Artists in Their Times: Korean Modern and Contemporary Art - Since the late 1970s

Learn the major trend of modern and contemporary art of Korea

Atomaus Eating Noodles (2003) by LEE DongiNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

'Artist in Their Times' , a large–scale permanent exhibition, features works in the museum collection examines major currents of Korean modern and contemporary art over 120 years from 1900s to 2000s. Composed with 15 sections delineating some 120 years of Korean modern and contemporary art history, the exhibition is organized in cooperation with researchers specializing in each historical period. Walking through different time periods and witnessing how art has evolved with the changing circumstances of the country, the audiences will be able to grasp the organic relationship between art and society, and the periodic development of different artistic media. Korean artists have demonstrated an unyielding artistic consciousness, striving to sublimate the ordeals brought upon by history into works representative of a zeitgeist.

Take a look at Korean modern and contemporary art before the late 1970s, here.

Reproduction of Time 87-7 (1987) by HAN ManyoungNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

7. Late 1970–1980s

A New Figurative Painting Emerges: Korean Hyperrealism One of the major developments in Korean contemporary art between the late 1970s and 1980s was the rise of realist and figurative art, which emphasized figures and expressions and were rooted in the social reality. The new figurative painting emerged first in the late 1970s with hyperrealism, which was characterized by elaborate depictions achieved through intense craftsperson– like efforts. Korean hyperrealism was an expression of skepticism and rejection toward Gukjeon – centered academist representational painting and an attempt to break away from Korea’s fixed trend of monochrome painting at the time. 

Reproduction of Time 87-7 (1987) by HAN ManyoungNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Korean hyperrealism was characteristic by its emphasis of objects to depict natural and artificial objects in ultra–realistic ways. At the same time, artists presented endlessly sprawling natural landscapes on the canvas or repeatedly overlaid their subjects to produce frontal images stripped of a sense of spatial depth. This dual structure, with their juxtaposition of figures and abstraction, illusion and flatness, was a unique characteristic of Korean.

Stone (1985) by KO YounghoonNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Stone, Ko Younghoon

Ko Younghoon is the top runner in Hyperrealism. His masterpiece of the 1980s, Stone combined natural stones with English versions of his library to express the human conflict of civilization against nature. After pasting the pages of the book, shadows were added to express the reality, and stone fragments were drawn on the top to create a welcoming space.

Tree (1985) by SONG SoonamNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

8. 1980s

Onward Korean Painting since the 1980s 

The biggest change that arose in the 1980s for traditional artists using the three materials known as jipilmuk (paper, brush, and ink) was the first real use of the term “hangukhwa” (meaning “Korean painting”). This could be seen both as a bid for recognition as a genre of contemporary art—with the pursuit of new formative qualities and adoption of new techniques—as well as the starting point for an investigation into identity. 

Tree (1985) by SONG SoonamNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Abstraction was introduced into the traditional art world in the 1960s and the emergence of the art group known as the Mungnimhoe (Ink Forest Group). They emphasized that abstraction was not exclusive to the West and expanded the realm of ink by highlighting the material characteristics of ink, while emphasizing the spiritual realm of literaryization. They also created landscapes of mountains and water that reproduce the actual scenery, and tried to reinterpret ink in a modern way. At the same time, interest in everyday life gradually increased in Koreanization, and not only did it use ink as a medium of expression, but it also escaped from the dichotomy of spirit-to-matter and ink-to-color.

Untitled (1985) by KWON YoungwooNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Untitled, Kwon Yongwoo

Kwon Yongwoo focused on the diversity and coincidences that spread through the white screen without using ink and brush, which are considered essential elements of Oriental painting. In this piece, translucent blue-gray paint mixed with ink and Gouache impregnated on the back of the paper on the Korean paper to seep through.

Panoramic view of the eye view of the times (2020) by MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

9. 1980s

Minjung Art

Korea’s first large–scale endogenous art movement, Minjung art was distinct from previous Korean art in its attention to real–world concerns and focus on content and narrative. The historical situation in Korea played a large part in Minjung art becoming representative of Korean art in the 1980s. Resistance to the oppressive military regime (as symbolized by the Gwangju Democratization Movement) and re–examinations of the US as a traditional ally were rippling through Korean society as a whole at the time, leading to more active debates over democracy and nationalism. Minjung art was born out a sense of crisis and the feeling that art could no longer ignore reality.

