Seoul Cycle

Joo Hwang, Hudson Street, 1996, digital c-print, 47 x 38", at Art Space Boan 1942. All photos: Hiji Nam.

ARRIVING OFF A FOURTEEN-HOUR FLIGHT from New York, I couldn’t remember the code to my grandmother’s apartment, until it came back like muscle memory: 1945, the year of national liberation for my grandparents, who were in middle school when the Japanese occupation of Korea ended. The persistence of the country’s ancient Confucian moral codes are refracted and jumbled through memories of imperial rule and aspirational neoliberalism in modern Seoul, and compounding deep-rooted hostilities against our former colonizer are the recent trade standoffs; the astonishing sense of kinship among Koreans manifests in ongoing boycotts of Uniqlo and Lexus, as well as their curtailment of travel to Japan. Driving daily to the gallery-saturated Samcheong-dong area, I witnessed people gathering at Gwanghwamun Square for all sorts of contemporary causes, from freeing the disgraced conservative ex-president Park Geun-hye to anti-US militarization efforts: “TRUMP, GO HOME WITH THE US ARMY!” The stain of the American military and the illogic of capital is everywhere—a popular dish named Budae-jjigae, which literally means “army-base stew,” originated after the Korean War, when Koreans scrounged for food scraps left over by American soldiers. It is so polluted in the city’s matrix of rabid traffic and construction and office towers and shopping malls that some days I felt like I was choking.

The Deoksugung branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) was once a museum of the Japanese Empire. It serves as the meta starting point for “The Square: Art and Society in Korea 1900–2019,” an extensive fiftieth anniversary exhibition situated across its three sites in Seoul, Gwacheon, and Deoksugung. The latter installation focuses on the first half of the twentieth century and makes the strongest curatorial offering of the three with its excellent selection of magazines and printed ephemera, film, and theater works, all contextualized within the history of anti-imperial struggles in Korea, such as the 1919 March First Movement—one of the first organized acts of defiance asserting Korean independence, inspired by the Russian Revolution. (This is especially worth remembering, given that Marx’s Capital was banned in the South until the late 1980s, and “reddie” remains a slur directed against people with pro-North sympathies or radical politics.)

Deoksugung Palace.

It is the value of domestic collectivity—and the extremes society is willing to endure for it—that Hyesoo Park questions. The Korea Artist Prize finalist’s exhibition at MMCA Seoul addressed the “disintegration of the family, social polarization, and dying alone,” and included a concept for a speculative app that would enable users to rent a “perfect family.” Unmarried women over a certain age face intense social pressure in Korea. Friends wanting to raise a child by themselves, for example, wonder how they would evade their family’s condemnation. “As a single-person household, I’m actually a prime candidate for using the app myself,” said Park. My vote for the top prize, though, would be Jewyo Rhii, whose installation Love Your Depot laid bare the immense labor and resources required to physically maintain artworks—or else risk their obsolescence—by staging a functioning storage system. Artist Park Chan-Kyong (brother of filmmaker Park Chan-Wook) also made an appearance to discuss his Hyundai Motor Series exhibition, comprising films and a mazelike installation that showcased the artist’s career-long contemplation of Korea’s often uncritical indoctrination into Western institutions—including, of course, the museum itself. When I asked him how his early years writing art criticism related to his artmaking, he answered simply, “I never identified as an art critic; just as a writer.” Amen.

Another highlight at the museum’s Seoul branch was a sweeping survey of Soungui Kim’s fifty-year practice. Over the past five decades, the artist has collaborated with John Cage and Nam June Paik, and quietly made objects and performances that playfully sublimate Wittgenstein, Fluxus, deconstructionism, and her belief in the plentitude of idleness into traditional Korean motifs, such as color stripes and calligraphy, and ephemeral “materials,” including balloons, archery, and poetry.

Soungui Kim, “Lazy Clouds,” at MMCA Seoul.

But slacker aesthetics are not a natural fit in Seoul (Kim moved to France in the 1970s and has remained there since); my grandmother was horrified that I would wear sweatpants to a seated dinner, and for the most part, people are hustling, reliably so in the contemporary gallery scene. Among my stops were Gallery Hyundai (Tomás Saraceno), PKM (Cody Choi), Various Small Fires (Math Bass), Leeahn Gallery (Imi Knoebel), and Kukje (Haegue Yang). In the past five years, international titans Pace, Perrotin, and Lehmann Maupin (and, most recently, the smaller LA operation VSF) have opened outposts here, and there are whispers of more to come, but for now, the market is still largely driven by the galleries of family-owned megacorporations such as Hyundai and Samsung, and their ties to the government. When I asked a federal employee about an ambitious government plan to build 140 museums and 46 galleries by 2023, he answered diplomatically, “That’s an . . . aspirational government announcement.”

Conspiracy theories about the Hong Kong protests flowed through soju-fueled gallery dinners, where we shared private rooms with K-pop stars and chaebol family daughters, and news about the trade wars blared from the radios of overworked and underpaid taxi drivers. I thought of my mother’s father, who drove taxis in Seoul, too. Arriving home to Yeouido, I see the Trump World towers, glittering on the edge of the Han River.

Esther Kim Varet, owner of Various Small Fires; artist Nikki S. Lee; writer Emily Segal; artist Math Bass; VSF LA director Sara Hantman; VSF Seoul director Somin Jeon.

Artist Tomás Saraceno at his opening at Gallery Hyundai.

MMCA director Youn Bum-mo.

Art historian Haeyun Park; Katie Sangmin Lee; Jaeho Chong; artist Dachal Choi; curator Hyo Gyoung Jeon of Art Sonje Center.

Kim Kulim, Body Painting, 1969, at MMCA Gwacheon.

Joorhee Kwon at Kukje Gallery.

Haegue Yang, Seoul Guts, 2010, at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.