, made seemingly larger via floor-to-ceiling windows and done in that same airy, creamy color palette of light wood and warm, indirect light.

  • Grand Hyatt Seoul

    Backdropped by Namsan Mountain, the grand lobby in this expansive hotel has soaring city views, a dazzling vantage point to stare out and forget to blink. A live band plays in the evenings and an incredible breakfast spread has a gorgeous array of Asian offerings from Korean to Chinese to Vietnamese (and Western options too, but honestly, who needs a bagel when there’s hot, savory, aromatic pho just waiting to awaken your soul). There’s also a massive outdoor pool, perfectly defining the concept of an urban oasis.

  • Josun Palace

    This new hotel undoubtedly reflects its name. Downright palatial, it’s a sparkling city unto itself. With dining halls under dizzyingly high ceilings, textures like high-gloss marble in veined whites, creams, blacks, and greens, gleam below opulent art deco light fixtures. Jewel-tone velvet couches provide perfect spots to nestle and ogle the views that overlook Seoul. The rooms, while reflecting a traditional luxe glamour, are state-of-the-art smart. In the closet is an impressive steam cleaner, almost like a fridge, where you insert your clothes to be sanitized and de-wrinkled. It’s the Samsung Bespoke AirDresser and it’s a godsend when you’ve been traveling for a while and want to refresh your clothes from the comfort of your room. It pretty much blew my mind. Many affluent South Korean families apparently come to Josun Palace for a staycation, and I can see why. One could easily remain quite happy within the property’s walls for days straight.

  • Park Hyatt Seoul

    Slick and soothing, what I love most about this hotel is how, despite its size, it feels somewhat boutique. You enter through the ground floor between natural rock formations and go up an elevator to the lobby. Light-filled, with a glass wall interspersed with stone slabs, this main floor provides a chic “ahh” moment. The long hallways (a part of hotels that usually freak me out thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”), are oddly some of my favorite parts — lined in broad, light-wood panels, with glowing embedded displays of that same rock material enclosed in glass. With no direct light, fixtures are instead flush below the wooden lips of those wall panels, cloaking the ground in a warm glow. The rooms are vast, made seemingly larger via floor-to-ceiling windows and done in that same airy, creamy color palette of light wood and warm, indirect light.

  • Josun Palace

    This new hotel undoubtedly reflects its name. Downright palatial, it’s a sparkling city unto itself. With dining halls under dizzyingly high ceilings, textures like high-gloss marble in veined whites, creams, blacks, and greens, gleam below opulent art deco light fixtures. Jewel-tone velvet couches provide perfect spots to nestle and ogle the views that overlook Seoul. The rooms, while reflecting a traditional luxe glamour, are state-of-the-art smart. In the closet is an impressive steam cleaner, almost like a fridge, where you insert your clothes to be sanitized and de-wrinkled. It’s the Samsung Bespoke AirDresser and it’s a godsend when you’ve been traveling for a while and want to refresh your clothes from the comfort of your room. It pretty much blew my mind. Many affluent South Korean families apparently come to Josun Palace for a staycation, and I can see why. One could easily remain quite happy within the property’s walls for days straight.

  • Grand Hyatt Seoul

    Backdropped by Namsan Mountain, the grand lobby in this expansive hotel has soaring city views, a dazzling vantage point to stare out and forget to blink. A live band plays in the evenings and an incredible breakfast spread has a gorgeous array of Asian offerings from Korean to Chinese to Vietnamese (and Western options too, but honestly, who needs a bagel when there’s hot, savory, aromatic pho just waiting to awaken your soul). There’s also a massive outdoor pool, perfectly defining the concept of an urban oasis.


AMERICAN EXPRESS® CARD MEMBER ACCESS

Fine Hotels + Resorts®

Grand Hyatt Seoul and Park Hyatt Seoul are Fine Hotels + Resorts properties. When you book with American Express Travel, you’ll receive an exclusive suite of benefits including daily breakfast for two, a $100 experience credit that varies by property, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and more. Plus, book on AmexTravel.com and you can earn 5X Membership Rewards® points, or use Pay with Points, on prepaid stays. Terms apply. Learn more here.

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Our Contributors

Sophie Mancini Writer

Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.

Jun Michael Park Photographer

Jun Michael Park is a Seoul-based photographer, videographer & producer. His work has been published in National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Monocle, among other publications. In April 2022, he became the first South Korean photographer to be named a National Geographic Explorer.

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