Seoul: Life in the Limelight
By Andy St. Louis
Full text also available in Chinese.
In March 2022, Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol was elected by the narrowest margin in Korean history—less than a single percentage point. The so-called “election of the unfavorables” was marked by the candidates’ divisive campaign strategies and inexperience in national politics, leaving both the conservative Yoon and his liberal opponent extremely unpopular among voters. Even before taking office, Yoon stirred up controversy by announcing an expensive relocation of the presidential office—at significant taxpayer expense—and struggled to keep his approval rating above 30 percent for the first several months of his term. Civic discontent has hardly abated since then, with the country’s inflation rate hitting a 24-year high in July and a string of North Korean ballistic-missile tests, beginning in late September, ratcheting up regional geopolitical tensions.
Despite the political and economic uncertainties wrought by the Yoon administration, the outlook for the Korean art world in 2022 was brimming with hope. The federal Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism allocated a record KRW 2.4 trillion (USD 1.8 billion) for culture, and the arts and the growth of Korea’s burgeoning art market continued to accelerate as increasing numbers of young collectors drove art spending to new heights. By the time Frieze Seoul touched down in September for its debut, Korea’s steadily simmering interest in contemporary art had reached a rolling boil. International galleries reported strong sales at the fair’s first edition in Asia, which included a sector of Frieze Masters presentations—spanning ancient artifacts, medieval manuscripts, European old masters paintings and 20th-century modernist artworks—as well as a sector for young galleries, with a dozen or so Korean galleries sprinkled throughout the fair. Staged simultaneously on a separate floor within the Coex Convention & Exhibition Center, the country’s premiere art fair, KIAF, attracted large numbers of local visitors, but failed to entice many international collectors with its offerings. The addition of a satellite fair under the KIAF umbrella known as KIAF+ did little to offset an unenviable disparity in sales figures compared to Frieze Seoul.
Throughout the year, international galleries continued to signal confidence in the Korean art market by opening brick-and-mortar locations in Seoul, including Gladstone, Esther Schipper, Tang Contemporary, and Duarte Sequeira. Meanwhile, first-wave Western galleries in Seoul consolidated their presences in the capital, as Perrotin opened a second gallery space in Gangnam in addition to its original outpost in the Samcheong-dong neighborhood; Lehmann Maupin relocated to a larger space in the trendy Hannam-dong, and Pace expanded its footprint by annexing a third floor of gallery space and adding a tea house and outdoor sculpture courtyard, making it the gallery’s largest operation aside from its New York headquarters.
While all this appears to bode well for Seoul’s contemporary art scene, questions remain about the long-term impact of such developments on the local art community. By and large, the international galleries operating here have focused on introducing blue-chip artists from overseas; Perrotin has only presented one solo exhibition by a Korean artist since opening here six years ago and Thaddaeus Ropac has held shows by white male artists since launching its Seoul gallery in late 2021. Meanwhile, domestic galleries doubled down on promoting Korean artists from their respective rosters in 2022, with notable presentations by historical artists like Yoo Youngkuk at Kukje Gallery (6/9–8/21) and Chung Chang-Sup at PKM Gallery (8/25–10/29) as well as Gallery Hyundai’s showcase of younger talents like Ayoung Kim (8/10–9/14) and Haneyl Choi, whose show “Manner” spanned P21 and Gallery2 (8/25–10/1).
A notable triumph among Seoul’s numerous contemporary art museums was the return of special exhibitions at Leeum Museum of Art, which had ceased its programming in 2017 amid escalating legal troubles for the museum’s founding director Hong Ra-hee, the wife of the late Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee. Although Leeum’s permanent collection—including numerous artworks and objects designated national treasures as well as deep holdings in modern and contemporary art—remained on view in the interim, Covid-19 precautions forced the museum to shut down completely in early 2020, followed by a large-scale renovation project which kept the doors closed for much longer. It was with great delight to the local art community that this venerable institution began to reclaim its position as the city’s premiere art museum with a slate of temporary exhibitions in 2022, including Ian Cheng’s “Worlding” (3/2–7/3), the artist’s first solo exhibition in Asia, and Leeum’s long-running Korean contemporary art showcase, Artspectrum (3/2–7/3).
Outside the Seoul metropolitan region, the Ulsan Museum of Art opened as the country’s first municipal museum devoted to media art and presented several major thematic group exhibitions bringing together Korean and international artists. Some 70 kilometers south, the 2022 Busan Biennale took shape under artistic director Haeju Kim with the curatorial theme “We, on the Rising Wave” (9/3–11/6). Interweaving the diverse histories of Busan, the city’s distinctive geography, and its inhabitants’ relationship to the sea, the exhibition extended beyond the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan to incorporate several alternative sites around the city, including a vacant warehouse in Busan Port, an abandoned factory on the shipyard-industrial island of Yeongdo, and a historic house in the hillside village of Choryang.
Despite the curatorial and conceptual promise of such projects beyond the financial and cultural center of Seoul, however, their physical distance from the capital nonetheless severely limits their long-term impact on the domestic art scene.
The question of whether Seoul will have staying power as a sustainable contemporary art hub in the region is up for debate. Some insiders see 2022 as a precursor of greater heights yet to come, while other conservative voices caution against speculation and a potential art-market bubble. By all accounts, however, Seoul is certainly a city to keep an eye on in the year to come, may it bring boom or bust.
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