Art Scene: Seoul
With international galleries descending at a furious pace and Frieze Art Fair arriving in September, the South Korean capital is increasingly seen as a hub for blue-chip art business. A dangerous designation in this fickle industry, to be sure.
König, Thaddaeus Ropac, Peres Projects, and Gladstone have all opened in the past year, joining foreign peers like Perrotin, Pace, and Lehmann Maupin. Other high-flyers have reps on the ground, and rumours circulate regularly about additional dealers taking an interest in the city.
As a professional gallerygoer, the expanding range of offerings is glorious. The widespread hope is that a fight for collectors and eyeballs will lead to some excitement in a commercial sector that is sometimes derided as staid. Gladstone’s Seoul director, HeeJin Park, formerly of the local powerhouse Kukje, proposed in the Art Newspaper that “local galleries need to wake up, learn to compete with the real deal, and survive the market change.”
Samcheong-dong and a couple other tony areas are home to Seoul’s most established players, like Kukje, Hyundai, PKM, Arario, and Gana, who show celebrated figures from both Korea and abroad. Meanwhile, all over town, there is a growing number of dealers who are working with untested local artists and supporting them over the long haul. These firms – some newer, some older – include P21, Gallery2, Whistle, One and J., Gallery Kiche, and Various Small Fires, which has also hosted foreigners like High Art and C L E A R I N G.
Beyond this market melee, the Seoul art world has formidable museum infrastructure and a robust line-up of freewheeling spaces run by artists, curators, and true believers.
Korean politicians – and corporate captains of industry – have rapidly established exhibition halls. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) has two branches in the capital and another just south of the city, in Gwacheon – a sprawling space, made all the better by the fact that, from the train, you can ride a chairlift across a lake to its doorstep. The Seoul Museum of Art has a half dozen buildings. Samsung has its treasure-filled Leeum museum, cosmetics giant Amorepacific a David Chipperfield-designed one, and the conglomerate Doosan an art centre devoted to young artists. Luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Hermès mount shows in their emporiums. And all of this is just scratching the surface.
On the other end of the spectrum, the bevy of scrappy non-profit entities that run on shoestring, modest, or non-existent budgets is thrilling. Some do not exist for long, but while they do, they are where risks get taken. Intriguingly, some of these hothouse, fly-by-night spaces receive government support, and I have found myself in grant-supported efforts (one, absolutely pornographic) that would make bureaucrats in, say, New York run for cover.
One night a few months back, the artist Rondi Park could be found at White Noise, cowboy hat atop her head and microphone in hand, singing a Korean karaoke version of Billy Joel’s “Honesty” and breaking into tears before a small masked crowd. Hanging on the walls was her solo show of sly ceramics, paintings, and fabric constructions, a characteristically winsome outing for this raw basement space in Seocho run by Jungmin Cho. She and artist friends originally used it as a studio; when the friends moved out in 2018, she started organising all manner of projects. The five-year-old Out Sight, in Hyehwa-dong, was Sangjin Kim’s studio until he converted it into an exhibition space that he runs with Jinho Lim and Yeonji Lee. Heady projects abound. Last year, Huh Need-you, aka Dew Kim, aka HornyHoneydew, staged a kind of alluring, tech-infused BDSM dungeon, replete with jail bars, hypnotic videos, and metal cock cages.
Amid many fresh non-commercial spaces, Museumhead is among the newest – and perhaps the best-looking, with a shallow outdoor pool (often bearing sculpture) out front. Started in 2020 by Yoo Soo Jin – whose high-end tea brand, Delphic, occupies the second floor of the former restaurant – and curator Kwon Hyukgue, it has been presenting ambitious group affairs. “Bony”, curated by sculptor Haneyl Choi, brought together piquant material by nine artists – all gay men – including an intricate painting on shaped silk panels by Grim Park. At its centre is a disrobed young man bleeding out from his chest as a baby tiger gnaws at what appears to be his heart.
A short walk from the Miari red light district in north-eastern Seoul, Saga has been uncorking one tautly installed show after another since it started in a modest storefront in January of 2021. One such show, curated by writer Hayoung Chung, included a brushy and bewitching full-length nude portrait of a woman by You Hyeonkyeong and a sculpture by Gim Yeonjae: a barnacle-covered man emerging from the floor with a furry gas mask strapped to his face, which continues to haunt me. Saga is helmed by a triumvirate of curators – Yoojin Kang (of the new Ulsan Museum of Art in that southern port city), Taehyun Kwon (of Amado Art Space in Seoul’s Hannam-dong), and the independent Sunghwan Park. Two subway stops to the south is Wess, another one-room venue helmed by curators – 11 in this case, brought together by Hyejung Jang and Goeun Song in 2019. Its program, ranging from shows to one-off events, is admirably multifarious.
