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Language and login selector end No. 16: What’s going on in…Seoul? - (the role of sustainable evolution)

Little known in the West, eclipsed during centuries by its three historically bellicose and expansionist neighbors (China, Japan and Russia), peace-loving Korea is living an epoch of spectacular development (in the arts as well), whose principle catalyst is the collective enthusiasm of its citizens, conscious of the leading role they exercise in the Far East and throughout the world, and whose origin can be located in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. The situation reminds me of Spain in the decade of the 80s (the years of the culturally effervescent movida), when we were convinced that “those who crave do more than those who can.” Korea, now, both craves and can.

Seoul, with its 14 million inhabitants (a third the population of the country as a whole) is actually, in geographical and sociological terms, two cities separated by the ample Han river: to the north, the city proper, though modernized in the extreme and with few remnants of the past; and to the south the newly constructed Seoul, created over the past 30 years but now just as extensive as the first and characterized by surprising, cutting edge, sculptural and cyclopean architecture. Seoul is many cities, if we consider conceptual, physiognomic, urbanistic and aesthetic aspects, as well as the differences among its inhabitant’s generations. The city’s youth worships the culture of the underground malls and fast food, precisely in a country where nature is abundant (even in Seoul) and the traditional gastronomy is a basic ritual which underlies serene but intense personal relations.

This extremely rapid and accelerated development is destroying many things, not just the neighborhoods filled with examples of traditional architecture, which are being replaced by the building of spectacular steel and glass skyscrapers, but also customs and idiosyncrasies. It’s the artists, logically, who seem to be most sensitive to the risks of this forced, even rather unnatural metamorphoses, because in Korean art there’s a very interesting hybridization and balance between tradition and modernity, both formal and conceptual, that’s more evident than in any other Far Eastern country (at least in my personal experience). In Japan, for instance, art is more radical and reflects the profound generational and temperamental tensions of the population, following instead the path of revolution. Contemporary Chinese art, for its part, reflects, as is logical and inevitable, the country’s political tensions and the collective stress provoked by the accelerated and atypical economic, (political?), sociological and cultural development.

But in Seoul, where the majority of Korea’s artistic activity is centered and where revolutionary changes are produced in all sorts of things, art has mostly adapted an evolutionary path. That’s the case with Do-Ho Suh, who builds bridges, with that special Korean refinement, between the culture of his native country and that of the United States, where he’s lived and worked for many years. From a Western perspective, most likely abusive (but which gives us an idea), Seoul in general, with the exception of certain individuals, can be considered to have passed from the Middle Ages (which continued its secular tradition) to Modernity in just a few decades. It’s similar to what previously occurred in Japan and which is happening now in China. The strange thing is the evolutionary path which it’s chosen, without raising a ruckus and almost on tiptoe, as it were, avoiding all revolutionary flag-waving. The example of Nan June Paik, who in the beginning didn’t break violently with the past and who in the 60s played center-field on the revolutionary Fluxus team, undoubtedly influenced and inspired his compatriots, but in a slow and measured way, as he’d since signed to New York’s club and it took a while before his game became known in his native land.

This recent arrival at the gates of modernity is revealed in the fabric of Korea’s art world (the infrastructure of galleries and museums and the policies which govern general trends and attitudes), which is still taking shape, though its individual parts exhibit a distinct hyperactivity, not unlike an utterly benign cancer. A good part of the initiative comes from the private sector, such as the Leeum, Jumho and Sung Kok museums, while there are just two important public museums, both in Seoul: the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which has considerable holdings, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is just starting its collection.

The Leeum, or Samsung Museum, opened just two years ago; its odd name (the equivalent of the Lee Museum) has its origins in the powerful company’s founder, Mr. Lee. I’d say that a visit there is just about worth a trip half-way around the world. It consists of three magnificent buildings, the work of architects Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas. Botta’s, with its spectacular inverted cone driven into the hillside, contains the source of the Samgung family’s vocation, an exquisite and formidable collection of antique Korean art: ceramics, painting, calligraphy, and metal work. The iconic status of the pieces, and the curatorial refinement with which they’re displayed, let’s us convince ourselves that we’ve learned about the entire evolution of Korea’s culture, from pre-history to the dawn of the 20th century. Koolhaas’s edifice, transparent in all senses of the word, accommodates one of the Leeum’s main objectives: the Center for Childhood Education, and the rooftop of one of its wings features a garden that combines the aesthetics of Zen with a breath-taking sculpture by Calder. Nouvel’s somber contribution houses the contemporary art collection, small and very good; that is, doubly good. Highlights include some of the best work by Rothko, Hirst, Beuys and Barney. Among Koreans, the same goes for Paik, Kim Whan-Ki and Park Soo-Keun. A good example of the exclusive nature of the Leeum as a whole, (and the functioning of Seoul’s art world in general) is that no visits are allowed without reservations two weeks previously, and limited to groups of a maximum of four people.

