A tour into Seoul’s sleepless art week

Insight on the city's vibrant energy.

Words by Valentina Buzzi

On the very last Saturday afternoon of August – aperitivo time – Gallery Perrotin opens its new space in Dosan Park (neighborhood of Sinsa-dong, Seoul). As I was running between meetings and stuck in the usual traffic of the capital, I arrived slightly late to the party, finding the gallery already filled with guests and visitors, many of whom were international, the majority being for the first time in Seoul. “We arrived yesterday, and I am just returning from visiting the Leeum Museum. What an impressive institution that I didn’t expect,”- tells an art advisor from Spain – “Korea seems like an interesting scene to discover.”

Emma Webster at Perrotin
Emma Webster at Perrotin. Courtesy of Perrotin.

The art world landed some days prior to start savoring the taste of the recently elected “new Asian art hub.” First-time visitors arrived with their minds filled with questions – “Why Korea?” or “Is Seoul the new Hong Kong?” – many wanting to confirm if their investment – whether it was an overpriced flight or a booth at the fairs – was a good one. At the opening of Perrotin, which presented an exceptional show by LA-based artist Emma Webster, we could sense the same shared excitement and curiosity that would have marked the mood of the following days. 

Being a European who has lived and worked in Seoul’s art scene over the past few years, the whole week was a pleasant surprise and a confirmation of the belief that Korea has so much to offer. Without the need for approval from the global industry, Seoul welcomed its international guests, offering a clear statement on the possibilities of an ecosystem that has been nurtured for over three decades. Knowing little about the subject, many felt mesmerized by the extensive museum scene, the solid gallery system, and the presence of a wide arrange of cross-generational talent. The boom of the last few years is a result of something that Korea has been cultivating and consumed during this fair week, captivating hungry souls looking for a new hub to invest in. 

“I’ve never seen a city that has so much energy as Seoul – there’s so much excitement and willingness to push forward, and the terrain seems fertile enough to develop further and further,” told a London-based dealer met during Samcheong Night, an event that saw all galleries in the historical Samcheong-dong being open until midnight, serving food and drinks, as well as hosting parties. A feeling that was shared by many was an unmatched enthusiasm and curiosity for a capital that had just in recent years arrived at the center of the spotlight. Perhaps the real deal in these past days has been the possibility for the whole city to breathe art from every pore, with events, parties, pop-up exhibitions, and gallery nights sparking from every major art neighborhood. Even fashion brands hosted their own exclusive dinners (Chanel) or techno parties (Bottega Veneta), following a current trend we’ve recently seen at the Venice Biennale, among others.

Gallery turned club
Gallery turned club.

Day-time events matched their evening counterparts. Organized groups escorted their guests to the studios of Lee Bul, Park Seo Bo, and Ha Chong-Hyun. A friend who visited Lee Bul shared a heartfelt anecdote: when stuck for a few minutes in the studio elevator, the artist started singing to distract panicked guests. An unforgettable memory was formed while discovering the impressive work of one of the most prominent Korean female artists, pivotal for understanding the recent history of local contemporary art. One thing that emerged from this week is that despite Korean artists’ impressive quality and talent, very little is known beyond Dansaekhwa and its epigones, Nam June Paik, or the few ones acclaimed internationally. Thus, this week has been for much field research – between museums, galleries, and studio visits, rushing to discover “the next Lee Ufan” without even looking at masters such as Kim Whanki, whose fascinating museum is often left outside the radar. Luckily for them, many institutions prepared high-quality shows to provide the knowledge that was missing. 

 

As someone who cares deeply about the local system, my duty has been mostly to lead guests to the right places, inviting them to open up to a deeper understanding of Korea beyond “what’s hot in the market,” letting the full-scale settle in those curious minds. On that note, some days before the art week, a couple of dear friends working in the art field – including Joon Yub Lee (director of Gallery Shilla Seoul), Jin Meyerson (artist), and Andrew Russeth (art critic) – found ourselves in a recording café in Mapo area, registering a podcast for a New York-based radio on our beloved art places in Korea. At the question “what do you think about the upcoming art week?” We all shared excitement, proud of being part of this fantastic system we call home. This spark was shared by many fellow professionals: the openness, the eagerness to show and let others see what Korea was and had to offer.  