Panoramic view of the eye view of the times (2020) by MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

In addition to this, the pursuit of figurative art (hyperrealism) that had emerged as an alternative to the monochrome tendencies that dominated Korea’s art scene of the 1970s played a mediating role of sorts in the emergence of Minjung art as its precise depictions of objects revealed an interest in reality. Minjung art took on the aspect of art “shared with the masses,” as exemplified in the large wall hangings shown in the settings of labor and social movements and the woodcuts used for illustrations in publications. It assumed different forms, drawing on imagery from comics, advertisements, and other forms of popular culture or creating images through photography and collage techniques.

Vindictive Spirits (1984) by OH YoonNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Vindictive Spirits, Oh yoon

Vindictive Spirits was made in a scroll format over four meters long. Instead of dealing directly with the massacre and destruction of the Korean War, they tried to deal the method of describing the deaths of modern and contemporary Korean history and the ‘Han’ of the people.

Panoramic view of the eye view of the times (2020) by MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

10. 1980s

Activities of Diverse Small Groups in the 1980s 

During the 1980s, Korean society underwent a period of upheavals. The hunger for democracy in the face of the repressions of the military administration led to a number of democratization movements, while the arrival of a late industrial society brought high– speed economic growth and rapid changes to daily life. Amid this social climate, the art world of the 1980s was divided into two strands: monochrome painting and the then–nascent movement of Minjung art. Artists graduating from art colleges in the early 1980s were forced to choose between these two paths. But those who sought to avoid being pulled into these major trends and to share their own voices without espousing particular ideologies would come together to form small groups, chiefly centered around schools, where they were able to work freely.  

Panoramic view of the eye view of the times (2020) by MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Rejecting the uniform styles of past generations, they adopted a strategy of changing the inner structure of the Korean art world. But these small groups were merely cases of artists with a similar consciousness joining; the groups were not oriented toward achieving any one clear goal. These activities of small groups were significant as a form of practice by artists who sought to explore their own direction of development for Korean art, rather than blindly adopting the Western art trends that were arriving in real–time on their shores.  

Korean Dream (1986‒2002) by SHIN YoungseongNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Korean Dream, Shin Youngseong

Korean Dream is an installation that collects abandoned fans and destroys them with a grill, hammer, and chainsaws to lose its original function. It criticizes capitalism, which have turned humans into standardized machines with only functions by recycling abandoned electric fans and watches.

StrAnge Ball (2005-2006/2007) by NOH SuntagNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Korean Art since the 1990s (11-15)

With Germany’s reunification and the Soviet Union’s dissolution in the early 1990s, Cold War ideologies and related discourses died down as concepts such as the environment and gender emerged as keywords to understanding the new world society. Globalization marked by increased mobility and advancements in information technology also accelerated developments in the communication systems including the internet. And as mass consumerism settled in, the line between high–end and popular cultures became blurred as decentralized and pluralistic cultural styles emerged. 

StrAnge Ball (2005-2006/2007) by NOH SuntagNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Since the 1990s to date, this pluralistic tendency has not only become a discourse of our time, but it has also served as a critical language in Korean art. This exhibition examines this pluralistic tendency reflected in Korean contemporary artworks in five parts.

Pride Series (1993) by BAHC YisoNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

11. 1990s

Onward The Dawn of Globalization

As the Cold War era came to a close in the late 1980s, the world entered an era of pluralization. South Korea enjoyed a boost in prestige as it hosted large–scale international events like the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and the 1993 Expo in Daejeon, while President Kim Young–sam named “globalization” as one of his administration’s key governance tasks after taking office in 1993. As different globalization policies came together, international interchange began to proliferate in the field of art as well. Matters such as “decentralization” and “pluralization” emerged as key issues at the biennales, and amid growing interest in non–Western artists, figures such as Kim Sooja and Jheon Soocheon became actively involved in various international exhibitions. 

The Flat 12 (2020) by GWON OsangNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

In this way, the early 1990s saw the Korean art world working to remove itself from the “non–Western” periphery of the international art scene amid the national policy efforts to achieve globalization and the corresponding social climate. But without the necessary criticism and institutional measures to process Western discourses and art trends into something of Korea’s own, Korean art’s globalization strategy focusing solely on quantitative expansion of overseas exchange led to one–off events or even reaffirmations of the boundaries and difference between countries.

