Cover Exterior of Kukje Seoul’s renovated K1 space, Photo: Chunho An, Courtesy of Kukje Gallery

Frieze Art Fair opens its inaugural edition in Seoul this week, following the opening of a number of international galleries in the city in recent years. Tatler explores how art could be the next K-culture phenomenon

“Every orthodontist, podiatrist, whoever: everyone seems to be collecting [art],” says Korean American gallerist Esther Kim Varet of the mushrooming South Korean art scene, adding: “It’s incredibly robust.” Varet opened a branch of her Los Angeles-originated gallery, Various Small Fires (VSF), in Seoul in 2018, and was taken aback by the response it received. “I was anticipating a slow growth when I opened the space four years ago, but collecting has gone so mainstream in Korea.”

For Varet, establishing a presence in Seoul felt like a natural move: she spoke the language and was familiar with the city and its culture. Moreover, her programme lent itself well to cross-cultural collaboration, as it primarily features American and Korean contemporary artists – a solo exhibition featuring the work of US artist Deidrick Brackens is currently on view at VSF Seoul. However, there has been a proliferation of well-established, blue-chip international galleries opening outposts across Seoul in recent years. While Varet’s operation has garnered acclaim, it’s considerably smaller than the likes of Perrotin, Peres Projects, Lehman Maupin, Pace, Gladstone, Thaddaeus Ropac and König, all of whom have claimed a stake in the Korean capital’s thriving art scene within the past five years.

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This year’s arrival of Frieze Seoul, the first Asian outpost of the international art fair, undoubtedly bolstered the hype. Held in partnership with the Galleries Association of Korea and coinciding with long-standing Korean art fair KIAF, held in the same venue, Coex, Frieze Seoul was a confident first foray into Asia. Originally founded in London in 2003, Frieze also has New York and Los Angeles editions. More than 110 galleries, both international and local, will participate in the new fair, the inauguration of which practically served as an announcement to the global art community that the Korean art world had finally arrived on a world stage.

“Korea has been under the radar for such a long time,” say Rachel Lehmann, co-founder of the New York-headquartered Lehmann Maupin gallery. “The addition of Frieze to an already dynamic arts scene will be the cherry on top of the cake.” Lehmann’s gallery has had a presence in Seoul since 2017, a new expanded gallery opened earlier this year in the city's affluent Hannam-dong neighbourhood, but its relationship with the country started 20 years ago when it started working with renowned Korean artist Do Ho Suh. Since then, it has represented two more significant Korean artists: Lee Bul and Suh Se Ok. As one of the first international gallerists to look to Korea, Lehmann counts off the major trends she has encountered within the Korean art scene in recent years: “The rise of young collectors, those who are after world-class contemporary art from different parts of the world, [and a] growing interest for Korean art in Korea.”

 

South Korea has an established history of prizing culture, evidenced by its many private museums, such as the Leeum Museum of Art in Seoul, founded in 2004 by the Samsung Foundation of Culture. The Hannam-dong centre joins public museums, such as the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, in giving Korean art a strong institutional foundation and contributing significantly to the country’s art landscape. Arts patron and veteran collector Higgin Kim, a construction and engineering CEO, attests to this and recounts his generation (he is now in his 70s) as being the first to collect Western artwork. He notes art’s rising appeal among a wider demographic: “Because of successful business ventures and entertainment businesses, many young Koreans have started to buy art.”

Bo Young Song is the managing director of Kukje Seoul, one of Asia’s largest galleries, which was established in 1982. She has noticed changes and developments in collecting cultural artefacts and Seoul’s art ecosystem. “The openness and sophistication we see from collectors is on an entirely different level today,” she says. New, younger collectors are also much more internationally exposed and engaged on social media notes Youngjoo Lee, vice president of Pace gallery in Seoul. “They don’t feel like they need to hide anything, it’s like a passion to share what they’ve been collecting on social media. But the older generation still don’t reveal their collections too much.”

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They are also living in an era where K-culture is global cultural force. RM, the lead member of BTS, the biggest band in the world, is a known art enthusiast and collector. Last December, he posted photos from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Given the K-pop performer’s vast influence and 36.9 million Instagram followers, the post arguably sparked a newfound interest in fine and visual arts. Subsequently, this summer, the band announced a new collaboration with Google Arts and Culture, BTS x Street Galleries. Through this platform, fans can take virtual tours of locations that have special meanings for the band, while learning about each member’s taste in art. What’s clear is that these developments herald a new moment in K-culture domination forming a confluence between the worlds of fine art and pop culture.

