Exploring Seoul — March 2, 2011 7:53 am

Great Spaces for Great Art

From giant museums to underground shopping malls, art is always around the corner in Seoul

Written by Matt Kelley
Birds are a popular motif in Korean folk painting from the Joseon Dynasty (1392—1910). Pairs of cranes or geese symbolized a couple’s love and their hope for many children. For these reasons, such art often adorned the home’s sleeping quarters. In turn, the house was built to reflect Confucian rules of social hierarchy and positioned to maximize auspicious energy.

Of course, this deliberate integration of art and architecture continues, as museums and galleries are built to complement their art. While a museum’s greatness should be measured by the quality of its collection, ancillary concerns like space, lighting, or signage can also play a role. With this in mind, the following represents six examples of great art in great spaces.


Paik Nam June's "The More the Better" / Ryu Seunghoo

Arts institutions


The Jeong-dong neighborhood’s cobblestone streets and brick buildings provide a glimpse into Seoul at the turn of the 20th century. Tree-lined walkways are enhanced by stone palace walls and clever public art. As you walk from City Hall Station toward the central rotary, benches resembling surfboards and the stacked black-and-white chips of the Korean board game baduk offer respite.

Built in 1928, the Seoul Museum of Art is located on an elevated patch of ground in Jeong-dong. The Romanesque-styled main building and its stone entrance and plaza exude authority and permanence. Step inside, however, and natural light floods an airy space whose removable ceiling panels and white plaster walls reflect a temporality. According to museum director Yoo Hee-young, SeMA’s goal is to develop the public’s passion for great art through high-profile offerings like the current Marc Chagall retrospective (closes March 27).

A very different public arts institution is the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. This museum is part of the sprawling grounds of Seoul Land, a quirky theme park in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi-do. Located next to rollercoasters and a recreated frontier village from the American Wild West, the museum’s setting confirms its mission of engaging a broad section of the public.

Inside, playful architecture engages visitors. For example, a deceptively narrow passage conceals the museum’s central Ramp Core, which features Paik Nam June’s epic “The More The Better” media installation. Upon moving from the lobby into the Core, visitors are confronted by 1,003 televisions assembled into what resembles an 18.5-meter ziggurat. Situated at the center of an open atrium, a ramp winds up the height of three stories, affording visitors views of the sculpture from every angle. Within the museum’s seven permanent galleries are works by other masters of Korean contemporary art like Park Soo-keun and Pak No-soo, along with lesser-known talents like Choi Ho-chul, whose “Euljiro Loop” depicts the humor and tension of urban life as seen from a Seoul Metro subway car.


Mission-driven galleries


Funeral bier, Shuim / Ryu Seunghoo

Opened five years ago in upscale Sinsa-dong, Gallery LVS’s subterranean space has the airy and unfinished feel of a warehouse, with high ceilings and movable walls. Amid preparations for an installation of portraits by Oh Su-jin and Hwang Jong-myung, CEO Judy Lee explained the simple rationale behind her gallery’s setup: “These days, young Asian artists want to make large-format art, and we are one of the only places that can accommodate it.”

These days, large galleries tend to focus on old masters and Western artists. Furthermore, while an art gallery’s chief function is to sell art, the lethargic economy has oversaturated the market. Yet Lee’s passion is promoting young Asian artists, and Gallery LVS is one of the few Seoul galleries that still does so. While it is not lucrative, Lee relies on her 25 years in the art market to help the next generation of struggling artists.

A very different energy pervades Hakgojae Gallery, whose operating philosophy is “create things new by mastering things ancient.” This ethos is expressed in the gallery’s art as well as its construction—an elegant traditional hanok house is fused with a modern edifice of concrete and glass. Inside, white walls separate thick wood beams and dark floors, while passageways are filled with natural light.

Located across from Gyeongbokgung Palace’s eastern wall, Hakgojae has hosted a diverse range of exhibitions featuring Joseon-era calligraphy, the meditative photographs of Paris-based Kwon Boomoon, and work by foreign artists, including Le Corbusier and Liu Xiaodong. Currently on display are the colorful paintings of Suh Yong-sun (closes April 10).


