Next stop: Seoul’s diverse gallery scene

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Next stop: Seoul’s diverse gallery scene

Gallery-hopping in Seoul can be tricky. Museums are scattered around the city, far from the most popular tourist areas. But it also offers a very diverse range of experiences.
There is Insa-dong, where the city’s oldest private galleries and antique shops offer paintings of fruit bowls, traditional embroidery and the like. In the quiet district of Sagan-dong, more stylish, museum-scaled galleries boast crusading divas of contemporary art like Yayoi Kusama and Louise Bourgeois. Commercial art galleries in Cheongdam-dong offer quality eye candy for collectors, while Pyeongchang-dong features group exhibits and trendy cafes. Then there’s Hongdae, where young artists try to tear down the walls of the smaller, alternative spaces.
The easiest way to sample this scene is to catch the museum bus, operated by the Gana Art Center, which travels every day (except Mondays) from Insa-dong to Pyeongchang-dong, stopping at major galleries north of the river. You can get off at any stop, look around at your leisure and grab the next bus to head to the next stop. The full tour takes half a day; a round trip costs 1,000 won (85 cents).
Here is a list of gallery stops, and what you’ll currently find at each one. We’ve also included a roundup of other shows that are worth seeking out on your own.


“Suh Do-ho”
Artsonje Center (02-733-8945), through Sept. 7.
Suh Do-ho examines how an individual’s identity is buried and sacrificed in an institution for the good of the many. This show displays some of his recent installations, including “Some/One” and “Floor,” which were exhibited in the Korean pavilion during the 2001 Venice Biennial. Inspired by the artist’s personal experience serving in the Korean army, Suh questions the notion of anonymity within the mass and how militarism creeps unconsciously into our everyday lives. In the gallery, visitors are invited to walk across a glass floor which is supported by thousands of tiny plastic figures below. At the entrance of the gallery space, Suh has placed a flourescent welcome mat which itself is made out of hundreds of small figures. A startling observation on Korean society, the show is a must-see if you are in town.

“Dreaming Objects”
Kumho Museum (02-720-5514), through Aug. 30.
Art has shocked us, embraced us and turned our reality upside down. Now what? “Dreaming Objects,” on display at Kumho, explores the possibilities of using ready-made objects in art. Surely this is not a new idea within the context of contemporary art. But the concepts and the metaphors in each material are just brilliant. One notable work from the display is a three-dimensional map of Korea, by Han Won-seok, made out of 2,000 cigarette butts. The work is startling, in that it evokes an alluring beauty from a distance yet presents a poignant scene of decay, and the peculiar odor of burnt cigarettes, on a closer view.

“Life and Spirits of Asians”
National Folk Museum of Korea (02-398-5272), through Aug. 17.
This show presents more than 1,020 artifacts, historical archives and Buddhist statues donated by Japan’s Institute of Asian Ethno-Forms and Culture that have never been exhibited in Korea before. Some of the museum’s permanent collections include pottery and ancient households from the Joseon Dynasty.

“The Trace of Korean Costumes in Living Culture”
National Museum of Korea (02-734-1346), through Sept. 29.
This exhibition suggests that Korean women of centuries past were not prudes after all. The show displays some of the most unusual garments worn by ordinary people during the Joseon Dynasty, including lingerie with rainbow patterns and a corset that makes a woman’s waist resemble the shape of a jar ― proof that not all women embraced the Confucian virtues of chastity. A crimson skirt with beetle brooches is so sophisticated that it’s difficult to believe the design is 300 years old.

Blue House
A tour of the Blue House, the presidential office in Samcheong-dong, offers a glimpse of the art of Korean politics; maybe that’s the rationale for the brief stop the museum bus makes here. Passengers will have a few minutes to take snapshots in front of a fountain with Mount Inwang as a backdrop.

“Video, Photography Festival”
Gana Art Center (02-720-1020), through Aug. 31.
Frankly, it’s the area more than the artists that makes the art-viewing experience at Gana Art Center so pleasant. The food served in the museum restaurant is slightly overpriced. But the area ― one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Seoul ― is quiet, luring visitors with a posh cafe, a spacious museum shop and a beautiful garden. The gallery is currently hosting its annual video and photography festival, featuring artists selected from international biennials.

