Contemporary Korean art



A strong symbol of the dynamism of Contemporary Korean art, the 9th edition of the Korean International Art Fair (KIAF) came to an end last week. With more than 72,000 visitors and 193 participating galleries from 16 pays, the KIAF is one of the largest in the growing field of Asian art fairs.

One of the four “Asian dragons” (along with Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong), the Korean economy has enjoyed strong economic growth since the second half of the 20th century. Having hosted the Olympic Games in 1988 and the World Cup in 2002, the South Korean economy is today the world’s 15th economic power ahead of Holland and Switzerland.

South Korea has two major international auction outfits: the first, the Seoul Auction Center, was set up in 1998 and the second, K-Auction, was created in 2005. Today, Seoul Auction Center is the world’s no. 10 auction company for Contemporary art and South Korea accounts for 3% of total global Fine Art sales.

While Korean art represents a significant share of the country’s domestic art market, Korean auction companies regularly offer works by the international stars of Contemporary and Modern art. For example, in November 2009 K-Auction presented pieces by Andy WARHOL, Tom WESSELMANN and Willem DE KOONING amongst others.
This year’s KIAF also mixed Korean art and international Contemporary art. The presence of numerous non-Korean galleries – 15 from England (the “focus” country this year), 16 from Japan, and 13 from Germany – gave substantial exposure to Western artists at the fair: Damien HIRST, Marc QUINN, Vik MUNIZ and Roy LICHTENSTEIN, alongside the stars of the Korean Contemporary art scene like Dong-Yoo KIM, Hyung-Koo KANG, Kisoo KWON and Ufan LEE. The latter, Korea’s top selling contemporary artist in 2009 (174th in the global ranking according to Artprice’s 2009 Market Trends), was represented by no less than 11 galleries at this year’s KIAF.

Korean art enjoys a high domestic public profile thanks to a number of burgeoning cultural institutions. In 2008 the Nam June PAIK Art Center opened in Seoul, named after the world’s second-most expensive video artist (after Bill VIOLA) whose installation Wright Brothers (1995) fetched double its low estimate at $540,120 in November 2007 (Christie’s, Hong Kong). At the same time, the Korean art scene is becoming increasingly connected to international sales networks via its auction houses. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have included Contemporary Korean art in their catalogues since 2007.

In 2009, Phillips de Pury & Co, in partnership with Standard Chartered Bank and the Saatchi Gallery launched Korean Eye, a series of travelling exhibitions designed to promote emerging Korean artists in the West. The 2010 edition of the Korean Eye exhibition, entitled Moon Generation, has so far attracted more than 250,000 visitors. It includes works by Chan-Hyo BAE (one of whose large photos entitled « Existing in costume 1 » fetched £1600 at Christie’s in London a year ago) and Jeon Joon Ho, Park Eun Young, Yong-In HONG, Kim Hyunsoo and Shin Meekyoung, none of whom have had secondary market exposure. There were also works by Joon Sung BAE and Osang GWON who have already sold at auction, the former benefiting from the speculative bubble on the art market with 5 sales above $30,000 between 2004 and 2008, and the latter whose human sculpture Nobody (created in 2005/06) fetched $33,384 last May at Christie’s Hong Kong. The already well-established Yong Ho JI and Kim Dong Yoo were also present: only 1 of the former’s 18 mutant / animal sculptures has fetched less than $10,000, and 39% of the latter’s works have fetched more than $100,000.

The prices of Contemporary Korean art have experienced relatively controlled growth and the post 2007/2008 meltdown has been relatively mild compared to the contraction in prices in Chinese Contemporary art market (-30% in 2009). In 2010 the price index for Contemporary Korean art has already risen 15%. For its private view, the KIAF decided to present a mix of artistic and musical performances. Today, Contemporary Korean art can stand proud next to Chinese and Japanese art.