If the prospect of an academic conference on Korean contemporary art in London, held from June 29 to July 1, courtesy of the Suum Global Curatorial Project Office and the Courtauld Institute of Art, seemed a little unlikely (and the bland choice of title somewhat misleading), the result proved enjoyable and productive, revealing the strength and depth of current research while highlighting fresh areas for debate.
The emergence of Korean practice in the contemporary art world is usually associated with two artists, Nam June Paik (1932–2006) and Lee Ufan (b. 1936), who remained points of reference during the conference as well as the subjects of a paper on the spiritual origins of the country’s contemporary art by Chandong Kim of the Arts Council Korea. Kim emphasized the importance of engaging with local circumstances—in this instance, a cultural background that mingled Buddhism, Confucianism and Shamanism—rather than resorting to glib, pan-national comparisons.
Similar concerns were evident throughout the three-day conference. Claims of national cultural specificity can seem like special pleading, particularly in this instance, when the artistic influences being disparaged came from Japan and the United States, with their convoluted relationships with the Korean Peninsula, and where Lee and Paik chose to pursue most of their artistic careers. As the conference unfolded, however, it became clear that there has been an astonishing surge in research over the last ten years, which has uncovered a depth to South Korean experimental art in the latter half of the 20th century that has yet to receive sufficient acknowledgement.
A particularly affecting talk by Inhye Kim of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, looked at the troubled lives of three artists born between 1900 and 1916. Two from the south of the country, Unsoung Pai (1900–78) and Que-de Lee (1913–65), studied variously in Japan, Germany and France before World War II. They returned to Seoul in 1939 and 1940, respectively, but ended up in North Korea in the 1950s for reasons that remain unclear, although ideology seems to have played a role. The other, Wolryong Byon (1916–90), from Primorsky Krai, a border area within the Soviet Union, taught at the Academy of Arts in Leningrad but was prevented from traveling to North Korea following the Sino-Soviet split of 1960. Only in October 1988 was a ban on the discussion of such artists lifted in South Korea, and, with their peripatetic career trajectories and rapidly evolving styles, research remains difficult but, on this evidence, rich in promise.
A number of contributors concentrated on art in South Korea from 1960 to 1975. This period has been characterized as something of a fallow one, bookmarked by the European-influenced abstraction of the 1950s Informel movement and the more formalist approach of the 1970s Monochrome movement, which sought a renewed engagement with Korean traditions and spirituality. Countering this perception, Joan Kee of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, emphasized the importance of materiality in the early works of Lee Seung-Taek (b. 1932), both in his exploration of folk objects and in his “non-sculptural” installations, while Chunghoon Shin from the State University of New York, Binghamton, critiqued the avant-garde film The Meaning of One Twenty-Fourth of A Second (1969) by Kim Ku-lim, placing its disorienting representation of a mechanized urban life in relation to contemporary plans for megastructural development in Seoul.
Hui Kyung An of the Courtauld investigated Korean avant-garde collectives from 1967 to 1973, portraying a small, incestuous yet vibrant community, initially centered around the diverse, if short-lived, experimentalism of the AG Group, and which survived despite political restrictions and public indifference. A useful broader perspective on Korean art’s path to global success was provided by Jiyoon Lee of Suum, through an investigation of changing curatorial approaches to its international display from the 1960s to the 2000s. The relative youth of research into the subjects under discussion also resulted in an enjoyably robust sharing of opinions, information and, in the case of Jeongmu Yang’s talk on Bahc Yiso (1957–2004), personal reminiscences from attendees about Minor Injury, the pioneering artist’s ramshackle alternative space in New York in the mid-1980s.
Despite a strong selection of artists’ talks from Meekyoung Shin, Duck Hyun Cho and Yeondoo Jung, touching on issues of cultural translation in particular, the conference did not entirely realize the contemporary element of its brief. In some respects this is to be welcomed. The organizers sought not merely to celebrate the current success of Korean artists at biennials and exhibitions worldwide but also to provide the context and substance necessary to allow a much fuller understanding of this phenomenon. A publication is promised, and there are also aspirations to make the event an annual one, either or both of which would be welcome steps to ensuring that the compelling promise of this gathering is fulfilled.