Art in Seoul, Korea: Guide to exhibitions and culture in 72 hours
Art Republik takes you on a weekend-long journey through Seoul’s vibrant contemporary art scene.
Seoul is a hyper trend-conscious city that has become a centre for fashion, design and of course, art. The eclectic mix of old and new and traditional and contemporary, come together with dramatic mountains as a backdrop in this historical town. Rich in culture and heritage with 5,000 years of history to boast, Seoul has so much to offer the arts lover. Put on a pair of comfortable walking shoes, grab a T-Money transport card and subway map, and be prepared to walk some meandering, hilly streets and immerse yourself in the hustle and bustle of South Korea’s capital. Here’s Art Republik’s jam-packed guide to the best of what Seoul’s art scene has to offer — you won’t want to miss a single beat!
Start with a blast to Seoul’s recent dynastic past by visiting the royal palaces of the Chosun Dynasty, situated in the old heritage area in the northern part of the city. Stroll through the gardens and palatial quarters and discover the origins of the Korean aesthetic. The Bukchon area also houses the National Folk Museum of Korea, your stop for a more in-depth dive into Korean heritage.
Directly opposite the National Folk Museum and conveniently sandwiched between the Gyeongbok Palace – the largest of the five royal palaces – and Changdeok and Changgyeong Palaces, is the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul branch. Recently launched in 2013, the museum focuses on introducing Korean contemporary art to a global audience, and is positioned to be the likes of the MoMA in New York City and the Tate in London. The works of big names in Korean art like Do Ho Suh and Kimsooja are showcased here. As the museum chooses not to house a permanent collection, you are guaranteed to see a fresh rotation of exhibitions any time of the year. With seven galleries and state of the art facilities, MMCA also offers a diverse range of movies, performances, and education programmes. The juxtaposition of old Seoul with the most current, leading contemporary Korean art is certainly a stimulation for your senses.
On your way out of the MMCA, head straight up on Samcheong-ro street and find a maze of galleries and stores with the air of London’s chic high streets. The highlights on this stretch are the international galleries Arario Gallery, Hakojae Gallery, Gallery Hyundai, Kukje Gallery and PKM Gallery, all with exciting exhibition programmes showcasing Korean as well as international artists of the likes of Anish Kapoor. Nearby, pop by the Kumho Museum of Art, which has eye-catching international exhibitions on a rotational basis.
Where: 30 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Tuck into some Korean cuisine with a fusion twist for lunch at the Jang Jin Woo restaurant, started by a photographer, restaurateur and chef, on the top floor of the Print Bakery. A new brand of Seoul Auction, the Print Bakery makes collecting art more accessible to a wider public, offering limited edition works of renowned artists like Park Seo-Bo, Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami and Kim Chang-Yeol. Likened to shopping for a loaf of bread or pastry at a bakery, the Print Bakery exposes the culture of collecting to more of the masses by offering reasonably priced artworks and lowering the bar of acquiring art.
Where: 52 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
North of the Bukchon Area is Pyeongchangdong, a mostly residential area that is not usually on the tourist’s radar. Pyeongchangdong is however, totally worth the trek. This hilly neighbourhood, reminiscent of the slopes of Montmartre, is nestled at the foot of Bukhansan National Park, where the views are simply breathtaking. While gallery hopping, you can take in the fresh air and appreciate the idyllic setting of what was once the most exclusive address in Seoul – you can still get glimpses of posh mansions.
Gana Art Centre
Showcasing the harmonious marriage of nature and art, the stunning Gana Art Centre, which was designed by the renowned architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, is a highlight. It is a cultural hub and the largest exhibition space in South Korea that holds art and design exhibitions as well as outdoor concerts, plays, movies, fashion shows and performance art. There is also an art shop where you can buy pieces that are on display, and whenever you are feeling peckish, stop by Wil Restaurant with its Italian fare and decent lunch specials.
