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Language and login selector end n° 10: KIAF, a new fair for a country in a rapid process of renewal

SEO, Schattenfänger, 2005, acrylic, paper, collage, canvas, 200x250 cm

Fernando Galán

KIAF (Korea International Art Fair) just celebrated its fourth edition with an (orderly) ambition, typical of the general attitude of the country during the last two decades. Korea, a traditionally peaceful, hard working and creative nation, developed a resourceful capacity for survival, for reasons of vital necessity, since it's a small country amid three customarily expansive powers: China, Russia and Japan (which annexed it from 1910 to 1945). A revealing fact little known in the West: Korea possesses one of the most rationally devised alphabets in the world, in addition to being of an absolutely exquisite aesthetic design. King Sejong the Great (1418-50), cultivated and refined, ordered its creation by a group of scholars who in this way put an end to the use of Chinese characters.

Kyung Ho Lee, Decalcomania negative-Sculpture of Light (1994-2004)© Gallery Sejul (Seúl / Seoul, Corea / Korea)

This illustrates to a large extent Korea's traditional efforts to preserve its identity, its enterprising and creative spirit and its disciplined capacity for work, which far from being strict and inflexible, is relaxed and carefree. All of this was reflected in the treatment received by a group of Europeans invited to the fair. Called "the largest art fair in the Far East," the motto speaks for itself, given the prominence that art produced in this region of the planet has enjoyed all over the world for years. The links that KIAF has forged with Germany were especially evident in the exhibitions it hosted, Contemporary German Art and Korea-Germany Digital Art, and because of the collaborative agreement reached with Gérard Goodrow, director of New Art-Art Cologne.

Nueva sede de la Galería Yeh, de siete pisos, que se inaugurará en octubre próximo / New location of the Yeh Gallery, to open next October. © Gallery Yeh (Seúl / Seoul, Corea / Korea)

126 galleries from the usual four continents attended, with work distributed evenly among the various media, with painting, which is in ascendance everywhere, enjoying an obvious hegemony. But the extensive presence of sculpture also struck me, if we include the whole group of broadly object-oriented work, above all among the Korean galleries, a consequence of the country's traditional fondness for this type of work. The exploration of technology still exerts a pull in the homeland of Nam June Paik, as demonstrated by artists like Kyung Ho Lee and U Ram Choe. The former had a huge space in his gallery's stand (Sejul), to display his interactive window, a screen which interacted with the spontaneous performance of the public in front of it. The allusions to the pictorial which the work encompasses in numerous ways is not casual. The latter is one of the most international artists of the very international Hyundai gallery. His work is characterized by the blending of biology and art (or vice versa?).

Burkhard Held, George (2005). Óleo sobre tela / Oil on canvas, 160x120 cm. © Baik Song Gallery (Seúl / Seoul, Corea / Korea)

Among the other most interesting galleries in Seoul are Bhak, Baiksong, and PKM. Bhak, with a splendid new three floor space in the city's most exclusive district (Cheongdam-dong) brought to the fair their 'golden trio': Chang-Young Kim (with his very original oil-on-sand-on-canvas pieces), Sup Ham (the master of 'pictorial accumulations of paper') y Shim Soo Koo (who has managed to elevate the skilled and painstaking work of bundled twigs to the category of the most suggestive contemporary art). It's curious to observe how these three artists combine the plant and mineral worlds. Following a visit to Soo Koo's studio, I thought his unique way of domesticating leftover multicolored paper, converting them into surfaces of an impeccably painterly appearance, could easily be referred to as "action papering," given that he too has managed to introduce traditional Korean paper craft into the realms of contemporary art. From the Baiksong gallery the delicate and poetic work of Lee Sun-Won stands out. It's based on assemblages of toothpicks on which he superimposes tiny shreds of paper (what talent the Koreans have for extracting from paper all its possibilities!) and which are hung directly and ascetically on the wall. Also outstanding are the German painter Burkhard Held with his powerful and schematic post-neo-impressionist portraits, and another enchanter of paper, Lee Sunwon. PKM made its usual commitment to photography with mostly works by Ham Jin.

Enthusiasm for artistic expansion in Seoul is well exemplified by the Yeh gallery, which will inaugurate their new space in October, a sculptural building seven stories high which will be the envy of many a museum. There was a clear predominance of Germans among the foreign galleries: Michael Schultz, whose stand was dedicated solely to painting (Lüpertz, SEO, Baselitz...); Alexander (with photographs by Kyungwoo Chun and paintings of Ik-Joong Kang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, Yang, clearly favoring their roster of Chinese artists from their second space opened recently in Beijing); Bemden & Klimczak, Die Galerie, Der Moderne... Surprising indeed is the Spanish name of the Korean gallery Bellarte, front line for Latin American art here, which features the work of Nelson Domíínguez, Zaida del Rio and David Alfaro Siqueiros, among many other Hispanic names.

The allocation of a million and a half dollars by the national government for buying art at the fair caused a certain surprise among the foreign participants…though it was only intended for national galleries. Korean collecting is just getting around to addressing some unfinished business, its excessive tendency for buying only local artists. In a modern a country as this one, which is making huge efforts to open up globally, this attachment to tradition is noteworthy. Because the point isn't to buy antiques and relics of your own past. Contemporary art has no nationalisms nor frontiers ( was the only 'foreign' magazine to have a stand at KIAF). © salamir creacion y arte, S.L.

This article is a contribution from the magazine
Fernando Galán is an art critic and independent curator. He is director and editor from

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