‘100 years of Korean art’


The Korean National Museum of Contemporary Art sits in a scenic location by the mountains, 30 minutes from downtown Seoul. The sprawling sculpture garden out front is a beautiful place to relax, while the 25,000 sq. meters of space inside make it the largest museum in the country.

Opened in 1969, the museum moved to its present location in 1986. Its atrium is dominated by an 18.5-meter-high installation, “The More, The Better” (1988), by Nam June Paik, a video-art pioneer who died this year. The main exhibition areas are accommodating, with many irregularly shaped rooms, allowing for creative exhibition design and making a walk-through more fun than formal.

Last week, K-MoCA opened the show “100 Years of Korean Art, Part II,” which surveys Korean art from 1957 to the present with more than 300 works in various media. Arranged in a visitor-friendly chronological order reflecting key political and social developments in the country, it is a fine introduction to contemporary Korean art, with representation from lesser-known artists along with major figures such as Lee Bul, Lee U-Fan and of course Nam.

The museum’s director, Yoon Soo Kim, agreed to an interview with The Japan Times.

I confess a lack of familiarity with much of the art in this show. Can you outline for me how Korean art from the 1950s onward relates to international trends or movements?

One of our well-known artists, Seobo Park, remarked that Koreans were “introduced to Western culture by army boots,” because the Americans soldiers stationed here after the Korean War, with their magazines and so on, were our only connection to what was happening in the West. So there was not a lot of opportunity for real cultural exchanges during the 1950s and ’60s.

When did this change? Was there a pivotal moment?

Yes, I think that the democratic movement, and in particular the uprising of April 1960, saw Korean young people, and especially artists, really start looking for new ideas and values to replace the old generation’s way of thinking. There was an important art critic, Il Lee, who came back to Korea from France in 1964, and very much helped to encourage new directions in the development of contemporary art here.

I think one of the problems in Japan, and throughout Asia, is the lack of a strong domestic market for contemporary art. What is the situation like in Seoul and South Korea?

It has not been very long that Korean people have had an interest in art, especially contemporary art, but we are seeing interest grow as time goes on. The main market for Korean artists is still international, especially through art fairs, but there are more and more Korean collectors now. Also, Busan has a very good biennale, and that is helping.

What programs are you offering?

We are happy to say we are getting 500,000 to 700,000 visitors a year. We organize cultural events such as cinema screenings and concerts and have extensive educational programs both on-site and in other locations. We also have a children’s museum here, and a traveling museum program that began in 1990, which takes art to educational institutions, administrative buildings and even factories.

How much are the national government and private sector pitching in?

Not enough, like anywhere! (laughs) Also, we do not have the tradition of donations and sponsorships as in the West, so it can be difficult.

In Japan, much of the contemporary art is influenced by pop culture, like anime and so on. How would you describe the influences and the state of contemporary art in Korea?

I would use the word “dynamic.” Korea went through a very dark period before the democratic movements, but now many artists are freely and actively working to interact with their audience. We no longer have the negative side of political pressure; artists are free from censorship and can make what they want. In our current exhibition, we are focused on the young artists’ movement after the Japanese colonial period [1910-45] and the Korean War [1950-53]. This is a period when artists have made efforts to build our own identity within our own cultural and social context. Because Korea exists between the pervasive cultures of China and Japan, Korean artists have worked especially hard to develop this identity, so I think now is a very exciting time.