Seoul meets Berlin, and art ensues

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Seoul meets Berlin, and art ensues

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Without an explanation by the curator, most visitors to Ssamzie Space, an art gallery located near Hongik University, northwest Seoul, might not comprehend the current exhibition, titled “Urban Legend: Blurring Space.”
The three floors of the gallery are full of seemingly meaningless objects. On the first floor, viewers can experience the objects and sounds found in a construction site, such as a worktable, a few hammers and wood chips, as well as irritating buzzing noises. Another hall has a large screen installed, displaying images of unkempt and anonymous urban spaces.
The show is the result of collaboration by six artists ― three Korean (actually, one Korean-American) and three German ― who tried to show what they felt about Seoul after a three-month annual international residency program at Ssamzie.
One of the six works is a room containing small wild plants in three white Styrofoam boxes, a small plastic container gathering water drops that keep falling from the ceiling and two video installations showing red golden fishes and a mass of lights on one wall. The work, by Wolf von Kries, is based on feng shui, or Chinese geomancy.
According to the curator, Mr. Kries was surprised to find that fengshui is still widely practiced in contemporary Seoul and in many Asian countries. In Korea, local governments often consult with feng shui specialists before buying land or constructing buildings.
For the exhibition, the artist asked a Korean feng shui specialist, Won Hang-chul, to examine Ssamzie Space. The specialist looked at the small exhibition room in the basement, came up with a plan and provided the artist with instructions on how to enhance the flow of energy to avoid misfortune. The artist accordingly named the installation piece “Wind and Water,” to provide the elements that the specialist identified as deficient.
One of the “Korean” artists is Debbi Han, acually a second-generation Korean-American. She slapped a dozen advertising posters ― some real, some fake ― up on the wall, as if the gallery were a public space.
“As a Korean-American, I was interested in the Korean viewpoint on beauty, which appears to be standardized. I want to say to the public that anybody can be as beautiful as a celebrity and anything can be attractive,” she said. “In my work, I placed average people playing the role of professional models. Nobody can easily distinguish the ordinary people from the professional models, which means non-professional models are actually not so different from celebrities.”
This year, the annual residency exhibition was done in collaboration with the Berlin Schinkel progressive residency program, and mainly focuses on the subjects of “buildings and images in Seoul” and important elements in German contemporary art. In Germany, such works often reflect everyday life and architecture. The artists, in their 20s and early 30s, also used various media, such as paper, plants, wood, water, and lighting, to express their interpretation of city life.
The artists, who are part of the annual residency program, started preparing for the exhibition in April. After the Korean exhibition concludes, the six artists will then head to Germany and hold the same exhibition in Berlin in November, with a three-month residency in that country starting in October.
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For every year since 2001, Ssamzie Space, one of the leading alternative spaces in Korea, has organized an international exchange residency exhibition. In the first year, the gallery cooperated with the Lance Fun Gallery in New York City. Other galleries to have collaborated include La Vitrine and Glass Box in Paris and the Institution of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia.
“The international residency program is a great opportunity to promote Korean art to the international art world. We, professional curators, chose talented artists to use the same studio to build relationships with other artists and provide them with whatever they need, without almost any financial constraints. Therefore, artwork created in this process becomes valuable to the public when they visit the exhibition,” said Shin Hyun-jin, the director of Ssamzie Space.
When Ssamzie Space started the program, the gallery owner Kim Hong-hui and its curators simply wanted to do something related to art, using their foreign connections they had built when they studied art abroad. Even though they shared a dream to present Korean art to the international art scene, their intention was simply to have fun.
“In 1998, the Korean government started a policy to expand spaces for art and creativity and to support artists by using abandoned schools as studios, providing them for 70 to 80 percent of the normal cost of rent. There had been residency programs before, but [the policy] is how the residency program started to thrive in Korea,” Ms. Shin explained. “But despite the political support, without the right critics and curators, the program soon dropped out of the public eye. Once viewers are disappointed with the exhibition, they don’t want to visit an exhibition far from the city.”
At the moment, there are about 60 on-going residency exhibition programs in Korea. The programs have been classified into three types. Changdon Studio, in northern Seoul, is run by the government. Other studios, such as Ilsan Open Studio, are privately run. Reputable galleries, including Ssamzie Space and Art Sonje, operate their own annual programs.
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In the beginning, the main goal for the two residency programs run by private galleries and the government was to offer spaces and money to artists who couldn’t afford them. But now both types of programs offer professional support; artists receive proper training and establish reputations as qualified artists through critical support.
As a result of the growth, there is a high rate of competition for artists to enter the residency program. The ratio of successful candidates to total number of applicants for the “Urban Legend” program at Ssamzie, for example, was 10 to one.
The curators at Ssamzie say they have been satisfied with the residency program, and they say that the program’s exchange with foreign artists has brought new genres of art to Korea.
“One issue everyone [in the art industry] talks about is public art. Because we chose foreign artists who are famous in their own fields, artists specializing in public art naturally started pouring into the Korean art scene,” Ms. Shin said, adding that that artistic influence is seen as a successful aspect to the international residency program. “Yet, for the international residency program to be fully developed, we still have a long way to go.”
She said she hopes that Ssamzie Space offers more valuable education programs to artists in its residency program and that it can invite much more qualified critics from the domestic and international art scenes.


by Jin Hyun-ju

The exhibition, “Urban Legend: Blurring Spaces,” runs through August 3. Ssamzie Space is open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free. The nearest subway station is Hongik University on line No. 2, exit 6. From the exit, walk straight about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles). For more information, call (02) 3142-1695, or visit the Web site, www.ssamziespace.com.

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