Recording a podcast on our beloved Kore at MidoPa
Andrew Russeth recording a podcast with Jin Meyerson.

On another night, I hopped in with a couple of friends at Massimo de Carlo x Hyundai Party, hosted at Kockiri, an iconic gay bar in Itaewon. A festive and liberatory mood filled the air. The loud disco music embraced a venue crowded with local artists, international dealers, collectors, and gallerists — all enjoying, connecting, and learning about each other. That evening, I bumped into an artist whom I had been working with often, who casually introduced me to a collector who loves Milan. We bonded over the city being my hometown and found each other going together to Frieze Masters, enjoying post-war Italian art presentations. Parties in art weeks celebrate networking occasions, where words flow softened by one or two drinks (and consequent deals justifying the headache the day after). The day prior, we all met at Christie’s Bacon x Ghenie presentation at Boon The Shop, a leading luxury fashion boutique in Seoul. The atmosphere was quite different, between elegant and stiff, some of us being there to see and being seen – but the works presented were fantastic. Between one glass of champagne and not-really-fulfilling finger food, our gazes were captured repeatedly by the works of the British master in conversation with the Romanian painter. The works, with an overall worth of over $440M, were for once not linked to an auction but perhaps an entrancing branding campaign: great beauty in this industry never comes without a (hidden) strategy behind it. Yet, we all welcome these compromises to have our eyes caught by the painterly masterpieces, free champagne, and good networking.  

The ambiance at the fair(s) was rather different and opened a new chapter to explore. Those present at the prior edition of Kiaf – held in October 2021 – might remember the impatience and rush to buy and collect on the first day during the VVIP preview. This year, with the opening coinciding with the inauguration of Frieze Seoul, things have been different, perhaps quieter. No rush, no buzz, but nevertheless, a solid response and a high-quality offer showcasing a compelling narration of what Korean art can put on the plate. Historical and powerhouse galleries such as Shilla, Gana Art, Hakgojae, Kukje, Leeahn, and Johyun (among others) have presented and highlighted the starts of their rosters, introducing not only the beloved Dansaekhwa and Post-Dansaekhwa Masters but also who came before (Kim Whanki), in parallel (Kwak Hoon and the AG group) and their disciples (Kim Taeksang, Bo Kim, among others). Exceptional as well the presentation of large-scale works of pioneering talents such Nam June Paik (Hakgojae), together with the presence of rising stars such as Heejoon Lee (Kukje), Jiwon Choi (Thisweekendroom), Jaesook Lee (Gallery2) among others.

Lee Kunyong Performance at Songeun Art Space copy 2
Lee Kun-yong's performance at Songeun Art Space.

An attentive walk into the fair offered an occasion to learn and discover the path of contemporary Korean art, one that continued in the various events happening in the city. As previously mentioned, the global industry is curious and carefully listens while being positively captured by the city’s vibrancy. And it goes without saying that this year marked the separation between a “before” and an “after.” Things will change, and we must think about the directions we want to drive to. It is important to reflect on how to enhance sustainability in the long term, reminding ourselves and others that in spite of the booming scene, Korea is still a “small market.” It is also perhaps time to stop comparing Seoul to Hong Kong, as both art capitals have their own history, peculiarity, and taste – that was something discussed with many peers. 

The global art industry will certainly respond strongly to Seoul, as I can’t count the conversations with people wanting to relocate or open a new business – whether it’s a gallery or an art advisory branch. As Seoul welcomes the international art world, it must be sure that its own distinctive nature is well learned and understood. Incredible possibilities are waiting for Korea, yet they must be carefully crafted. As the plot develops and the story unfolds, we wait for the following year’s edition of art week with matched enthusiasm and new questions hanging. 

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