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The Best Art Exhibitions in Seoul

Highlights including Choi Jeong Hwa’s riotous installation at MMCA and a survey of the current abstract painting revival in the city

Choi Jeong Hwa, ‘Blooming Matrix’
MMCA SEOUL
5 September 2018 – 10 February 2019

Choi Jeong Hwa is the fourth artist to be selected for the annual MMCA Hyundai Motor Series to show ambitious new works in the Korean capital. Filling MMCA’s cavernous galleries can be a tall order for most artists, but Choi is no stranger to filling vast spaces, usually employing great quantities of cheap, disposable items found on the streets and at local flea markets.

What greets visitors is certainly a spectacle: 120 pagodas Blooming Flowers (2018) constructed from various objects, such as rubber shoes, chairs and pots from various countries. These are shown alongside towers of Joseon dynasty ceramics and Korean buckwheat pillows. Choi also continues to include in his works, plastic baskets, piggy banks, brooms and other objects typically found in Korean homes, making this installation a cultural hodgepodge.

Stealing the limelight (at least according to Instagram aficionados) is Choi’s enormous outdoor sculpture Dandelion (2018) which was built with 7,000 pieces of household items, including cooking pots and frying pans, which were acquired from Korean homes, as part of a public art project called Gather Together (2018). Community spirit certainly resonates here but equally relevant is the theme of over-consumption and the enduring power of capitalism that fuels Choi’s glorious junk-fest.  

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Hejum Bä, Butterfly Foldout, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 130 x 162 cm. Courtesy: the artist and HITE Collection, Seoul

‘Allover’
HITE Collection
26 October – 1 December 2019

Seoul’s vibrant art scene has been producing a new wave of abstract painters producing wonderfully divergent works, and this is a must-see exhibition to get a sense of that trajectory. The scale of this group show is immense, and brings together 11 artists, under the title ‘Allover’ – a playful reference to Clement Greenberg’s original term ‘all-over picture’ – celebrating both the historic and renewed interests in two-dimensional planes and the physical properties of painting.
 
The show reveals a wide variety of styles and aesthetic temperaments in abstraction currently. While enigmatic gestural paintings from Jiyoon Koo’s Orange Asphalt (2018) and Hyungji Park’s Marine Ghost (2018) delve inwardly, navigating their own senses and memories, Heemin Chung’s On Face (2017–18) and Mirae Kim’s Frank Stella-inspired paintings of sharply defined bright, geometric contours on three-dimensional forms, show us the more extraverted tendencies.  

‘Allover’ also gently reminds us that age is just a number when it comes to painterly innovation. Yeo-Ran Je, whose career spans more than 30 years, rejects the conventional wisdom of using a paint brush – and the same goes for the vibrant new work of Seung Chan Lee’s 4C57 (2018), which constructs abstract compositions using cut-outs of internet-sourced digital images.

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Izumi Kato, installation view, Perrotin, Seoul, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Perrotin, Seoul © Izumi Kato

Izumi Kato
Perrotin
5 October – 18 November

Izumi Kato’s current solo exhibition assembles a group of delightfully dainty creatures, which he has unleashed upon the world since 2016. As an extension of his handmade miniature figurines using wood and soft vinyl, Kato’s latest anthropomorphic sculptures incorporate granite stones – some of which the artist had picked up from the seashores of Hong Kong and Korea. Taking his cue from ancient Shinto beliefs that something as inanimate and mundane as stones can contain spirits, the Japanese artist has treated nature with upmost respect by simply refusing to chisel or grind the organic materials used for his art. More than a dozen of these raw sculptures (all Untitled, 2018) have been delicately painted with cute facial features, limbs and torsos, which appear otherworldly through the child-like animation of the human form.

Kato intricately recreates various figments of his imagination and two bright and zingy portraits of half-human, half-mutant-like creatures with googly eyes stare directly at the viewer, made solely by the artist’s hands. Continuing his exploration of handcraft and embroidery, a pair of delicate stitched together pastel drawings of fictional creatures on Japanese washi paper accompany, in another ‘Untitled’ series (2018). 

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‘Unclosed Bricks: Crevices of Memory’, 2018, installation view, Arko Art Center, Seoul. Courtesy: Arko Art Center, Seoul

‘Unclosed Bricks: Crevices of Memory’
Arko Art Center
12 October – 2 December

The sound of quaint murmurs resonates across a darkly-lit chamber at the Arko Art Center. These eerie wailing sounds coming from Hyewon Kwon’s audio-video installation, We are Somewhere (2018), represent the emotionally-charged outcries of those people left behind and scarred by the far-reaching impact of gentrification in Seoul.

In ‘Unclosed Bricks: Crevices of Memory’ five other works by Seoul-based artists – including Minae Kim’s styrofoam brick wall structure and Suki Seokyeong Kang’s abundant yet delicate system of grids and units in Jeong, Mat, High (2011–18) – reflect on the immense urban environment where individuals and society collide and interact. Artist-collective kkr+kdk have traversed a defunct industrial neighbourhood in Seongsu-dong to produce a map that brings questions of urban renewal to the fore.

