Feb 15 2011

Wonil Rhee (1960–2011)

by Hanae Ko

The late WONIL RHEE in a courtyard in midtown Manhattan, New York, 2007. Photo by Alis Atwell for ArtAsiaPacific.

Wonil Rhee, an influential Korean curator and advocate of Asian contemporary art, died on January 11 following a heart attack at his residence in Seoul. He was 50 years old.

Born on November 2, 1960, in Seoul, Rhee studied painting and art history at Chung-Ang University before completing his master’s degree at New York University in 1987. After returning to Korea, he worked as chief curator at the Total Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sungkok Art Museum and the Seoul Museum of Art. In 2000, Rhee was appointed the managing director of exhibition for the third Gwangju Biennale, and the artistic director of Media City Seoul in 2002 and 2006. His curatorial endeavors soon extended abroad, with exhibitions at international venues such as the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, the Zendai Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai, and the Poznan Museum in Poland. In the late 2000s, he was involved in several projects in China, where he co-curated the 2006 Shanghai Biennale, as well as a major exhibition of German Expressionists at the Zendai MoMA, and a Julian Schnabel retrospective at Beijing’s World Art Museum in 2007.

That year, Rhee also co-curated the critically acclaimed “Thermocline of Art: New Asian Waves,” a landmark survey of Asian contemporary art, featuring more than 100 artists from 18 Asian countries, and held at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. Although the exhibition included several internationally renowned artists who are based in the West, Rhee focused primarily on presenting emerging artists who still live in their home countries, which included participants not only from China, Korea and Japan, but also from areas such as Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Laos, Myanmar and Uzbekistan—a curatorial choice that was driven by his desire to show art that “reveals different values and criteria than Western art or the art that is produced for a Western art market.”

More recently, Rhee was artistic director of the Digifesta Media Art Festival in Gwangju, in April 2010, which featured works by over 30 international artists, and hosted a special exhibition of Nam June Paik with 50 pieces of previously unseen works from the artist’s personal archive. He was also part of the curatorial team of the inaugural Nanjing Biennale, which took place in late October 2010, and exhibited emerging Chinese artists alongside local and international luminaries, such as Zeng Fanzhi and Marina Abramovic.

In January, ZKM commemorated Rhee’s passing with a series of dedicated pages on their website. “His sudden death is a real loss for the art world,” wrote ZKM chairman and CEO Peter Weibel, who was also a co-curator of “Thermocline of Art.” In his heartfelt message Weibel eulogizes Rhee as “an outstanding person, a passionate lover of art, a global traveler and a brilliant curator,” who “offered a very fresh unconventional look at Asian art.” In a separate page, numerous colleagues, friends and family members have left messages of condolences, including Czech new-media artist Michael Bielicky who writes, “What a spirit, what a mind. He inspired everybody who was around him. He was a shining universe and he will remain like this in our memory.”