Last month Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art announced it would be spending $4.5 million per year on acquisitions, while the Ministry of Culture said it plans to plough almost $2 million in buying works by young Korean artists. The idea is to stimulate the domestic Korean art market, which is currently suffering from the country’s ailing economy.
What is certainly not ailing is the international market’s demand for works by young Korean artists. The leading gallery for primary works, Kukje, sees strong demand for talents such as Kwang-Young Chun or Duck-Hyun Cho. “We have 200 serious collectors for Chun in North America alone, and we always sell out his work at art fairs”, says Kukje Gallery director Unsoo Lim. At the ArtBasel/Miami Beach fair in December, Cais Gallery from Seoul virtually sold out at the opening of the fair. Kukje, meanwhile, quickly sold works by Lee Bul and the photographer Yeondoo Jung.
Nevertheless, Korean artists are far less well known internationally than the current Asian darlings of the market: Japan’s Murakami, Kusama or Nara, and China’s Yan Pei Ming and Yang Fudong.
“It’s not that we lack talented artists, but we have no real international stars today”, says Ms Kim. “We don’t have the right kind of network to promote our artists”.
The reasons for the current lower profile of Korean artists can perhaps be found in the structure of the Korean art market and its differences with other Asian economies. Contemporary art in Korea is, as in China or Japan, very new. However, unlike in other Asian countries, the market has been sustained by private collecting, rather than corporate collecting. The major force has been the all-powerful Lee family (Saumsung) which supports the arts both as private collectors and as public benefactors Samsung’s new museum, “Leeum” opened this October in the heart of Seoul. But many other works are out of sight in private collections, and there has been less of a public platform for Korean artists’ work than in countries with more public collectors.
Further adding to the difficulties faced by Korean artists were the political upheavals in the 1980s and 1990s, when the government actively repressed art critical of the regime. Then came the 1997 Asian currency meltdown, which was followed by International Monetary Fund restructuring. All spending on art was put on hold, as the government and taxation system treated art as purchasing “luxury goods”. It is really only since this year that the authorities have decided to invest again in art.
What did support artists during the difficult late 1990s was the existence of a number of independent art spaces, notably Loop, Alternative Space Pool, Sarubia, SSamzie [sic] Space and Insa, as well as efforts by museums established by private or corporate culture foundations such as Sung-kok, Ilmin and Art Sonje. In addition, the Gwangju and Pusan Biennials have developed into major art events.
Growing up in a transition period of political, social and cultural changes through the 80s and 90s, today’s young and emerging Korean artists are trying to find their own identities while interacting with Western influences. “Artists from our country are very labour orientated; they believe in technique”, says Ryoung Lee, assistant director of Cais. “They think of art as hard work, and it is beautifully made, following the Oriental tradition of not separating craft from art”.
Among those to watch are Yeondoo Jung, who once taught painting to children in a nursery school. He reconstructs their paintings in his photographs. Other emerging names are Osang Kwon, who takes hundreds of photographs of objects and makes sculpture using fragments of these pictures, and Ham Jin, who makes tiny sculptures with unconventional media: hair, toothpaste and rice.
With increased support at home and interest from abroad, the betting is that Korean artists will be making a bigger splash than they have for some decades.
o A version of this article appeared in The Art Newspaper’s daily edition at ArtBasel/Miami Beach, 2 December 2004, p.6
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“Our artists believe in technique”'