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Korean art: What to look for in 2015

North Korea, overlooked artists, elegant antiquities among the highlights of art exhibits this year

With the positive New Year remarks by the leaders of North and South Korea setting up the possibility of a thaw in inter-Korean relations, South Koreans this year will be able to see more exhibitions with North Korean elements than ever before.

The Seoul Museum of Art is preparing a North Korea-themed exhibit to mark the 70th year of the division of Korea. The exhibition, scheduled to open in July, is expected to present a broad range of contemporary North Korean art and offer interesting South Korean views on the North.

The preparations include an attempt to restore channels of communication with the North Korean art scene, mainly through the Mansudae Art Studio Gallery, an art production site for North Korean artists.

“We have been trying to reach North Korean artists through the Mansudae Art Studio Gallery. It often holds exhibitions in China and overseas, but its links with the South Korean art world have been severed over the last five to six years as the inter-Korean relations went downhill,” said Yeo Kyung-hwan, curator of the North Korea exhibition at the SeMA.
“The Lovers” by Bill Viola. (Kukje Gallery)
“The Lovers” by Bill Viola. (Kukje Gallery)

In spring, Kukje Gallery will showcase works of South Korean artist Ham Kyung-ah, whose embroidered works are made by anonymous North Korean workers. Ham designs her works in Seoul and places orders with North Korean workers, who use digital prints to reproduce the embroidery by hand. These embroideries are broken up into smaller pieces so that the North Koreans don’t know what the artwork will look like when it’s assembled in the South.

In July, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea will shed light on Lee Qoede, a South Korean-born artist who defected to North Korea. Lee’s works were prohibited from being displayed in public until 1988, when the South Korean government lifted the ban to view and study works by those who choose to live in the North when Korea was divided. Born in the southern city of Daegu, Lee chose to live in the North when he was held captive at a prison camp during the Korean War.

The exhibition, which will run until October, will be a survey of Lee’s earlier works from the beginning stage of his artistic career to the time he spent in the prison camp.

Art lovers can also look forward to seeing some cutting-edge works of media artist Bill Viola from March to April. His intensive works show technical mastery, and are embedded with his philosophical ideas and thoughts.

Korean media artist Park Hyun-ki, who has been very much overshadowed by Nam June Paik, will be highlighted in an exhibition starting on Jan. 27 at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea. Park has been hailed as a pioneer of media art in Korea who helped the new art genre take root in the country in the 1970s. Some 20,000 pieces of his were donated to the museum in 2012.

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art will highlight the sophistication and elegance of Korean traditional art in an exhibition of Goryeo Dynasty treasures from July to September. The museum will also introduce the beauty and practicality of Korean traditional architecture through blueprints, models and historical documents in November.

Works of foreign painting masters including the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani and Colombian artist Fernando Botero will be on view at the Seoul Arts Center.

By Lee Woo-young  (