[INTERVIEW] Korean contemporary art captures attention in US, Europe

[INTERVIEW] Korean contemporary art captures attention in US, Europe

John R. Stomberg, the Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961s Director of the Hood Museum of Art, left, and Kim Sung-lim, an associate professor of art history at Dartmouth College / Courtesy of the Korea Foundation

Korea’s modern and contemporary art gaining momentum, while exhibitions in West remain outdated

By Park Han-sol

Many, many years ago, the increase in trade between Western Europe and Asia following the Age of Discovery, which began in the 1400s, built Western Europeans’ fascination with what they called “the Orient.”

They had discovered “exotic” Asia thorough its arts and design. The artists’ enthrallment eventually took the form of “Chinoiserie,” which originated from the French word for “after the Chinese taste.”

Inspired by motifs in Chinese art, the style is a European imitation and evocation of what they perceived to be the art of East Asia. The popularity of Chinoiserie reached its peak in the 17th century, as it paired well with lavishly embellished Rococo decorations.

Then, as trade with Japan became possible in 1858, Europeans’ interest in Asian culture switched to Japan, as seen in the phenomenon called “Japonisme” ― referring to the popularity of Japanese art and design among a number of Western European artists in the latter half of the 19th century.

Now in the 21st century, Korean art has begun to draw attention from Europeans and North Americans, according to Kim Sung-lim, an associate professor of art history at Dartmouth College.

“Japonisme spread across the Impressionist and Post-impressionist artists, who were looking for something different and found Japanese Ukiyo-e prints very attractive and adopted them in their own work,” she said during an interview with The Korea Times last week. “And now, since the late 20th century, we have the Korean Wave, or hallyu.”

Kim herself has experienced directly the growing interest in Korean culture and art among Americans in her classes.

In the past, she said, her students were mostly Asian Americans, but they have gradually become more racially and ethnically diverse. Their interests these days extend far beyond K-pop to Korea’s politics, social movements, chaebol and industrial development, inter-Korean relations and Korean artists, among many others.

John R. Stomberg, the Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961s Director of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art, also joined in the interview, which was held before the Korea Foundation Assembly for Overseas Museums at the Westin Josun Hotel in Seoul.

He added that Korean art, which ranges from works that appeal to traditional tastes to those born from innovative techniques, presents a distinction that can be quite exciting for audiences overseas: “While it has understated aesthetics that date for a long time ― which can be seen in furniture [like wooden cabinets, lacquerware], for example ― it’s also tech-savvy, adventurous and innovative,” he said.

“So it’s an amazing moment to see innovation and tradition projecting forth into the future and creating an art that’s really dynamic.”

[INTERVIEW] Korean contemporary art captures attention in US, Europe

The 2021 The Korea Foundation Assembly for Overseas Museums, attended by more than 50 academics, directors and curators of museums here and abroad, was held at the Westin Josun Seoul, Nov. 11. Courtesy of the Korea Foundation

While Korean art has started to gain momentum in the international art scene, the way works are typically presented in museums overseas is considered old-fashioned and in need of an update.

It is true that more art institutions have been making strides in recent years to acquire and exhibit the works of modern and contemporary Korean artists, but their permanent Korean collections still tend to rely heavily on ceramics, lacquerware and paintings from the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910) dynasties.

As such, for visitors, their understanding of Korea runs the risk of becoming limited to what they see inside the glass display vitrines ― which are seen as relics of bygone eras instead of as a continuous cultural stream that persists to this day.

“What happened in the U.S. and Europe is that, in the popular mindset, [the image of] Korea became stuck in the 17th and 18th ― maybe 19th ― centuries because so many of our museums have works from those eras,” Stomberg noted. “It’s time for museums to bring more contemporary Korean culture to the U.S. and Europe.”

This sentiment was echoed by several other museums’ curators during the assembly’s plenary session, which followed the interview.

