If you want to see what works are in the Modern Art section of the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, you can see it on the official website.
Some of the works did nothing for me. Some of the works did impress me. For example, I recall “Green Shades and Fragrant Plants” by Kim Chong Hak leaving a very good impression on me when I saw it in person (I think it loses something when the size is shrunk down to fit a small screen).
I also remember a suspended work of wire depicting an eagle – for some reason I can’t find a picture of it online – which impressed me because, even though the bird itself was symmetrical, the shadow it cast on the wall was asymmetrical. I then figured out that the light was being cast on it at such an angle that the shadow was asymmetrical. I wonder if the original artist chose to have the sculpture illuminated from that angle, or whether a light designer working for the museum made that choice.
The museum contrasts Korean modern art with international modern art, showing, on the one hand, how international modern art trends are mirrored in Korean modern art, and on the other hand, what makes Korean modern art different from the modern art of other countries. The curators don’t point all this out, rather, they invite the viewers to see the works side by side and draw their own conclusions.
I think this theme greatly increases the quality of this gallery.
In Japan, I went to Naoshima, which is famous for being an ‘island of art’. It had been one of the many small islands in Japan which had a shrinking economy and rapid population loss, until the Benesse Corporation decided to turn the island into a giant modern art resort. They started by building the ‘Benesse House’, which is both a modern art gallery and a luxury hotel in a single building.
I didn’t stay on Naoshima overnight, but I did visit the Benesse House gallery, and … it wasn’t even ‘art for art’s sake’, it was ‘art for the sake of letting the Benesse Corporation show off’. For example, they have an Andy Warhol piece, not because of the content of the piece, but simply so they can show off that they have an Andy Warhol piece. Many of the artwork don’t seem to have any meaning beyond showing of how Modernly Artsy they are. That not to say the art was bad – there is good artwork on Naoshima – but I felt the better works of art suffered by being in a context where they were displayed to demonstrate elitism than to examine the world or the human condition.
Now, the Samsung Corporation also wants to show off. Why not? But I do get the sense that the people who run the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art do have a higher purpose beyond demonstrating the glory of Samsung. I do feel that the Korean modern art does examine Korea – I recognized landscapes and themes from my travels around South Korea – I even recognized Lee Jung-seop. And the unifying theme of comparing Korean modern art to international contemporaries elevates the meaning beyond ‘hey look, all of modern art shows how cultured and elite we are’.
I then proceeded to the temporary exhibition section – all contemporary art – which also had some interesting works. In the lobby at the entrance to the museum, they have videos showing artists talking about their works, and I saw a Brazilian artist explaining the giant walk-in tunnel of fabric I had wandered through earlier. He says he wants to take viewers to a different frame of mind, which is why his artwork surrounds you on all sides.
So that’s the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. The next series of posts will describe my final day in South Korea.