9 amazing days in Korea. 2 palaces from the Joseon dynasty. 4 Buddhist temples. 24 hours in Busan. At least 3 bottles of soju, plus unquantifiable makkoli, mekju, cider, mango beer, gin-based cocktails (and 1 Spritz!). The list could go on, but I’ve decided to summarise my experience of South Korea by describing 4 art exhibitions I visited. I think they are good encapsulations of Korean culture, history, society and, most importantly, beauty.
Lee Jung Seob at National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Deoksugung)
Lee Jung Seob, ‘Bull’ (1953)
Located inside the Deoksugung Palace complex, the MMCA Deoksugung museum offers the perfect venue for the retrospective of Korean artist Lee Jung Seob (1916-1956). Celebrating the centenary of his birth, the exhibition encompasses the production of one of the finest and most famous Korean artists.
A recurrent subject of his works is the bull, an animal charged with symbolic meaning for Koreans, especially for its resilience and strength. Jung Seob’s fascination with bulls fleshes out the notion of han, a concept in Korean culture, very imprecisely translated as ‘resentment’ or ‘helplessness’. Han is engrained in the heart of the nation, due to their history as a subjected people. But han also resonates in Jung Seob’s works as a result of his troubled life, a life of self-doubt, separation from his family, acute depression, anorexia, and poverty.
His art gives full expression to his frustration and suffering, but also to his tender feelings for his wife and children, emerging from his numerous children and family scenes and in the postcards and letters he used to send home. In one section of the exhibition, the visitors are invited to draw or write a letter to someone they yearn for. I felt that was a clever way to get the audience engaged, and make them pause and reflect on what it means to be separated from one’s beloved ones. Almost cathartic at times, the exhibition condenses well the spirit of a nation and the tormented life of an artist.
SV + VS | Sonifying Visuals + Visualizing Sounds at DDP Gallery MUN
Radically different, the exhibition ‘Sonifying Visuals + Visualising Sounds’ at the DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza) speaks of a different side of South Korea: creativity and technology. Technology is at the heart of the exponential economic development the country has experienced in the last few decades. We only need to think of multinationals like Samsung and Hyundai, which are family-run financial empires – chaebol in Korean. Even walking around Seoul, smartphones and LD screens are everywhere. At the same time, the economic growth would have been unthinkable without fresh and new ideas. Thus I believe that creativity and inventiveness are also part of South Korean culture, and are to be found in this exhibition as much as technological inventions.
‘Sonifying Visuals + Visualising Sound’ is a small, but inspiring assemblage of works exploring the notion of intermediality between aural and visual. It reminded me of exhibitions such as ‘Soundscapes’ at the National Gallery or ‘Tate Sensorium’ at Tate Britain. Here, the emphasis is specifically on the intersection between sounds and images, raising intriguing questions. How does it feel to read a text in one language and to hear it read out loud in another? What does Alvo Pärt’s album ‘Für Alina’ look like in 3D? How does your face sound? Can one recreate the birth of the universe by using sounds and images?
The exhibition imports ideas belonging to non-visual artistic disciplines into a gallery space. In the words of curator Yoon C Han ‘artists are pushing the boundaries of their multi-sensory artworks’. Indeed, artists need constant inspiration for their works, and in this case the external input is provided by music. And their experimentation leads to stimulating as well as aesthetically appreciable results.
New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio at D MUSEUM
UK Pavilion at Shanghai World Expo 2010, designed by Katerina Dionysopoulou for Heatherwick Studio
Creativity is also at the heart of the design exhibition at the D Museum, which showcases the works of London-based Heatherwick Studio. The London design company is famous for its visionary approach of thinking, making and storytelling. Its credo is to go from a single idea to its actual realisation, devising the best way to go from the former to the latter.
The studio works across a wide variety of sectors, from product design to architecture, from transport to infrastructure. Incidentally, I found out they are the studio responsible for the design of the new London buses. The common feature of the Heatherwick Studio projects is the will to combine beauty and creativity with functionality and usability. In many ways, this is what Korean companies do all the time, everyday. Furthermore, ‘New British Inventors’ is the tangible proof that South Korea is fully incorporated in the world of globalisation, and that western design is just at home there as in London, Paris, New York, Shanghai, or Singapore.
Korea Artist Prize 2016 at National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Seoul)
Kim Eull, ‘Galaxy’ (2016)
Ham Kyungah, ‘Soccer Painting by the Soccer Ball Bouncing Over Crocodile River’ (2016)
To get an idea of the contemporary art scene in Korea, we visited the Korea Artist Prize 2016 exhibition, opened on 31st August. Hosted inside the MMCA Seoul museum are the works of the four finalists of the most prestigious art prize of the country. The diversity of media was incredible, from two-storey building within the gallery space (!) to minuscule photographs.
My favourite artwork was ‘Galaxy’ by Kim Eull, a huge collation of drawings (1,450 to be precise) arranged on a black wall in the shape of a galaxy. Powerful as an ensemble, the individual drawings are also wonderful to contemplate one by one. The work speaks of an explosiveness of creativity, of the expansion of existence that takes place every time art is produced, just like it happened during the Big Bang. Eull seems to be saying that the artist has the power to expand the boundaries of this world, by contributing new ideas to the universe, by creating fascinating new assemblages of reality. That creativity plays a crucial role in Eull’s work is also clear from the life-size art studio he has recreated in the first room of the gallery. His studio/artwork is a space encompassing all his creative energy, ready to explode and materialise into specific artworks.
Another personal favourite was the performance-installation by Ham Kyungah, which brings together political themes with visual potency. The work, called ‘Soccer Painting by the Soccer Ball Bounding Over Crocodile River’, is a miniature white football field, which has been action-painted by a North Korean teenager who escaped his country to become a footballer. Above the field is a video showing the boy kicking around the ball smeared with paint, which bounces on every surface and leaves colourful traces everywhere. I loved not only the chromatic force of the final work, but also the power of the artwork to materialise abstract elements: the determinacy of the boy, and his capacity to dream big takes the physical shape of colourful marks on a white surface. Kyungah exploits the potential art has to unveil reality, to ‘expose the layers of meaning that are hidden within the ostensibly smooth surface of reality’.
Featured image: Lee Jung Seob, ‘Children on the Seashore’ (1952-3)