by Andy St. Louis
Seoul Olympic Park
Ongoing thru November 21
Opening hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am- 6 pm (5 pm on Sundays)
Admission: Adults 3,000 won, students 2,000 won, children 1,000 won
Subway: Line 8, Mongchontoseong, Exit 1
Tel: 02 425 1077
I’ll start right off with a confession: I love drawings. I always have. I can’t quantify my enthusiasm or explain my attraction to the medium without being overly verbose; there’s an endearing quality to the lack of polish inherent in works on paper, a certain intimacy that gets lost in slick sculptures and highly worked-up paintings. Photography is the result of a long process of careful composition, exact exposure, and deliberate development. Even video works—even those that come across as super lo-fi or amateur in style—retain an inescapable “production value” that can be isolating for viewers. Drawings, however, maintain a sort of primitive resonance within me that is always fresh (if not necessarily clean).
As an exhibition featuring the development of the avant-garde in Korean art history, Soma Museum of Art’s “Korean Avant-Garde Drawing, 1970- 2000” is not one for fair-weather museum-goers. Indeed, in sharp contrast to the museum’s blockbuster “Pop: Art Superstar Keith Haring” show earlier in the year, the current show demands an active engagement with the work and an eye for bizarre, the technical, and occasionally the ridiculous.
Taking the year 1970 as a jumping-off point for an investigation of Korean modern and contemporary art is fitting, as the Hermit Kingdom was struggling to rebuild—both physically and psychologically—during the aftermath of the Korean War in the mid- to late-1950s, while in the 1960s, the local art scene was trending toward normalization with the rest of the world, in line with the country’s efforts to redefine itself according to standards of the then- dominant world order. The 1970s and 80s, then, was the perfect climate for a national avant- garde movement to take hold, with Cold War-era systems breaking down and paradigm shifts occurring on a large scale.
Depicting the “mindscape” of Korean art is powerful way to illustrate the sea change that revolutionized the art scene in Korea during the 1970s and 80s. One of the most literal illustrations of these changes can be seen in a series by Kong Sung-hun, which appropriates definitions from various English dictionaries of the words “art,” “life,” “masturbation” and “masterpiece,” reproduced in gilted typeface on black canvases. This group of works, which draws attention to certain words repeatedly found in the definitions of the four key terms above (hand, achieve[ment], em[body], action, climax/orgasm) is a visual cross-reference of changing value systems and semantic redundancies, as evidenced in the English language, a linguistic system that was transforming the ways in which Koreans perceived the world. The artist’s reflection on ideas of language, art, and value are testament to the meditations of an artist enveloped in a culture trying to define itself within the context of a rapidly changing world.
Another factor that informed the avant-garde art that flourished in Korea in the latter decades of the twentieth century was Korea’s rapid modernization. One need only look to the largely uninspiring architecture that sprang up throughout the country during this time to see that the realization of Korean urbanization and industrialization took precedence over large-scale planning or aesthetic concerns. The inevitable result of the “miracle on the Han River,” at least for the younger generation, was the realization of an almost palpable gap between the cerebral ideal of a modern Korea and the reality lived by its citizens. Perhaps not surprisingly, architecture plays a major role throughout the exhibition, finding a place in works across the show’s various thematic divisions.
The most readily available example of the dichotomy between these two very different Koreas is the development associated with the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games. To pull back the curtain on the proverbial wizard, Soma curator Park Youn-jeoung installed renderings found in the archives of the architecture department of KSPO, the organization behind the infrastructure development of the Seoul Games (and the central operating body behind the Soma Museum of Art). These blueprints act as a solvent to separate the real and imagined in the creative minds of the architects of the Olympics, as conceived in the years leading up to the event. What is most notable in these works, in contrast with nearly every other piece in the show, is the artist’s deliberate absence. As official working documents for venues affiliated with the Seoul Games rather than artistic interpretations of what the spaces mean on a personal level, Park casts light onto the processes of urban development as catalysts for economic gain. This gaze leaves the work sterile and soulless, indicative of the free-thinking individual’s sense of marginalization in the country’s march toward socio-political independence.
A third key theme present in the exhibition is that of the rejection of tradition modes of expression in Korean art. As hinted at above, it should be noted that the artists leading the avant-garde movement in Korea were for the most part born in the 1960s—after the war—and went through their formative years in a time when the notions and traditions of the past were given a backseat to the promises of the future. This phenomenon finds its voice in the abstract art that emerged in the 1970s and 80s, in works by artists such as Lee Kun-yong, Chang Hwa- jin, and Suh Seung-won. Though Korea’s art history is quite rich, particularly in the fields of ceramics and painting, these artists used abstraction and drawing as ways to turn their backs on the artistic practices of their ancestors and carve out their own niche in the avant-garde scene that developed under their influence. Lee’s 신체 드로잉 (Body Drawing) (1985) Chang’s 무제 (Untitled) (1982), and Suh’s 동시성 (Concurrency) (1983) completely abandon traditional aesthetic sensibilities, yet maintain their relevance and allure through their sensual technique.
Exhaustive in scale and depth, Soma Museum of Art’s latest exhibition is a testament to the spirit of the avant-garde in Korean art. In presenting such a thorough survey of the beginnings and development of a movement which for so long defined the artistic practice on the peninsula, this exhibition does a great service to students of Korean art history as well as those with an outsider perspective. Blockbuster exhibition it is not; and yet, that is precisely what makes the show so appealing. “Korean Avant-Garde Drawing, 1970-2000” is an illuminating look at the paradoxical cultural development of South Korea at a key moment in its history, through a medium that communicates the immediacy of the vision of those who perhaps understood it most intimately.