Contemporary Korean art is an aggregate of the nation’s history, geography and politics. After a student-led popular uprising, democracy is ushered in with the adoption of a new constitution in 1987. The country swiftly throws off 40 years of dictatorial rule, a long period of Japanese colonization (1905-45), and a stint as a Cold War hotspot where Eastern and Western blocks had divided the territory into a Moscow-dominated north and a Washington-influenced south. The scar formed by the border zone between the two Koreas transforms the South into an insular political space, with a surprising capacity for reinvention.
In the span of a few decades, the country moves from agrarian self-sufficiency to a market-based, high-tech industrial economy. In the 1970’s, the construction of a highway connecting the northern capital Seoul and the southeasterly port of Busan stimulates the economy, while during the 1980’s, South Korea seizes the formidable opportunities the technological revolution affords. At the same time, the resolutely inhospitable, mountainous Northeast, with its emblematic landscapes and Buddhists temples, preserves an ancestral culture founded on a harmonious relationship between nature and mankind.
Throughout its history, Korean production has built on external influences, assimilating and adapting traditions imposed by its Chinese and then Japanese colonizers. This relationship with the outside, as complimentary as it is conflicted, lays the groundwork for contemporary Korean art where two currents of thought cœxist today : an attachment to national cultural identity and an openness to foreign influences inspired by increased contact with the West. These two schools of art making are disseminated through the National University of Seoul for traditional painting (dong yang-hwa) and Hong-Ik University for Western-influenced painting (seo yang-hwa).
In the 1960’s, Korean art begins to share the preoccupations of Western avant-gardes like Fluxus, Support-Surface, Conceptual Art and Arte Povera (Nam June-Paik, Shim Moon Seup, Lee Ufan…). Likewise, French abstraction leads artist such as Nam Kwan, Lee Ung, and Bang Hai Je to relocate to Paris. The end of the 1980’s sees the rise of Minjung misol, a more politicized school of realism responding to a vital need for social criticism and a return to popular values, although the movement is restricted in size and internally focused.
The creative process is conceived in a circular fashion, as opposed to Western linearity, and explores ritual as a space where all visible and invisible components contribute to the work : materials, gestures, behaviors, and time.
Culture : a vital sector
Throughout a history fraught with back–and-forths between China, Japan and the West, it has been vital for South Korea to rebuild and disseminate its national identity domestically and internationally. That’s why the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation, founded in 1973 - since 2005, Arts Council Korea - aims to support artists both inside the country and abroad. This cultural policy began to bear fruit in the 1980’s and 1990’s as Korean artists were invited to participate in major international events like the 1986 Venice Biennale, well before South Korea opened its national pavilion in 1995 with artist Kim in Kyum.
Today, the peninsula boasts a considerable and ever-growing number of public and private institutions helping to shape a dynamic art scene. Many of them connect contemporary Korean art with the international scene, creating a domestic cultural atmosphere intimately linked to market structures :
- Large industrial consortiums or Chaebols play a major cultural role : The Leeum - Samsung Museum of Art, inaugurated in 2004 and 2006, with three buildings by Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel and Mario Botha.
- Numerous internationally recognized galleries show well-known Western artists and Korean artists like the Gallery Hyundai, founded in 1970 by Park Myung-ja, presents the work of artists like Lee Ufan, Whanki Kim, Chung Sanghwa, Robert Indiana, François Morellet and Bernar Venet… Park Ryu Sook Gallery and Gana Art - were both founded in 1983 - are forging a network between Seoul and the port of Busan, home to the Busan Museum of Art, an institution with close ties to the local scene. In the Northwest of Seoul, the historic city of Paju welcomes an intellectual district of publishers, galleries experimental as the Soso gallery. Emmanuel Perrotin is the first international gallery to open a branch in Seoul having dedicated two big exhibitions in Paris and New York to South Korean historic movements in 2015/2016.
- The Gwangju and Busan Biennals give new momentum of events and networks between the USA and Europe. In 1995, the southwestern city of Gwangju founds a contemporary art biennial that rapidly acquires international influence. The event has become a forerunner for the Venice Biennial, with Okwui Enwezor (On the Road/Position Papers/Insertions) serving as artistic director in 2008 and Massimiliano Gioni (10,000 LIVES) in 2010. The American Jessica Morgan chose the theme “Burning the house” for the 2014 biennial, setting a speculative tone for the international art world.