“Abstract Texts by Ungno Lee”
Ungno Lee Museum (02-3217-5672), through Aug. 30.
The show juxtaposes texts by Roland Barthes and paintings by the late Paris-based artist Lee Eungno. Covering the four gallery walls are phrases extracted from Barthes’ “The Pleasure of the Text,” which makes reference to hieroglyphic codes and the distorted forms of the Korean alphabet Lee had used in his paintings. But be aware that this exhibition is heavy on theory. If abstraction isn’t your cup of tea, try strolling out on the museum balcony, one of the best places to enjoy the view of the Pyeongchang-dong area.

“Ten Years Later”
Insa Art Center (02- 736-1020), through Aug. 24.
A group of astronomers, engineers and artists got together to create an imagined environment of Seoul 10 years in the future. There’s everything here from digital graffiti to a computer display for the hearing impaired that creates an exact digital interpretation of a sound or a song. The changes anticipated by this show seem awfully sweeping for just a 10-year period.



“Rembrandt and 17th-Century Netherlands Paintings”
National Museum of Contemporary Art, Deoksugung (02-753-7222), through Nov. 9.
This exhibition features classic portraits, landscapes and still-life paintings by some of the best-known Dutch masters and their pupils. Artists include Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Adriaen van Ostade and Govert Flinck, some of whose works are part of an exclusive collection at Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, from which the works for the Seoul show are on loan. Three of Rembrandt’s most renowned works are on display: “Portrait of an Old Man,” “The Procuress” and “A Man With a Feathered Hat.” The National Museum of Contemporary Art is located in Deoksu Palace. Take exit No. 1 or 2 at the City Hall subway station.

“Marc Chagall”
Sun Gallery (02-734-0458), through Sept. 30.
Few artists have gained such enormous popularity in European art salons as Marc Chagall, but critics have never regarded him as seriously as some of his contemporaries. Because of the preciousness of Chagall’s paintings, he’s been relegated more to the world of calendar images and illustrations than that of serious art criticism. For the first time in 10 years, works by the Russian-born French painter are gathered in a major exhibit in Seoul, filling up the three-story building of Sun Gallery in Insa-dong, northern Seoul. Featured works include “The Bouquet in the Sky of Paris” and “The Lovers in the Grand White Bouquet.”

“Yes Yoko Ono”
Rodin Gallery (02-2259-7781), through
Sept. 14.
The first Yoko Ono retrospective in Korea, this exhibition is divided into phases of the Japanese-born artist’s works from the 1960s to the present, ranging from drawings to video performance. In “Ceiling” ― the work through which Ono met her late husband, John Lennon ― the viewer is invited to climb a white ladder, at the top of which he discover a tiny block of letters behind a sheet of a glass which, seen through a magnifying glass, reads “yes.” The exhibition draws together 30 years of Ono’s art-as-anti-war-protest. Rodin Gallery is located within Samsung Plaza, Taepyeong-no.

“Picasso Prints: His Art, His Love”
Hoam Art Gallery (02-750-7824), through Sept. 14.
This exhibition offers a collection of 100 black-and-white Picasso etchings, dating from 1930 to 1937, on themes of love. The exhibition was organized as part of the festivities for “The Year of Spain in Korea” by the Spanish Embassy, emphasizing the importance that love played in Picasso’s art and life. To get to Hoam, take exit No. 9 at City Hall subway station. Walk a few blocks west until you see the JoongAng Ilbo building; the gallery is on the ground floor.

“Collecting History Through Nostalgia”
Sejong Center Museum of Fine Art (02-723-4741), through Sept 14.
“Collecting History” is an exhibition featuring souvenirs and historical archives offering glimpses into Korean history from the postwar period up to the 1980s. The show includes elementary school textbooks, old crayons used in classrooms, national flags and domestic utilities no longer used in Korean households. Archives include posters from old action movies and photographs of historical incidents never printed in newspapers.

“Permanent Collection”
CAIS Gallery (02-511-0668)
The impressive facade of CAIS (an abbreviation of Contemporary Art In Seoul) indicates that the museum is home to a serious collection of contemporary artists. The list includes Jonathan Brofsky, Michael Zahn, Peter Halley, Ann Ledy and Gerhard Richter, who have been handpicked by gallery curators at art fairs and major museums. There are about 200 commercial galleries in Cheongdam-dong, and CAIS is a good place to start. It’s also interesting to compare them to the more accessible galleries in Insa-dong.