“Korean art is often presented… as ‘no longer,'” Jessica S. Hong, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, remarked during her speech. “But it is a continuous stream. Korean contemporary artists are also looking at previous historical practices and in dialogue with past traditions. So thinking about temporality in a different way [is crucial].”

One of the latest attempts made by the Hood Museum of Art to expand the scope of Korean art presented to its audiences is the exhibition of the contemporary Korean ink-and-wash painter, Park Dae-sung, scheduled to take place in the fall of next year.

[INTERVIEW] Korean contemporary art captures attention in US, Europe

Contemporary Korean ink-and-wash painter Park Dae-sung poses in front of his panoramic piece, “Snowscape of Bulguksa Temple” (2021), which was presented last summer at the exhibition, “Insight,” at the Insa Art Center in central Seoul. Courtesy of Gana Art

Curated by Professor Kim, the traveling show will highlight the works of the 76-year-old artist, who is renowned for continuing the traditional styles of Korean landscape paintings, while adding daring, modern touches.

Some of his pieces capture the familiar features of ancient ink-and-wash paintings ― mountainous valleys, waterfalls and pine trees ― but in a dynamic bird’s-eye view or fisheye perspective. Others are notable for their sheer size and imposing presence. His large-scale paintings slide down along the ground as they cannot be contained on the wall alone.

“Park’s works are very much of our time; the way they take up space, demanding to be taken as objects that exist in our world with us and having that kind of stand-up power rather than being diminutive. It’s a very contemporary posture for the art,” Stomberg added. “And yet, they’re also quiet, contemplative, harmonious and beautiful.”

In addition to organizing such temporary exhibitions that introduce a wide range of Korean artists and styles to the U.S. and Europe, Professor Kim highlighted the fundamental need for an increase in jobs for people who can critically represent Korean art to audiences overseas.

“I think in the last 10 years or so, there have been a great number of [individuals with] Ph.D.s in Korean Studies and art, but there is still a very limited number of jobs for them,” she said. “I would also like to have more platforms where… more artists, scholars, curators and critics get together and collaborate.”

[INTERVIEW] Korean contemporary art captures attention in US, Europe

The late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee / Korea Times file

Art donation culture in the U.S., Korea

Back in April, the news of late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee’s art trove being donated to state-run museums made headlines across Korea. Part of the reason for such heated interest was the sheer extent and size of the collection: more than 23,000 pieces spanning from the early Bronze Age all the way through to the turbulent modern era.

But a bigger reason lies in the fact that this event took place in Korea, where art donation has not been, and is still not, a prevalent practice. For example, according to data released by the National Museum of Korea, as of March of this year, only 6.9 percent of its entire collection comes from individual or corporate donors. Last year, a mere seven pieces were added to its donation list.

It’s an entirely different situation for museums in the U.S., says Stomberg, whose job as the Hood Museum of Art’s director entails working with donors on a regular basis: “We have an enormous donor class who wants to give art to the museum, so much so that I often have to spend my time saying no to donations that are not appropriate or up to our standards.”

Such an active culture of art donation largely stems from the U.S. federal government’s incentive program, which makes donations to nonprofit organizations ― such as museums, symphony orchestras and dance companies in the cultural sector ― tax-deductible.

As a result, these organizations’ survival often paradoxically hinges on private donations in lieu of federal support for the arts, which remains marginal ― a system that also has downsides due to the lack of consistent basic government support.

Nevertheless, many are expressing hope that Lee’s collection can help boost the art donation culture within Korea. Stomberg provided an important word of caution in regards to maintaining curatorial and scholarly independence when receiving donations.

“You have to develop policies and standards so that your curators can be driving what type of art appears in the museum… [Otherwise,] you can really shift the vision of a museum and the direction towards the donor’s vision, rather than with that of the director and the curator.”

[INTERVIEW] Korean contemporary art captures attention in US, Europe

Lee Jung-seob’s “Bull,” (1950s) currently on display at the “MMCA Lee Kun-hee Collection: Masterpieces of Korean Art” exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) in Seoul / Courtesy of MMCA

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