The show also foregrounds a unique history of the Arko Art Center’s quietly subdued red-brick building, which was designed by a maverick Korean architect Swoo-geun Kim (1931–86) in 1979. Once likened to ‘a poem written with light and bricks’, Kim’s charismatic building becomes a source of inspiration for <ub.ark, ub.wp> (2018) the second commissioned piece by kkr+kdk, whose seductive digital prints and photographs encourage us to mull over structural dots, lines and planes of the timber-hued façade.

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Angel Otero, Piel de Luna, 2018, oil skins on fabric, 269 x 203 x 8 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Angel Oreto, ‘Piel de Luna’
Lehmann Maupin
1 November – 22 December

It’s becoming clear that Lehmann Maupin is focusing its newly-opened Seoul outpost on bringing some of the finest artists from the New York art scene to Korean shores. That includes the Puerto Rican, Brooklyn-based Angel Oreto. At his solo-exhibition entitled ‘Piel de Luna’ (which translates as surface of the moon in English), Oreto presents a set of his distinctive process-led paintings including Incense and Peppermints (2018) and Melting Gates (2018) which integrate varying elements of time, chance and collage technique of using ‘oil skin’ fragments to meld together ambiguous abstract compositions. These works conceal a treasure trove of his childhood memories and encyclopedic knowledge of paintings by some of the greatest artists ranging from Diego Velázquez to Willem de Kooning.

The real highlight of the show is the larger than life wall piece, Piel de Luna (2018), in which Oreto has meticulously interwoven various pieces of hardened oil paint peeled off from canvases that he had previously worked on. Contrary to some beliefs that paintings are ‘dead’, the artist poses an interesting challenge to the traditional medium by removing paint from the canvas altogether and substituting individual brushstrokes for fragmentary remnants from his previous works. For Oreto, it seems, the possibilities for painting are endless.

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‘Ungmang’, 2018, installation view, Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul. Courtesy: Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul; photograph: Sang-Tae Kim 

‘Ungmang’
Ilmin Museum of Art
7 September – 25 November

Anyone who has visited Seoul in the past few years would no doubt have been amazed by the sheer scale of Korea’s consumer culture. At the Ilmin Museum of Art, the anonymous artist, Sasa[44] offers an interpretation of this nauseating aspect of Korean culture in his latest solo-exhibition entitled ‘Ungmang’. The definition of this word means wreck or ruin in Korean, which the artist further explains as – ‘a state that is so messy as to be unable to control’.

Sasa[44] tries to get hold of such ‘mess’ by obessively organizing collections of more than 4,024 empty bottles, 78 Nike and Adidas sneakers into orderly grid-like arrangements. But there is also plenty of humour involved here too. Sarcastic eye-popping wall texts like Please Don’t Touch (2018) poke fun at the insecurities osciallating through consumer-driven youth culture.

The show, more importantly, opens up to scrutiny details of Sasa[44]’s own consumption. This includes a series of colour-coded charts and line-graphs, entitled the Annual Report 2016 (2017), documenting every single item of food and drink the artist has eaten for several years. Through presenting such overwhelming data of futile information, Sasa[44] provokes us into thinking about the potential effects of our current consumer culture craze.

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Kang Seung Lee, Untitled (Curtain, Prospect Cottage), 2018, archival pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper, 48 x 33 cm. Courtesy: the artist and ONE AND J. Gallery, Seoul

Kang Seung Lee, ‘Garden’
One and J. Gallery
22 November – 22 December

Visitors will discover more than just plants and flowers at LA-based Kang Seung Lee’s forthcoming solo exhibition, titled the ‘Garden’, which presents a tantalizing body of new works that underscore themes of sexual identity and queer politics by tracing the lives of Derek Jarman and the Korean writer Joon-Soo Oh, both of whom were influential LGBT activists.

The artist uses seemingly delicate yet labour-intensive media, such as graphite drawings on sheepskin parchment and embroideries to manifest powerfully arresting imageries that recount his personal visits to Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness cottage, a place of respite amidst social stigma, independent cinema and sex.

Lee’s culminating works, coming together for the first time in Seoul, include Untitled (Garden Book) (2018) an archival pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper, which contain segments from Jarman’s private sketchbooks. This will be shown alongside a collection of Joon-Soo Oh’s never before seen diaries and poems – published by his best friends. Yet another highly anticipated three-channel video installation will meditate on the artist’s own emotional journey, traversing between the garden at Dungeness Cottage and several places in Seoul often associated with the local gay community.

Main image: Choi Jeong-Hwa, ‘Blooming Matrix’ (detail), 2018, installation view, MMCA SEOUL. Courtesy: the artist and MMCA SEOUL

Yujin Min is a lecturer and writer based in Seoul. 

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