Many outfits elude easy classification. The artist Dooyong Ro bills his Cylinder concern as a “neutral space” and a “mediator between alternative and commercial art”. An immaculate white box fronted entirely with glass, it is a surreal sight on its nondescript block, with a laundromat next door and an apartment complex looming across the street. Inside, Ro has been on an impressive run over the past 18 months, showing work by artists foreign and Korean, established and just-out-of-school. The local Minhee Kim has exhibited effervescent, anime-inflected paintings, and Briton Sarah Staton’s SupaStore project did a stand, hawking inexpensive editions.
On a completely different note, the Um Museum is tucked on a sylvan lane in the city of Hwaseong, about an hour’s drive south of Seoul. The compact but airy two-floor space, designed by Seoungkuk Kim, once housed a studio and private gallery for the pioneering octogenarian sculptor Tai-Jung Um, whose inventive geometric abstractions grace the grounds of South Korea’s Supreme Court and Seoul National University. Um now works in a capacious warehouse next door, and his wife, the art collector Hee-sook Jin, has operated a lively arts centre in the remodelled building since 2015. Shows of work by big names (Fred Sandback, Quac Insik) alternate with left-field selections, like an astonishing 2021 survey of little-known found-object assemblages by the poet Sung Chankyung (1930–2013). It makes for a memorable day trip, not least because a nearby park holds two Joseon-era tombs, Geolleung and Yungneung; the latter is dedicated to Princess Hyegyeong and Crown Prince Sado, who was executed by being locked in a rice chest in 1762.
Given the energy and dynamism at play in the city, it bears repeating that this list is not exhaustive. A few more essential names: the veteran Art Sonje Center is a forwarding-looking, vital nexus for venturesome art, as is the Arko Art Center, run by Arts Council Korea. Those seeking up-to-the-minute advice about where to head should check writer Andy St. Louis’s action-packed Seoul Art Friend Instagram account, and the redoubtable, anonymous Oottoogi, which pairs each posted show it features with a nearby matjip (“tasty restaurant”). Other key non-commercial spots are Loop,Boan 1942, Sarubia, Space Four One Three, L.A.D., Sangheeut, and d/p. They are variously stalwarts with years of experience and upstarts. They are scattered across the metropolis, and they are always being joined by new entrants. As gallerists from far-flung places set up shop in Seoul’s priciest precincts, here’s hoping that they spend time getting to know the scene, minting collaborations and circulating what they find through their global networks.
Amorepacific Museum of Art
100, Hangang-daero, Yongsan-gu
Arko Art Center
3, Dongsung-gil, Jongno-gu
Art Sonje Center
87, Yulgok-ro 3-gil, Jongno-gu
Doosan Art Center
15, Jongno 33-gil, Jongno-gu
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
60-16, Itaewon-ro 55-gil, Yongsan-gu
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
Seoul Museum of Art
37, Ogung-gil, Bongdam-eup, Hwaseong-si, Gyeonggi-do [note: not in Seoul]
85, Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu
36, Samcheong-ro 7-gil, Jongno-gu
10 Seongbuk-ro 23-gil
48, Yangnyeong-ro 1-gil, Gwanak-gu
204, Pyeongchang-gil, Jongno-gu
116 Dokseodang-ro, Yongsan-gu
64 Buckchon-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu
14 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu
20 Bukchon-ro 5-gil, Samcheong-dong
108, Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu
Jason Haam Gallery
73, Seongbuk-ro 31-gil, Seongbuk-gu
78-12, Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu
Korea Photographers Gallery
435-1 Huam-dong, Yongsan-gu
54, Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu
9, Jahamun-ro 12-gil, Jongno-gu
213 Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu
One and J.
31-14 Bukchon-ro, Jongno-gu
74, Hoenamu-ro, Yongsan-gu
267, Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu
5, Palpan-gil, Jongno-gu
249 Dongho-ro, Jung-gu (The Shilla Seoul)
40, Samcheong-ro 7-gil, Jongno-gu
122-1, Dokseodang-ro, Yongsan-gu
Various Small Fires
79, Dokseodang-ro, Yongsan-gu
12, Hoenamu-ro 13-gil, 3F, Yongsan-gu
Alternative Space Loop
20, Wausan-ro 29na-gil, Mapo-gu
Amado Art Space
8, Itaewon-ro 54-gil, Yongsan-gu
33, Hyoja-ro, Jongno-gu
428, Samil-daero, No. 417, Jongno-gu
395-112, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu
84-3, Gyedong-gil, Jongno-gu
12, Changgyeonggung-ro 35ga-gil, Jongno-gu
18 Banpo-daero, Seocho-gu
Project Space Sarubia
4, Jahamun-ro 16-gil, B1, Jongno-gu
38, Samyang-ro, Seongbuk-gu
10, Sowol-ro 20-gil, Yongsan-gu
Space Four One Three
15-4, Dorim-ro 141da-gil, Yeongdeungpo-gu
320, Changgyeonggung-ro, 2F, Seongbuk-gu,
Willing N Dealing
48-1 Jahamunro, 2F, Jongno-gu
31-3 Bangbae-ro 42-gil, Seocho-gu
Find Part I HERE.
ANDREW RUSSETH is a writer based in Seoul.