by Vatsala SethiDec 31, 2022
Seoul is a city of screens. The Coex convention centre in Gangnam-gu, home to the Frieze Seoul and Kiaf SEOUL fairs (September 6-10, 2023), is a digital billboard bonanza of Times Square-like proportions. But these digital surfaces aren’t limited to the central business district, they are ubiquitous. And this Seoul Art Week (September 1-10) screens proliferated in the art scene, too.
The SongEun Art Space greets visitors with a pillar of screens that seemingly hold up the wedge-shaped concrete building, which was designed by Herzog & de Meuron and opened in 2021. For the current show of almost exclusively Korean artists, titled Panorama (until October 28), the media wall is showing Seung Hye Hong’s A Certain Panorama (2023), a “video experiment (that) features the organic division and fusion of pixels,” a press statement says. Inside, the art exhibition includes several video-based works by artists including Sungsil Ryu, Jaye Rhee, and Raejung Sim alongside more traditional paintings by Grim Park, Jiyoung Keem and Jinju Lee. Downstairs in one of the museum’s basement galleries is a special programme of art performance and sound installations by Hoyeon Kang, Anna Anderegg, Youngeun Kim, and GRAYCODE jiiiin. The exhibition was impressive in its range of media, inclusion of queer art, and experimental programming.
Over at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP)—an imposing, silver spaceship-like building designed by Zaha Hadid—is an exhibition devoted to digital art. LUX: Poetic Resolution (until December 31) follows on from a large-scale media presentation at 180 The Strand in London in 2021. This second edition includes five artists from the original show plus seven new artists. “This exhibition presents the current manifestation of contemporary technology-based art, introducing various artworks by artists who have expanded the genre of art by experimenting with emerging technologies,” mentions the exhibition statement.
The show is well produced and both a digital art lover's and selfie lover’s dream. It opens with Carsten Nicolai’s unicolor (2014), a projection of coloured shapes and mathematical patterns that span a large-scale screen. Evoking the en vogue artist Refik Anadol was the New-York based Chinese artist Cao Yuxi (James) whose work Shanshui by AI (2022) uses AI programming to capture thousands of oriental ink drawings and then generate a pulsing video of pixels in response. And crowds thronged to see Krista Kim’s new work Continuum: Seoul (2023), a large digital projection displaying a spectrum of colour inspired by light and Zen philosophy, which will also be on show at the World Economic Forum in Davos next year.
The only blot on this otherwise impressive presentation of digital work was the overt sponsorship of the show—the cosmetics company Lush (one of several sponsors) had a huge display-cum-shop right outside the exhibition that seemed incredibly gauche to the British eye. “Art and brands have a much closer relationship in Korea,” a fellow exhibition-goer explained. Leaving the DDP, the silver exterior of the building became a digital work itself as Miguel Chevalier’s work Meta-Nature AI (until September 10) was projected across the facade to spectacular effect.
Artificial intelligence was also one of the hot topics at two blockchain art-related conferences: Crypto Art Seoul (September 5-7) and NFT Seoul (September 1). Seoul Art Week coincides this year with Korea Blockchain Week, and while NFT prices may have crashed in the past year, the crypto community was out in force. This is unsurprising since Korea is currently considered one of the most crypto-friendly countries. “With both of the Web3's prominent media outlets NFT NOW & Rug Radio announcing this week that they are opening branches in Seoul, South Korea is rapidly growing as a cultural and innovation hub of Asia, and one to most certainly keep an eye on,” says Aleksandra Art, the curator and partnerships lead at joyn.xyz, a collaborative platform for Web3 media, who spoke at both conferences.
Despite this seemingly burgeoning crypto market and the widespread digital creativity on display in Seoul’s art institutions, blockchain works and new media art were noticeably absent from the Kiaf and Frieze fairs. Instead, more traditional painting—particularly large-scale art—dominated the stands. Last year, Kiaf introduced Kiaf Plus, a separate ‘satellite fair’ that was designed to show younger galleries, new media art, and NFTs. This section has now been attached to the main fair itself and had very few digital-focused galleries or works. The main fair included a special exhibition titled Gray Box Area: Space as an Event that aimed to “draw attention to spatial screening to present one of the media art landscapes that are witnessed in Korea today (sic)," a statement read. The two screening rooms presented 10 Korean artists’ works scheduled throughout the art fair. The works were interesting but the long (and badly written) curator texts coupled with a slightly hidden location within the fair (next to the VIP lounge but not well signposted) meant that this section probably did not make the impact that it intended. On the booths, Kiaf’s offering of digital work mostly consisted of pieces by Nam June Paik, for sale at several galleries including Bhak gallery, Die Galerie, and PYO Gallery. This prevalence of works by the Korean-American artist is to be expected if a little uninspired.
Clara Che Wei Peh, a Singapore-based writer and curator specialising in NFTs and digital art, agreed that “there seemed to be fewer booths with digital and new media works (in the fairs) this year.” She noted that Yeo Workshop’s presentation of Priyageetha Dia’s work was a standout. “The two-channel video was installed in the middle of a structure made out of plastic shipping crates, a striking installation of hardware and an amplification of the work’s focus on colonial plantation systems and data extractivism,” she says. Another booth with a notable digital work was the Korean gallery Arario, which included pieces by the Indian video art pioneer Nalini Malani (the Seoul branch of the gallery is also holding a solo show of her work titled My Reality Is Different until October 21).
It’s also worth noting that a lot of the digital “art” experiences at the Frieze fair were presented as partnerships or sponsorships with luxury brands or electronics companies. These included The Electric AI Canvas, showing AI art projections on the surface of a BMW i5 car; the watch dealer Breguet’s digital art commissions around the theme Streaming Time; and a huge section of works by the Korean abstract artist Kim Whanki presented on LG OLED screens, courtesy of the Frieze’s headline partner LG Electronics. Like the aforementioned LUX/Lush collaboration, these branded sections felt more audacious than usual for art events—even a commercial one like Frieze.
As with all good “art weeks” there were more exhibitions, talks, and events than were physically possible to attend. But audiences seem to be responding: Kiaf reported more than 80,000 visitors, up 10,000 from last year’s numbers, and Frieze said more than 70,000 people attended its fair. “It seems to me that Seoul has become one of the most exciting art hubs in Asia, with reputable museums, two fairs, and a growing number of blue-chip galleries choosing Seoul as their Asian outpost,” Che Wei Peh says. But one thing seems clear: while Korea’s artists continue to experiment and break new ground digitally, it is yet to become saleable. Until then, it seems commercial entities and local institutions will be footing the bill.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)