In June I wrote an article for Arc.pm concerning Korean art. It was a catastrophe. My article had a historical approach, whereas others had specific, current themes. After I’d summarized thousands of years of Korean art with tedious research, it was decided I ought to include some interviews with Korean artists. This would seemingly be fantastic, as I could ask questions geared toward historical Korean art and then bring the article full circle with information on the current art scene.
Confusion struck when I began emailing Korean artists about the article — an artist residency never pulled through, and all of the individuals I messaged never responded. So I got in touch with foreign artists working in Korea — mainly Seoul — and they were helpful and prompt.
Clinton Stamatovich is one of The Elkhart Truth’s community bloggers
. He was born in Bristol, Indiana, is teaching English in Busan, South Korea, for one year. You can read more about his experiences in South Korea in his blog, Living in Korea
The photos above are from all over Korea. I couldn’t get permission from or get in touch with any Korean artists to showcase their artwork, so I did my best to show a representation of the public art one might find in the city.
Korea has been host to hundreds of “cultural” or “international” festivals and get-togethers in recent years to promote cultural trade. Korea sits in a unique position, cuddled between China and Japan, where it acts as a buffer for business. Many foreign artists have found a good market in Korea, as they’ve been included prominently in “international” art exhibitions as a tactic to attract crowds.
Before the recent inclusion of foreign/international artists, as well as media, Korea remained rooted in traditional arts. Since the Neolithic period, Korea has been preoccupied with pottery, having been influenced by trends in China. Elizabeth Hammer, in her book “The Arts of Korea: A Resource for Educators,” says, “Korean artisans have produced objects in a variety of other materials — including metal, lacquer, silk, and wood — that, as in the case of ceramics, were initially meant for practical or ceremonial use but came to be appreciated as works of art.” Items such as gold or silver were commonly sealed inside tombs with rulers and dignitaries, exposing the more common items as means of expression.
The Bronze Age of Korea saw ironware flare in popularity as demand for weapons and armor rose, but during the Silla Era of the Three Kingdoms, Buddhist motifs were adopted, and pagodas and temples started being erected. After the dissolution of the Silla Era, the Joseon Dynasty saw the inception of Confucianism, which can still be seen today. More flashy designs in pottery became available, and Chinese court painting became a point of focus.
In 1952 Japan invaded Korea, and shortly afterwards the Manchu invaded, destroying considerable cultural and artistic output. The subsequent motifs became a push for Korean identity through art. Images painted of daily life became popular. Western influence came to Korea in the 18th century after its introduction to China, which historically influenced Korean art.
After the rapid progress from the Korean War, modern art exhibitions finally appeared with nationalistic themes. However, art at this time was muffled by dictators in power, such as Park Chung Hee and later Chun Doo Hwan, who objected to avant garde and experimental imagery both in painting and sculpture (it’s important to mention this unwelcome air was directed at experimental music of the time as well). Most exhibitions had to be green-lighted by the authoritarian establishment.
After a long-standing dispute following Japan’s annexation of Korea, cultural trade finally opened again between the two countries, with exhibitions that included both Korean and Japanese artists. The results of the shows have been polarized.
Today Korean art is very different, considering the acceptance of social critique and the expanded media with which the artists can work. Throughout most modern cities, you can see large chrome statues, calling to mind “The Bean” in Chicago, or miniature “Gateway Arches” like the one in St. Louis. There are even three places in Korea where curious visitors and go see penis statues in publicly appointed “Penis Parks.” Particularly popular now have been street art and graffiti based on European and North American styles, which permeate mostly from Seoul and Busan, Korea’s two largest cities.