Korean art gains more global presence
Pieces 'could be the missing link in Asian contemporary art' says arts foundation head
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Korea’s contemporary art has gained a strong presence on the international art scene, mainly with a rediscovered art movement from the 1970s as well as a new generation of artists making their names globally. The boom breathed life into the art market; according to Artprice.com, the Korean art market has become the 10th largest in the world in terms of art auction turnover as of 2015.
Reflecting increasing interest in Korean art, more international art figures are visiting Korea and providing new insights on the swelling presence of Korean art.
Pearl Lam, a Hong Kong-based art dealer and owner of Pearl Lam Galleries, visited Korea last month to see two artists managed by her gallery - Kim Tschang-yeul and Suki Seokyeong Kang.
The two artists are poles apart - Kim, 87, is an established artist who developed his own water drop painting style over a lifetime, while Kang, 38, explores harmony and balance through installation works based on the backgrounds of Oriental paintings.
Lam praised the spirituality in Kim’s works. “He is very intellectual. Who would you paint just a drop of water? This is really touching. I am studying more about his works and how he thinks. And I think he is a thinker on top of that,” Lam said in an interview with The Korea Times during her stay in Seoul. “For many years, a lot of quiet, meditative art has been out of focus of the art world. In the world with such heavy consumerism, we have to go back and look at things with more spirituality.”
Lam will present Kim’s signature water drop paintings at her Hong Kong gallery next March, which coincides with Art Basel Hong Kong 2017, Asia’s largest contemporary art fair.
”My job is to make him international and make his work known internationally. And that is why we chose the period of Art Basel Hong Kong time with a lot of international collectors coming so that they can see his works, especially early ones from the 1970s,” Lam said.
Kang majored in Oriental painting at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, and further studied painting at the Royal College of Art in London. Lam said Kang’s installations are time-consuming, but have an intellectual feeling.
”I visited her studio earlier this year and when I saw her work, I just loved it - for whatever reason, I don’t know. But I think Kang is an amazing artist,” the art dealer said. “I think in Korea you have many fantastic artists.”
Lam does not label Kim and Kang as Korean artists. “They are both good artists and I’m only interested in good artists. Actually, I don’t have problems with (an artist’s) passport,” Lam said. “For me, it’s not about Chinese, Korean, American or whatever. Whether you are a good artist or not is the only thing that matters.”
Lam, a daughter of the late Hong Kong tycoon Lim Por-yen, has been a pioneer in the Chinese art world since the early 1990s, when the world paid little to no attention to Chinese contemporary art.
”I am promoting the Asian perspective, rather than a Western point of view,” Lam said. “The West colonised all Asian culture for a long time until now. Most artists study in the West, learn the Western approach to art and think from the Western perspective with a sprinkle of local context. That’s too easy.”
That is the reason why Lam is interested in artists who deconstruct such a Western approach.
Lam analysed that the Dansaekhwa phenomenon is a part of the art world’s interest in the postwar period.
“People are always looking at what happened after the World War II. In Europe, it is the beginning of everything - we have the Zero Movement from Germany and then Arte Povera in Italy. Then it goes to Japan and they discover the Gutai group and Mono-ha Movement,” Lam said. “What happened in Korea after World War II is the Korean War and then the Dansaekhwa. We are always looking at the first art movement after the war and all of today’s contemporary art rises from that moment.
”It is interesting that people don’t see the world. I think they should see the world’s context,” Lam said.
Lam said if Korea didn’t impose an import tax on artworks, the art capital of Asia would be here.
“Hong Kong is a tax-free port and there is no censorship, so it became an art hub of Asia. We are still missing institutions for cultivating art in order to truly become a cultural centre,” Lam said. “Korea has become an important market in the global art scene and international galleries all talk about Korea. There are many art museums and collectors in Korea, which constitute the commercial market base.”
Dansaekhwa, or Korean monochrome painting, continues to receive market and critical attention internationally. Dansaekhwa is Korea’s first collective and international art movement that bloomed in the 1970s. It reflects Korean sentiments and aesthetics by investigating flatness and materiality through a process of repetition and meditation.
In June, Chung Sang-hwa held his first solo exhibition in the United States, jointly hosted by Dominique Levy Gallery and Greene Naftali Gallery in New York. Levy commented that Chung was singular in his ritualistic and systematic approach. “Chung’s process is so deeply temporal that it becomes an act of contemplation, of meditation, and that is as much his work as the canvas itself,” she said.
Paintings of fellow Dansaekhwa artist Yun Hyong-keun (1928-2007) will be presented in New York’s David Zwirner Gallery from Jan. 13 to Feb. 19, 2017. The artist’s Korean promoter PKM Gallery said, “We will be at the forefront of promoting Yun’s paintings and strengthening his status at David Zwirner Gallery and also in the international art market.”
Yun was one of the earliest Dansaekhwa artists who made his name internationally. American sculptor Donald Judd (1928-1994) noticed the restrained elegance in Yun’s works when he visited Korea and later invited Yun for an exhibit at the Chinati Foundation, his contemporary art museum in Marfa, Texass.
The Korean art movement got noticed by Chinese as well and will have a major survey in a contemporary art museum in Shanghai next autumn.
Budi Tek, a Chinese-Indonesian art collector and chairman of the Yuz Foundation, visited Korea in October to announce the first Dansaekhwa show in China at Yuz Museum in Shanghai.
”It is my way of respecting the originality of those master artists of Dansaekhwa,” Tek said.
Yuz Museum is a contemporary museum that holds exhibitions based on Tek’s extensive collections of Chinese and Western art as well as the world’s top artists such as Yang Fudong, Alberto Giacometti and Andy Warhol.
As a collector, Tek owns Dansaekhwa paintings, but he did not disclose the details of his own collection of Korean monochrome paintings. The Yuz exhibition of Dansaekhwa will be organised in collaboration with several Korean and international art institutions.
“Dansaekhwa is a major achievement for the Korean art scene and it could be the missing link in Asian contemporary art. I congratulate this successful, admirable movement,” Tek said.
Tek said he has great expectations for the upcoming Dansaekhwa exhibit, which will present the art movement in the context of Chinese and international contemporary art.
”The three philosophical tendencies of Chinese contemporary art are Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Dansaekhwa is talking about nature, minimalism and emptiness, which are related to Taoism,” he said. “Dansaekhwa is part of the Asian philosophical movement, which is very important in the contemporary art world. We are talking about contemporary art, not country, in terms of art movement.”
The collector-philanthropist said Dansaekhwa has been ignored for many decades, but being rediscovered later rather raised the value of the works, just like a matured wine tastes better.
”Many good artists succeed too early and fail too soon, being corrupted by market forces. Dansaekhwa is so beautiful, simple and spiritual because it was not interfered with by the market too early,” Tek said.