“Isamu Noguchi”
Urban Art (02- 511-2931), through Aug. 30.
This small space in Cheongdam-dong, in the midst of the city’s busiest commercial gallery district, is more popularly known as an art consulting group and a local dealer for New York’s Sotheby’s. Currently, Urban Art displays a series of akari, floor lamps made out of Japanese rice paper, by a minimalist sculptor and furniture designer, Isamu Noguchi. All works are for sale.

“Artist and Alcohol”
Savina Museum (02-736-4371), through Sept. 17.
This show examines the role alcohol has played in inspiring, stimulating and maximizing the creative force behind the artists’ lives. Through mixed media, a group of 17 artists confess and explore the illusions, addictions and fascinations they experienced through drinking.

“Borders and Beyond”
Seoul Metropolitan Museum of Art (02-2124-8800), through Aug. 24.
An artistic take on Korea’s divided reality and its prospects for peace. Documentary photographs, installation art and visual media reflect on what the division means to Korea and its people, the horrors of recent history and possibilities for the future. The gallery is near Deoksu Palace.

Dong-A, LG International Animation
Ilmin Museum (02-2020-2055), through
Aug. 17.
This contemporary museum, in a recently renovated colonial heritage building, exhibits everything from fashion photography to conceptual art. Through Sunday, it hosts an international festival of comics, cartoons, character designs and animation. Ima, a cafe downstairs, offers a diverse menu for a quick lunch.

“Beginning of Art”
Seonggok Museum (02-737-7650), through Aug. 31.
Down a small alley about 100 meters north of the Seoul History Museum is a discreet private museum. Seonggok Museum often features contemporary art by emerging local artists. “Beginning of Art” is an exhibition that illustrates the phases of the creative process in conceptual art, from brainstorming and rough sketches to the final presentation, helping viewers understand how artists’ concepts come into being. The museum has a large garden and an atmospheric cafe amid the woods that’s known as a popular date spot, serving gourmet coffee and cheesecakes.

“Six Hong Kong Artists in Seoul”
Ssamzie Space (02-3142-1693), Monday through Aug. 24.
A mixed-media exhibition by six contemporary artists who are based in Hong Kong: Caroline Cheng, Cho Hyun Jae, Norman Jackson Ford, Kwok Mang Ho, Wong Sau Ching and Young Hay. A forum is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the main gallery, with a special lecture on recent trends in the Hong Kong visual art scene by Benny Chia, a director of Hong Kong Fringe Club. Ssamzie Space regularly hosts concerts and fringe works by Korean alternative music bands. Baram, a cafe on the ground floor, offers draft beer and ice cream. To get to Ssamzie Space, walk toward Sinchon from the entrance of Hongik University until you see Sanulim Theater on the left. The building is across the street.

“Retrospective: Seong Nak-young”
Sarubia Project Space (02-733-0440), through Aug. 21.
An underground cafe turned gallery, Sarubia has been a hip place to hang out and socialize with the art crowd since it opened in 1999. Fundraising parties and artist forums are held here almost every week. The gallery walls, which are made out of raw concrete, have a warehouse feel, but the gallery presents diverse types of work ranging from drawings to architecture. Seong Nak-young displays ink drawings here. Get off at Insa Art Center and walk north until you hit “Do Art.” Take the small alley on your right. The gallery is on your left, a few blocks away.

“Recent Paintings: 300 Digital Art Works”
Star Tower Gallery (02-2112-2988), through Aug. 23.
This show displays the work of Kim Jeom-seon, a painter who began working with PhotoShop to make new digital illustrations for hwatu, the Korean playing cards. Star Tower Gallery is located on the second floor of the Star Tower building.

“Napoleon and Josephine”
Seoul History Museum (02-334-9948), through Sept. 21.
This exhibition displays historical artifacts depicting the palatial life of Napoleon and his wife Josephine. Near the end of the tour, visitors are offered a broad array of souvenirs bearing Napoleon images, ranging from T-shirts to a Swatch. To get to the Seoul History Museum at Gwanghwamun, get off at Seodaemun station, subway line No. 5, and take exit No. 4.

by Park Soo-mee
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