The 16th edition of Korea International Art Fair which took place in Seoul’s biggest exhibition center COEX from September 21st to September 24th has unanimously been deemed a success. In the contemporary art world sales are perhaps the most important measure for such otherwise ambiguous concept and official numbers say this year KIAF saw its highest sales ever. Additionally, some 54 000 people are said to have visited (1 000 more than last year) pointing to the growing interest of young Koreans
But there are two sides to every story and market performance aside there is also the question of the event’s artistic offerings. This year there were a few notable changes from last year - there was no guest country of honor (last year that was Taiwan), the event was organised without the support of APAGA (Asia Pacific Art Galleries Association), the number of participating galleries and represented countries was lower than last year.
Photography, paintings and sculpture were all present at KIAF but photography was notably underrepresented
The latter has been attributed to the tension between North Korea and the USA which is at its highest point since the end of the Cold War. And while South Koreans are used to having a problematic neighbour and Korean media is known for not stressing out the general population by paying too much attention to the North’s threats, for the international public and especially for the art world the current political situation is not one that could be ignored.
Having anticipated all of the above setbacks KIAF organisers had come up with an interesting strategy to make the event interesting. They had done what in a Confucian country like Korea is seldom thought of - they blurred the lines between established artists and art students, between art and commerce, between the artist and the critic. This was done not as a haphazard exercise in spicing things up but towards the clear goal of bringing art and not status to the fore.
Pop art as well as very colourful works enjoy great popularity in Korea
Notable events from the program included an exhibition by young artists who participated in a three-day “Internship Summer Camp” organised by Hansong Group, the official dealer of Mercedes Benz in Korea. Luggage retailer Samsonite launched their new collection of suitcases and travel bags designed in collaboration with Korean artist Kwon Ki Soo. Two new sections - Highlight and Solo Project - intend to put emerging artists under the spotlight in a joint exhibition.
The event which drew most media coverage in Korea however, was a guerilla performance by Yun Jin Sob, one of Korea’s most influential art critics. His commentaries and essays on Dansekhwa, Korea’s most famous and representative art movement, have the status of a canon in the contemporary art world. For this year’s KIAF he had decided to cross over to the other side and be an artist himself. His appearance in COEX dressed as a woman and posing for photos with some of the artworks served as a starting point of a discussion on the nature and history of guerilla performing art in Korea.
Timeline of the history of Performance Art in Korea
As for the artworks exhibited one could see anything from classics like Picasso and Chagall to pioneering Korean modernist Kim Hwan-ki, to contemporary legends like Yayoi Kusama and Damien Hirst to the kawaii-style character art held in high estimation across Asia. Chinese and Southeast Asian artists were noticeably underrepresented as was the art of photography. In contrast contemporary works from Africa were shown reflecting a growing trend in the local art scene where each year sees more and more Africa-themed exhibitions opening.
Some of the few photographic works exhibited
In terms of art Korea is an interesting place to be. While Hong Kong strives to be an entry point to the Chinese art market and Singapore aims at establishing itself as a hub for Southeast Asian art Seoul has chosen a different approach. It aims to be international but its definition of international is fluid - one year it is more Asian and the other more Western, then who knows. The idea to elicit a k-art wave in the style of the k-pop craze sweeping across Asia is gathering a momentum and it will be interesting to see how further art professionals will be willing to take it.
Meanwhile one thing is clear - each and every year throughout Korea new art fairs, biennales and triennales are being organised paving the country’s way to being an art hub in its own right. And while this lack of clearly defined flavour may seem as a disadvantage to some or may prove to be one in the future for now it only makes Seoul one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world.
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