Where: 28 Pyeongchang 30-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Total Museum of Contemporary Art
Just beside Gana Art Centre, you can find the Total Museum of Contemporary Art, a private, non-profit museum housed in a unique, quirky three-story building. Navigating through the museum is an interesting experience in itself — as you walk down narrow metal stairs that are like tunnels, you will be led from one room to another with a surprise waiting for you in each room. As an experimental space, the Total Museum also allows for an opportunity to express diverse ideas through a variety of media.
Where: 465-16 Pyeongchang-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Kim Chong Yung Museum
Up the road you will find yourself at the Kim Chong Yung Museum, a modern building housing the collection of the celebrated late sculptor, which the museum is named after. Some might refer to Kim Chong Yung as the ‘Korean Henry Moore’; Kim was a pioneer and leading figure of modern abstract sculpture in Korea. The museum commemorates the life and work of Kim Chong Yung, presenting his large collection of thousands of sculptures and drawings in new perspectives like the Autumn 2016 exhibition ‘The Wife of a Sculptor’, which brings together the works Kim produced of his wife. The exhibition is a poignant insight to Kim’s personal life and his intimate relationship with his lover, confidante and muse. In the other gallery spaces, the museum also exhibits emerging sculptors. If you are looking to feast your senses even while having a meal, the Kim Chong Yung Museum has an elegant café with wonderful views of the Bukhansan Mountain. There are plenty of other galleries, artsy shops, cafés, restaurants which you can explore while in the area.
Where: 30 Pyeongchang 32-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Sinsadong & Chungdamdong Areas
This affluent area of Sinsadong is known to be the famous ‘Gangnam’ area as popularised by Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’. The elite fashionistas and trendsetters of Seoul are seen dressed to the nines on the streets of Gangnam. High-end luxury stores and famous shopping districts like Apgujeong Rodeo Street and Sinsadong Garosu-gil are found here.
Horim Art Museum
Sinsadong and Chungdamdong are very commercial areas with many galleries to visit but one we would recommend is the Horim Museum, a private museum that showcases Korean traditional art, where you shall see beautiful ceramic wares and marvel at other traditional art forms.
Where: 651-23 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
SongEun Art Space
In the Chungdamdong area, another space worth visiting is the SongEun Art Space, a cutting edge gallery that delivers innovative exhibitions displaying works of avant-garde artists from around the world. Recent shows include a comprehensive exhibition of Indonesian art collector Tom Tandio. Around this neighbourhood there are plenty of other galleries, so have a walk around and find yourself in spaces like Lee Eugean Gallery. The gallery is housed in a traditional residential space, but you need not be afraid to go up the stairs and let yourself in.
Where: 6 Apgujeong-ro 75-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
The most popular place in Seoul for foreigners is Itaewon, a neighbourhood for expatriates, right by the US Army Base. This is the place of restaurants featuring international cuisine, multiple areas for shopping, and a happening nightlife scene.
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
For the art lover, the iconic stop here would be the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. A distinct art destination, Leeum is the most famous private museum in Seoul with blockbuster programming exhibiting modern masters like Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko. The museum has three spaces dedicated for Korean traditional art, international contemporary art and special exhibitions. Don’t miss taking a photo with the mesmerizing, gargantuan sculpture ‘Maman’ by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, renowned for her large scale sculptures and installations, permanently displayed in Leeum’s outdoor space that resembles a zen garden.
Where: 60-16 Itaewon-ro 55-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Heyri Art Valley
A bonus area for those of you who want to venture outside of the city, the cultural town of Heyri, about an hour’s drive from Seoul, makes a worthwhile day trip and a memorable experience. You can even take the Seoul subway to Hapjeong Station on Line 2 (Exit 2) and then take bus number 2200 to Heyri.
Heyri is an artist colony and home to more than a dozen galleries and museums all housed in idiosyncratic buildings, an inspiring site for architecture enthusiasts – a village art haven.
Where: 70-21 Heyrimaeul-gil, Tanhyeon-myeon, Paju-si, Gyeonggi-do
This article was first published in Art Republik.