MMCA celebrates 50 years by looking at the past: ‘The Square’ covers a long history, but some feel it’s a bit lopsided
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) celebrated its 50th anniversary this year on Oct. 20. In honor of this achievement, the MMCA opened its largest-scale exhibition yet, expanding its perspective to a century of Korean history.
Under the title “The Square: Art and Society in Korea 1900-2019,” the exhibition takes place across three of its branches in Seoul, Deoksu Palace and Gwacheon - the first time for all three branches to co-host an exhibition under the same theme - each highlighting different parts of modern Korean history. While the Deoksu Palace branch displays artworks from the beginning of the 20th century to right before the Korean War (1950-53), the Gwacheon branch highlights works from 1950 to 2019, and the Seoul branch finishes off by looking at contemporary society. In total, some 450 pieces of art by 290 artists are on display across the museums.
“The Square” is a title symbolic of “the turbulence of 20th century Korean history,” according to director of MMCA Yoon Bum-mo, who expressed his hopes in this exhibition becoming a major turning point for the institution.
“The museum embodies the 20th century history within itself, of how art reacted to Korean history, how it interpreted and illustrated the history and how artists come to make their works. This is the first time that all three museums are holding the same exhibition, and we tried to include all the historical dynamism of the 20th century. We believe it is an important point in time for the museum,” Yoon told local press on Wednesday prior to the opening of the exhibition.
Although much of the exhibitions put an emphasis on resistance - whether that be to Japanese colonial rule, the military dictatorship or other forms of authoritarian forces - it is “not an exhibition that was put together for the current [progressive] administration,” according to Kang Soo-jung, senior curator at the museum and also the curator for the MMCA Gwacheon exhibit. “The Square” is a sphere of communication, a place where people gather to voice themselves out, as can be seen at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul.
“It is a reflection of modern history through art and also the artists’ affections towards society,” she said.
Although her argument may lose its power when visitors see a gigantic print hanging from the ceiling of MMCA Gwacheon, “Save Han-yeol” (1987) by Choi Byung-soo - created to commemorate and honor the death of Lee Han-yeol, a Yonsei University student who died while protesting the military dictatorship - along with Lee’s shoes - borrowed from the Lee Han Yeol Memorial Museum - and a model of a taxi inspired by the film “A Taxi Driver” (2017), the exhibit offers a vast array of works, 300 pieces by 200 artists along with 200 pieces of related documents and books. It’s a lot to take in, so be sure to take the time if you want to fully understand it all.
The best of MMCA’s possessions are on display, making the exhibition rich. Renowned names are visible, from Kim Whanki and his “Where, In What From, Shall We Meet Again” (1970), Park Seobo’s “Ecriture No. 43-78-79-81” (1981) and Kim Kulim’s “The Meaning of 1/24 Second” (1969) to works by younger stars such as Lee Bul’s “Cyborg WS” (1999), Im Heung-soon’s “Factory Complex” (2014) and Shin Mee-kyoung’s “Translation Series” (2006-2013).
It’s a chance “for people to see with their very own eyes the classic works that are on all the textbooks across the country,” according to curator Kang.
The exhibition at the Deoksu Palace branch, curated by Kim Im-hye, opens up some of the museum’s oldest archives, traveling back to 1900 to 1950. It explains how Korean art developed, with the centerpiece of the exhibition focusing on history - especially the Confucian scholars and middle-class men who rebelled against Japanese colonial rule in various ways. Paintings such as “Portrait of Jeon Woo” (1920) by Chae Yong-shin and “Bamboo” (1940) by Kim Jin-woo prove that Korean artists never let go of their brush, even through the Japanese oppression in the early 1900s, while magazines from the era tell the story of the class division liberation efforts by the people.
If the aforementioned exhibits look at the meaning of “The Square” as a political space, the exhibition at the Seoul branch looks at the geometric and social meaning of the square. The photograph series “Stranger” (1999-2000) by Yokomizo Shizuka looks at how people communicate with each other through a certain amount of distance, while Joo Hwang describes how people are forced to leave when they fail to fit in through the photo series “Departure” (2016). Hong Seung-hye’s “Bar” (2019) focuses on how the square provides a place for people to come together like they would at a bar.
“This exhibition asks us, who am I in this society, and what does a community mean? It gives us a chance to look at the issues that we don’t often get the chance to talk about, like the generation gap, gender, refugees and so on,” said curator Sabine Lee.
Yet, it may have been better for the museum to look at the future instead of the past for the meaningful year, according to art critic Lee Chung-woo. Art museums all over the world are pushing to change in accordance with the new age, putting their emphasis on finding new ways to curate and develop their contents, shedding light on social minorities.
“This exhibition doesn’t even look at the past 100 years of the history,” said Lee. “It has a very clear political agenda, stating that nationalism is correct and the past is wrong […] It should have been about change - about how they are planning on changing their methods of management, how they’re going to revolutionize and answer the calls of the age. It should have been about expressing that and making a promise, not looking at history.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]