SIMON KO (MFA 2017)
When looking at photos of Seoul taken shortly after the end of the Korean War (1950–1953), it is hard to imagine that the gleaming and bustling metropolis that stands today was once a completely bombed out, bleak landscape filled with scorched, dilapidated buildings. It is even harder to imagine that within 60 years, the arts in Seoul would bloom to a scale beyond anyone’s expectations. In 2013 and 2014, two new major exhibition spaces opened to the public.
MMCA Seoul (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul) and DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza) both opened with mixed receptions. MMCA Seoul is one of three branches of MMCA, with the main branch located in the city of Gwacheon, about an hour ride away from Seoul. The MMCA was established in 1969 as the main museum in South Korea for modern and contemporary art. The three branches feature a variety of exhibitions year round and show a mix of international and domestic artists. DDP, designed by Zaha Hadid, also shows contemporary art, but with a focus on design and collaborations with brands (a recent exhibit featuring the history of Dior comes to mind). DDP is massive; it occupies a major plot of land where a soccer stadium and a street market once stood. While both the MMCA Seoul and the DDP are new, one is much more idiosyncratic and flamboyant than the other. DDP opened with mixed reviews from the public, with comments that ranged from it not blending into the surrounding neighborhood, to a lack of respect for the former residents and merchants who lived and worked there. Some protested the construction based on the claim that it would be too difficult to clean and maintain the hundreds of curved metal plates that form the massive walls of the building.
Both spaces follow a trend in creating extremely large, high ceiling spaces for showing art. It’s difficult to imagine the small, intimate paintings of Tomma Abts or Park Soo Keun being given the main stage in either space. The MMCA Seoul and DDP both demand large installations, but most of them fall short of the high expectations placed on them. There seems to be a pressure to fill the space rather than activate its potential. Although nothing presented seems haphazard, there are moments when the excess of space seems underutilized or poorly activated. In the case of a recent show at DDP showing different artistic interpretations of the Korean flag, placing gigantic inflatable balloons in the center of the exhibition space seemed lazy rather than impressive.
On the opposite end of the spectacle is MMCA’s artist residency program. Two residencies (one in Gohyang and the other in Changdong) offer a combination of live/work space for local and international artists. One can find more intimate and less slickly produced work here. The program is generous; in addition to a live/work space, artists also receive financial support through an allowance. Once accepted, the artists have the option of taking Korean language classes, as well as other programs that introduce them to Korean culture. These initiatives seem geared toward improving Korea’s image internationally. It is interesting to see how a country that appears so conservative and homogenous at times can also be very open and experimental.