“There’s no reason why art couldn’t be as strong as these other cultural mediums,” says Patrick Lee, director of Frieze Seoul. “The scene here is very established. I have [overseas] visitors here now and they’re surprised at how developed it is. At this point, Seoul is pretty much selling itself.” In addition to the museums, non-profit spaces and numerous homegrown fairs, two biennales were established in the cities of Gwangju and Busan respectively. The former is critically acclaimed, attracting international participation. This can be attributed to state support for art and cultural mediums, especially compared to many other Asian countries. “It’s not just K-pop, K-drama, K-beauty,” says Varet on government spending for the arts. “Even [cultural events] like kimchi festivals—the promotion of these things abroad is all by the Korean government to spread culture as a form of capital.”

 

Austrian gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac, who has galleries in Salzburg, London and Paris, opened his Seoul gallery last October, and says that lack of VAT and sales tax (works under 60 million won are exempt) makes Seoul, like Hong Kong, an attractive Asian city to do business in. The lack of censorship and established infrastructure and abundance of local talent also gives the city a competitive edge culturally. “It basically lives and is successful on its own,” says Ropac of Seoul’s art ecosystem, describing the city as a “huge creative melting pot”. He plans to hold an exhibition soon showcasing Korean artists, heightening Seoul’s status as a major cultural destination.

A month ahead of the fair’s opening, the anticipation for Frieze was palpable. “It’s like the night before a storm,” says Korean gallerist Jason Haam, describing the atmosphere in Seoul. “Museums, galleries, curators, artists, collectors: it seems as if everyone is coming.” Haam opened his eponymous gallery in 2018 and showcases mostly international artists; currently, a solo exhibition show featuring Swiss artist Urs Fischer is on view.

Galleries have saved their best material for the fair and for the exhibitions which will be opening that week. A number of important and celebrated contemporary artists are slated to attend, including Fischer, German artist Anselm Keifer, who will open a show with Ropac, the founders of the digital art collective teamLab, and Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, both of whom will be showcased in Pace’s newly renovated and expanded space.

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To cater to a younger generation of collectors, many gallerists have incorporated lifestyle elements into the design of their spaces and the way it functions. For example, Kukje’s Samcheong-dong building was renovated in 2020 to include a café, gym and spa, while Pace’s new space will include a traditional Korean teahouse and print shop, all of which are open to the public. König Galerie’s Seoul space, which opened last year, will include a rooftop sculpture garden.

For the larger galleries, having interesting spaces is an important part of defining their gallery within the city and offering the possibility to create unique exhibitions. Gladstone Gallery, whose Seoul space was inaugurated earlier this year with a solo exhibition featuring works by Phillip Parreno, followed by one with Korean-American artist Anicka Yi, chose to be in the Cheongdam-dong district because they wanted to find a standalone building. Paula Tsai, a gallery partner, says its “main focus is to provide artists with new chances to show their work in new contexts, allowing them to have conversations in the region”.

 

This is why “finding prime locations is challenging and probably explains why galleries are dispersed all over the city”, explains Soo Choi, who straddles two roles as both the director of König Seoul and founder of her own gallery, P21. The influx of international galleries combined with Frieze’s touchdown, means increased competition for local galleries. Lehmann, despite being representative of an international gallery, says that her only concern is that the fair could distract attention away from the Korean galleries who are integral to the history of the local art market and narrative. “I hope that the fair is taking a considered approach in ensuring local voices are elevated and not drowned out.”

Across her two roles, Choi tackles this concern by catering to the diverse emerging tastes of the Korean collector base and by showcasing both established international artists and emerging local ones. At P21, the gallery is having a solo show by Haneyl Choi, a young artist who uses traditional sculpture techniques to create work that addresses his queer identity. Meanwhile König will exhibit works by German painter Matthias Weischer.

 

In leading Frieze Seoul, Lee worked on the fair’s programming, which includes a film sector entitled I am My Own Other. Curated by two art non-profits, GYOPO of Los Angeles and Seoul’s Wess, the programme features the work of ten local and diasporic Korean artists across two locations to involve and highlight Korean artists and institutions. “Korea to me, is the most exciting in terms of the younger emerging artists, and I think that's where the action is,” Lee says. “[Frieze] is not just a platform for Western galleries to be exposed to Asian audiences; it’s also one for Asian artists and curators.”

Given Seoul and the wider nation’s rich yet under-exposed art scene, the advent of Frieze Seoul has become largely about “waking up the rest of the world to Seoul”, as Varet puts it. “It’ll help the city feel validated in an international sense; it’ll feel seen. Everyone wants to come; they just need a reason.” And now they have one.

 

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