Intimate collections


Although many museums create impersonal, whitewashed spaces to avoid drawing attention away from the art, viewing art can create a sense of intimacy with the artist or the institution. This is especially true at Musee Shuim in northern Seoul’s Hongji-dong neighborhood.

Named after two meanings of the Korean word for “rest”—a catnap and eternal sleep—the museum was inspired by the death of the founder’s husband. According to chief curator Lee Eui-jung, his passing inspired her aunt to assemble a one-of-a-kind collection of Korean traditional funerary art. Today, the house features colorful palanquins, wooden figurines of humans, animals and goblins, and a magnificent sangyeo, or hearse, from Jinju, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Morbid by design, the pieces somehow convey a celebration of life as it honors the deceased. As an added attraction, the museum doesn’t take itself too seriously. A group of figurines recreating the famous Korean folk opera Simcheongga is situated unceremoniously inside a bathtub.

Sindang Arcade / Ryu Seunghoo

Finally, a recent study found that people are most likely to attend cultural programs and events when they’re held in parks or at schools rather than at conventional venues such as museums or galleries. This bodes well for Seoul Art Space Sindang. Located in an underground shopping mall, the space is one of eight administered by the Seoul Foundation for Arts, which converted former factories and unused government buildings into high-quality artist studios.

Today, about 40 artists occupy workshops that are sandwiched between raw fish restaurants and stores selling traditional clothing and blankets. Shin Joung-eun, who has specialized in lacquer craft for 11 years, moved into her studio in January. “Initially, I didn’t like working underneath the market,” she says, “but now I enjoy the easy access to supplies for my art and the opportunity to share information, materials, and technical skills with other artists.” What’s more, Shin says that it’s nice to see the art students and curious housewives who frequently stop by to inquire about her craft or to participate in arts programming led by the artists. Ultimately, Seoul Art Space Sindang is helping build a much larger space—something called “community.”


Seoul Museum of Art

More info

T. (02) 120

Website: http://seoulmoa.seoul.go.kr

Opening hours: Tue—Fri, 10am—9pm; Sat—Sun, 10am—7pm (closes one hour earlier on weekends in November-February). Closed Mondays.

Admission: 12,000 for adults, 10,000 won for youth or military personnel and 8,000 won for children. Free admission on the 4th Sunday of every month.

Getting there

City Hall Station, Lines 1 & 2, Exit 1 or 12. Walk to the Deoksugung Palace wall and turn left. Walk 10 minutes.


National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea

More info

T. (02) 2188-6114

Website: www.moca.go.kr/engN

Opening hours: Tue—Mon, 10am—6pm; Sat—Sun, 10am—9pm. Closed Mondays.

Admission: free.

Getting there

Seoul Grand Park Station, Line 4, Exit 4. A free shuttle bus departs Exit 4 every 20 minutes.


Galley LVS

More info

T. (02) 3443-7475

Website: www.gallerylvs.org

Opening hours: Mon—Fri, 9am—6pm; Sat, 10am—5pm. Closed Sundays.

Admission: free.

Getting there

Apgujeong Station, Line 3, Exit 4. Walk 15 minutes.


Hakgojae Gallery

More info

T. (02) 720-1524~6

Website: www.hakgojae.com

Opening hours: Tue—Sat, 10am—7pm (closes at 6pm November-February). Closed Mondays.

Admission: free.

Getting there

Anguk Station, Line 3, Exit 1. Walk for 15 minutes.


Musee Shuim

More info

T. (02) 396-9277

Website: www.shuim.org

Opening hours: Sun—Sat, 10am—6pm (closes at 7 pm on Sundays)

Admission: 7,000 won per person

Getting there

Hongje Station, Line 3, Exit 1. Walk for 5 minutes and turn right under the elevated expressway. Take bus #7018, #110, #153 or #7730 to the Segeomjeong Intersection. Walk back towards Hongjimun Gate and follow the signs.


Seoul Art Space Sindang

More info

T. (02) 3290-7000 (Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture)

Website: www.sfac.or.kr (Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture)

Opening hours: Mon—Mon, 0am—0pm

Admission: free.

Getting there

Sindang Station, Lines 2 & 3, Exit 2. Enter the Jungang Market and take the stairs down to the underground market.


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