English series features contemporary Korean art
By Chung Ah-young
In a move to shed light on contemporary Korean art which is relatively unknown to the world, the Arts Council Korea (ARKO) has published a series of the books written in English.
The “Contemporary Korean Arts Series” is designed to promote the current status and specialty of contemporary Korean art overseas and improve interchanges of the arts around the world.
The series comprises of four volumes — “Daehangno: Theater District in Seoul”; “Diaspora: Korean Nomadism”; “Harmonia Koreana: A Short History of 20th-century Korean Music” and “City as Art: 100 Notable Works of Architecture in Seoul.”
It is part of ARKO’s project of a total of 15 titles in five years. It will publish three more titles — “Contemporary Korean Dance,” “Popular Music in Korea” and “Modern Female Artists in Korea” — next year.
Currently, there is a lack of reference material concerning contemporary Korean art for non-Koreans. The series will offer a window to contemporary Korean art worldwide and boost international artistic exchanges.
“People are becoming more and more interested in Korean culture and art worldwide along with the Korean Wave. In response, ARKO will persistently release and promote material on Korean art to the world,” said Oh Gwang-su, chairperson of ARKO.
The first volume “Daehangno” by Lee Chin-a deals with the significance of the district often called the “Mecca of the performing arts.”
The district was closely associated with college culture as Seoul National University was formerly located there while Sungkyunkwan University is currently situated not far from the main street of Daehangno. The area began to emerge as a hub for performing arts in the 1980s, becoming an outlet for passionate and young artists and street culture.
With numerous cultural institutions and public theaters, the district plays a pivotal and symbolic role in the nation’s performing arts. It would not be an exaggeration to say that small theaters led the Korean theatrical world as they have developed modern theater with experimental works. The area is home to a number of major festivals for its art and culture infrastructure. The book also introduces historical landmarks and private galleries and museums along with the time-honored coffee house Hakrim.
As the title “Diaspora” by Kim Jung-rak implies, the second volume focuses on Korean artists who left their home country to carry out artistic activities in various countries, gaining a strong presence in other places. It is widely known in art history that those who developed early 20th century modern art were mostly nomads. The artists left their motherland in search of a better environment or in many cases, to avoid political persecution.
“Diaspora” gives an overview of these nomadic artists who contributed to the development of Korean art by creating Korean aesthetic sensibility on the international art scene. The book introduces diverse artistic activities overseas, starting from Ko Hui-dong, the first Western-style painter, who studied and worked in Japan along with other Korean artists at the dawn of modern Korea.
In the 1950s, artists Lee U-Fan, Lee Ung-no and Kim Whan-ki, relocated overseas where they built up their careers and reputation. Paik Nam-june is the most internationally-renowned artist in the history of 20th-century Korean art and considered the founder of video art. From the end of the ’70s to the ’80s, “neo nomads,” comprising mostly of monochrome abstracts, a critical and participatory art movement, emerged as a new trend.
“Harmonia Koreana,” the third volume, by Kim Choon-mee examines how Western classical music was introduced and developed in Korea. The book explores how Western classical music took root in Korea from the late 19th to the early 20th century. In the early 1900s, Western classical music enjoyed growing prosperity but the creative activities of the burgeoning music community was seriously restricted under national crises such as Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) and the Korean War (1950-53) followed by political and social turbulence. Despite the unfavorable conditions, Korean musicians always sought to internalize or “Koreanize,” imported techniques to reflect Korean sensibilities mixing the individual artists’ personal styles.
From the late 1990s, local composers began recognizing 20th-century Korean music as a new musical legacy of their own, while enjoying greater freedom to choose their musical languages. They were more personally motivated to create music, bringing more diversity into contemporary Korean music. Now Korea is becoming a cradle for producing many talented musicians with inspired and mature musicality.
The fourth volume “City as Art” by Yim Seock-jae introduces the most notable architectural structures in Seoul from Gyeongbok Palace and Jongmyo Shrine to Myeongdong Cathedral and Seoul Central Mosque in Itaewon. A hundred buildings have been selected, based on their significance as historical relics, works of art and public facilities.
They are also categorized chronologically into six chapters: Traditional Architecture: 15th-Late 19th Century, Early Modern and Colonial Architecture: Late 19th Century-1945, Modern Architecture (1950s-1980s) I Modern Architecture (1950s-1980s) II, Contemporary Architecture: 1990-Present, Architecture by International Masters.