The modern image of Seoul belies a complex history of colonialism, war, reconstruction, military government and rapid industrialization. Successive renewals of Seoul’s urban fabric since the 1960s have meant significant tracts of the city have quickly disappeared, becoming the stuff of memory, and sometimes leading to a sense of anxiety for its inhabitants.
Some recent Korean art collectives have tried to expose the effect of such rapid, ongoing urban transformations on Seoul and its inhabitants. The artist collective flyingCity initiated “Drifting Producers” in 2004, a project that included interviews and collaborations with street vendors who were being forced out of the Cheong’gye area, in central Seoul, by the reconstruction of a stream as part of an urban renewal initiative. Listen to the City, another Seoul-based collective, has developed seminars, tour programs and archival research projects, such as Seoul Tours (2010), confronting similar issues. On the other hand, Part-time Suite address the survival of art and people in cities by temporarily occupying urban spaces with site-specific projects. For “off-off stage,” in 2009, they occupied a vacant plot of land in the center of Seoul, transforming it into a “stage” at night by erecting a screen-like wall between it and a neighboring plot. Visitors could explore the dark plot with torches in hand, becoming performers enacting the uncertainty of what the future might hold for such increasingly rare vacant, undetermined urban spaces. Meanwhile, in work such as Mon grand récit: because everything . . . (2005), world-renowned Korean artist Lee Bul has also reflected on notions of urban utopia, as well as her own personal memories of Seoul, in sculptural constructions reminiscent of architectural models.
Two parallel phenomena emerged in Seoul’s art scene amid the developments of the mid to late 1990s: the establishment of new contemporary art museums, such as Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (originally named Hoam Gallery) and the Artsonje Center; and the proliferation of smaller, often artist-run, alternative spaces such as Loop and Pool. Alongside these private initiatives, the government also invested in fostering Seoul’s international presence, through support for exhibitions such as the Seoul International Media Art Biennale (known as Media City Seoul), launched at the Seoul City Museum in 2000—one of the three major Korean biennials, after those in Gwangju and Busan. Meanwhile, both local and national government support has been directed at young and emerging artists, as well as the small alternative spaces that tend to nurture their practices. As a result of receiving support, smaller alternative institutions, such as Loop, Pool and even the seminal Ssamzie Space (whose art projects ended in 2008), began to develop more ambitious programs, occupy larger spaces and become better known.
The city’s transient environment has been further complicated by once up-and-coming locations now experiencing commercial success, increasing property values. In the Mapo-gu area, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art has reactivated its temporary exhibitions program, with a solo show by Christian Marclay, and “Korean Rhapsody: A Montage of History and Memory,” a historical exhibition. This area, not only includes Hongik University, home to one of Korea’s premier art departments, but it also has attracted new gallery spaces, such as KT&G Sangsangmadang. Yet this phenomenon is a double-edged sword, as the area’s appeal, in turn attracting cafes and fashion boutiques, has increased rents, forcing artists to relocate their studios to places such as Mullae-dong in the southwest of the city, or beyond.
Given the swift success of its arts initiatives, government policy has shifted its support to new infrastructures, such as small local art centers incorporating exhibition spaces and artist residencies. In addition to the nationally run studios at Goyang and Changdong, there are now new spaces such as Seoul Art Space Geumcheon, run by the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, featuring nine studios for local artists and seven for overseas artists. Meanwhile, the National Museum of Contemporary Art’s new building is due to open in 2013, at the former Defense Security Command in the heart of Seoul. However, as such investments demand large visitor numbers for validation, organizers tend to dedicate significant parts of their programming to blockbuster exhibitions.
Despite the art scene often being included in recent urban initiatives, having social and political factors determining outcomes is possibly cause for concern, as politicians tend to pursue their own strategic ends. Yet often it is the unexpected outcomes that highlight the dynamism of a city such as Seoul. The current situation, which has seen the ongoing fulfillment of government and commercial interests in the art scene, makes one wonder what opportunities lie ahead for individual and alternative practices.