There are numerous artists who employ traditional Korean techniques utilizing paper with absolutely contemporary idioms. Sup Ham, for instance, who recycles the residue of old paper, pulping it energetically until a rigid, multicolor cellulose paste is obtained, which he then uses to create his “paintings.” As a parallel to Pollock’s action paintings, with their glazes and impasto, and witnessing the apparent physical and mental automatism of Ham while at work, I felt that I was in the presence of the creator of “action papering.” The finished works of Sunwon Lee look like they’ve suffered an inverse process of wear and tear and erosion; they’re like the small remains of a primitive and fragile tent made with a structure of fine branches and covered with paper damaged by the wind and turned to shreds. When you look closely at SEO’s pieces, you’re surprised to discover that what seemed like paintings are actually collages of multi-hewed paper. Jai-Kwan Kim uses acrylics to simulate three-dimensional geometric paper figures on canvas. And Kwang-Young Chun’s world-famous aggregations, which are small (and in this case) real geometric forms made of paper, arranged on a panel so that they represent abstractions as well as enigmatic and disquieting figures.

As for those using other techniques and media, standouts include Kyung Ho Lee’s magical technology; Kim Chang Young’s oils, painted on a sand base which look more like actual sand than like paintings; Hyejin Chung’s photos; the work of Soo Koo Shim, difficult to categorize and one of the best paradigms of that Korean hybridization between tradition and modernity, a symbiosis between picture and installation (both floor and wall), and made from thousands of twigs from the tiny branches of bushes that he himself grows in his studio-farm in the countryside. So-Young Choi is renowned for his figurative compositions made from scraps of denim.

The way galleries work is, generally speaking, quite different from how they work in he West: several of the most important don’t have a regular schedule of shows, but act as art dealers on a permanent basis, while mounting only a few shows a year, functioning as though they were small private museums, but museums that are constantly showing (and selling) their collections. That’s the case of the Bhak gallery, with its large, three story space in the middle of South Seoul’s most chic neighborhood. New gallery The Columns is also located there, and is owned by Dong Jo Chang, one of the city’s pioneers in working with contemporary and international artists, and also highly active in bringing them to the attention of the rest of the world. Brimming with imagination and initiative, Dong Jo used to be director and promoter of public arts projects in Seoul’s subway system, which included the project titled Wow, in which, during five months, 700,000 people traveled in an underground train loaded with high-tech art, Chang’s real passion. Other of the city’s more prestigious and interesting galleries are Hyundai (often seen at international art fairs), Baiksong, PYO, Cais, pkm (mainly focused on photography), Mee, Yeh and Sejul.

The most promising and enthusiastic international launch pad, however, is the city’s art fair, KIAF, which celebrated its fifth edition last May. Organized by the Korean Association of Galleries, it featured the participation of 150 galleries from 13 countries and four continents, the majority of them Korean, Japanese and Chinese; but the fair also attracted the by now customary presence of German, French and Spanish galleries. The event includes a curated exhibition dedicated to a featured country. In 2005 it was Germany, this year it was the turn of France, while next year Spain will be the invited country. What makes the exhibition approach unusual is that it’s in reality an amalgam, a dialogue between Korean artists and artists from the invited country. This year’s show was titled Paris-Seoul. Although local collecting is centered on a preference for national artists, the fair is going to great lengths to acquaint the country with European names, and the majority of foreign galleries repeat their attendance. As part of the city’s (and the country’s as a whole) apparent eagerness to reduce geographical distances in order to bridge the gap between Korea on the one hand and Europe and America on the other, KIAF injects a large dose of energy and financial resources into its VIP and collector’s programs.

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