Courtesy Youngkak Cho.
On the occasion of Kiaf Seoul and Frieze Seoul, Andrew Russeth shares some can't-miss exhibitions, institutions, and cultural destinations in the bustling Korean capital.
This September, the art world converges in Seoul for an exciting slate of exhibitions, new artist commissions, and global fairs. The Coex convention center will host Kiaf Seoul—the country’s longest-running art fair—as well as the inaugural edition of Frieze Seoul. Across town, MOON Kyungwon & JEON Joonho have transformed the galleries at Art Sonje Center into Seoul Weather Station, an immersive platform addressing the climate crisis, while the annual MMCA Hyundai Motor Series will open with the fantastic kinetic sculptures of Choe U-Ram.
In anticipation of the festivities, we invited two Seoul-based practitioners to collaborate on this guide to Seoul, which provides a broad overview of museums, galleries, and other cultural destinations.
The images accompanying this guide were produced by Youngkak Cho using the A.I. text-to-image generation program Disco Diffusion. Using excerpts from the text by Andrew Russeth, the program conjured otherworldly visions of this bustling global city, which range from the strangely familiar to the sublime.
While it is tempting to frame emergent technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics in an antagonistic relationship with humans, this is not a foregone conclusion. Rather than ask how machines will render humans obsolete, the work of artists like MOON & JEON, Choe U-Ram, and Youngkak Cho encourages us to think more expansively. What are the potentials and limitations of technology, and how will humans coexist in these new realities? However you experience this guide, we hope to leave you feeling inspired to follow your curiosity.
Courtesy Youngkak Cho
I have spent most of my adult life as a die-hard New Yorker, living in Stuyvesant Town and then Clinton Hill, working in the city’s art industry (mostly writing about art), and swearing I could live nowhere else. So when my wife’s job moved us to Seoul about two years ago, I mourned. But only for a moment. It is a thrill to be here right now. Galleries are opening, museums are expanding, and Frieze has arrived. The mood is buoyant, giddy, and a bit anxious. Can the momentum continue? Who knows. But for now, anything seems possible!
The important art spaces are arrayed all over this dense city of about 10 million, but do not be intimidated as a first-timer. Speaking very loosely, there are three main hubs, and they are easy to reach: subways and buses run as smooth as butter, and taxis are disturbingly inexpensive. (You can hail them effortlessly with Kakao T, though there are often evening car shortages).
Start up in Samcheong-dong, which a New Yorker might think of as Seoul’s Chelsea, the preserve of key commercial concerns like Gallery Hyundai, Kukje, and PKM, Hakgojae, Shilla, and Barakat. The stalwart nonprofit Art Sonje Center is here, as well, now hosting a solo show from the venturesome artists MOON Kyungwon and JEON Joonho, and a branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), its cavernous galleries buried underground, across the street from the 600-year-old Gyeongbok palace. At the latter is a one-person outing from the kinetic whiz Choe U-Ram (the latest edition of the MMCA Hyundai Motor Series, a collaboration between the museum and Hyundai Motor that has been running from 2014.) There is no Bottino Takeout, but a deeply satisfying, bubbling-hot bowl of ramyeon (bedecked with spicy seafood or a slice of American cheese) can be yours at Gyeongchunja for less than $4. It is pure heaven.
About 20 minutes by car or bus to the south are the neighborhoods of Itaewon and Hannam, home to expats, gay bars, and the palatial, treasure-filled Leeum Museum of Art. International blue-chippers have alighted nearby, like Pace, Lehmann Maupin, and Thaddaeus Ropac, but there are also local dealerships wooing collectors in a market that is not necessarily supportive of untested emerging art, like Whistle, Gallery Baton, and P21. (Do not be the art tourist who visits only outposts of mega-galleries while abroad.) One of the city’s greatest treasures is also in the area: the Grand Ole Opry. Unaffiliated with its Nashville namesake, this charming decades-old country music bar with a wooden dance floor and a devoted clientele.
Courtesy Youngkak Cho
Last but not least, across the river, there is ultra-wealthy Cheongdam, where König, Tang, and Gladstone have hung up their shingles of late, and where the new Herzog & de Meuron–designed Songeun Art and Cultural Foundation was inaugurated last year. Coex, the convention center and mall complex hosting the Frieze and KIAF fairs, is not too far away, flanked on one side by the Bongeunsa temple, which dates to 794. Meanwhile, the Park Hyatt’s penthouse lounge serves the most incredible bingsu in town, a small mountain of shaved milky ice adorned with gold leaf and honeycomb. It is worth its formidable price tag (about $40).
Beyond that trio of art districts, slightly off the beaten path, other pleasures await. Dozens of alternative-minded spaces, from the slick to (more often) the scrappy, present shows that tend to have brief runs. A few standouts include Outsight, Saga, Sarubia, Museumhead, White Noise, Loop and OF (the last in fast-gentrifying Euljiro, where hipster BBQ spots and wine bars are replacing the compact shops of veteran machinists). Visiting such experimental venues, I am often reminded of old-timer Manhattan art types recalling the 1960s, when the art world was smaller and everyone knew each other. Everyone actually does seem to know each other here. Ask for recommendations, and let one show lead to the next.
The mood is buoyant, giddy, and a bit anxious. Can the momentum continue? Who knows. But for now, anything seems possible!
I have barely mentioned museums, but finding them is a straightforward business. The MMCA has three branches in the Seoul area (one is just beyond the southern border, with a jaw-dropping 1,003-television Nam June Paik tower on permanent view). The Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) operates eight sites and is adding more. While most public institutions are fairly young—with plenty of room to grow their budding collections—they host superb exhibitions. (SeMA recently highlighted ingenious little constructions that the late poet Sung Chankyung made from found objects, and the MMCA has a toothsome-looking survey of the 20th-century sculptor Moon Shin on tap at its outpost within Deoksu palace.) Also, do not miss the Arario Museum, an idiosyncratic gem in a maze-like 1970s office building.
If you are staying for longer than, say, a week, I would encourage a trip to one of South Korea’s other art-heavy areas—perhaps paradisiacal Jeju Island, an hour flight from the capital; or Gwangju, with its storied biennial; or the sprawling port of Busan, with its own formidable biennial (there is an almost-comical quantity of biennials here) and compact gallery scene.
Courtesy Youngkak Cho.
But even a short-term Seoul visit can end with a stop in Incheon, a city of three million to the west of Seoul that forms part of its greater metropolitan region. Close to the water (the Yellow Sea) are handsome old warehouses that are now halls for the Incheon Art Platform (think MoMA PS1), which regularly stages razor-sharp contemporary-minded shows. Hop in a taxi from there, and in under 30 minutes you will be back at Incheon International Airport, ready to fly home.
Consider extending your stay. The Paradise City resort is next door to the airport, stocked with major-league art by Damien Hirst, Park Seo-Bo, Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama, Peter Halley, and many more. It may be hosting an exhibition in its dedicated art space. It is definitely offering upper-echelon Chinese food at its Imperial Treasure restaurant.
And Seoul is still at your fingertips. The express subway will get you back to its center in 45 minutes. There is still so much to see. The rest of the world can wait.