Rainbow Stripes I (1996) by PAIK NamjuneNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Rainbow Stripes I, Baek Nam-jun

Baek Nam-jun pioneered a new art form called "video art," which began with music and built his own world with experimental art. His video art focuses on the cultural characteristics of the East and the West, interactions between them, and interest in cultural human history.

Panoramic view of the eye view of the times (2020) by MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

12. After 1990s

Onward Conceptual Stance

The 1990s could be described as the true emergence of Korean contemporary art as the ideological conflicts of past eras weakened and diversification and globalization began. With collectivism losing strength and society enjoying greater material abundance, the emergence of the individual and the growing interest in everyday life became important characteristics of the art of this period. This section introduces a number of artists who were driving forces in this trend and whose work demonstrates a conceptual aspect. 

Panoramic view of the eye view of the times (2020) by MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

All of them are quite distinct, which makes them somewhat difficult to tie together, but they also show a number of common characteristics. Their works are regarded as conceptual or conceptual in that they emphasize more the process, situation, and role of language in establishing the concept of a work of art than the result. The result was artwork that chiefly consisted of adopting ordinary objects and situations as subject matter and inverting the identities of objects; delving into the relationship between an object and the language that defines it; or revealing the hidden hierarchies of the relationship between action and object. These works had the aim of creating small cracks in our perspective on the everyday situations we take for granted, and on the act of art itself. 

An lron in the Form of a Radio, a kettle in the Form of an lron and a Radio in the Form of a Kettle (2002) by KIM BeomNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Kim Beom

An lron in the Form of a Radio, a kettle in the Form of an lron and a Radio in the Form of a Kettle

Introduced at the Venice Biennale Korea Pavilion in 2005, this work overturn visitor's prediction of familiar objects. It stimulates new thinking about the nature, appearance and language of things through the process of deconstructing and rearranging the relationship between the function and form of things.

Maehyang-ri (2005) by SONG SangheeNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

13. Lats 1990s

Critical Attitudes toward Reality

In the late 1990s, Korean society was undergoing rapid changes amid the direct influx of Western capitalist culture and the expansion of popular culture, and the focus shifted from the political issues discussed by Minjung art to matters of personal desire and identity. This makes us look at the various problems around us (women, environment, sexuality, etc.) and the arts also show a variety of aspects. Amid this environment, some artists developed an interest in art of a socially critical, exploring the relationship between art and public lives in the post–Minjung art era; indeed, the term “post–Minjung art” emerged amid perceptions that saw these trends sharing certain characteristics with Minjung art. 

Maehyang-ri (2005) by SONG SangheeNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

But some have questioned whether the socially critical art of this era can actually be joined together under any particular current along the same lines as Minjung art. Whereas Minjung art stood for resistance and mass struggle as it focused on and represented political events, the art of this period exemplified a more self–reflective quality, its images of contemporary lives amid the consumption of popular culture.

Do Bring Seub Back (2002/2012) by JO SeubNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Do Bring Seub Back, Jo Seub

The 2002 piece Do Bring Seub Back is a color photograph of two men reenacting the famous protest scene of Lee Hanyeol, a victim of the 1987 June Democracy Movement. By staging the scene with himself wearing a Red Devils soccer shirt and bleeding from his head, the artist goes beyond simply reproducing a historical moment, summoning the moment from the past into the contemporary timeframe. During the World Cup season in June 2002, the deaths of two middle school girls hit by a US Army vehicle was buried under the national soccer craze. As the death of Lee Hanyeol is seen as an event symbolic of the violence perpetrated by the military regime, the artist sees the 2002 World Cup craze as a symbol of the irrational collectivist culture in Korean society, and by depicting himself bleeding in the soccer shirt, the artist speaks for individuals who are suffocated by this collectivism.

Atomaus Eating Noodles (2003) by LEE DongiNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

14. 2000s and Onward

Daily Life and Popular Culture

The 2000s would bring a large increase in artwork addressing daily life. Rather than focusing on specific incidents or individuals, artists found their subject matter in the repetition of day–to–day existence. To be sure, artwork that focused on daily life had existed in the past. They were shifting away from the abstract and turning their attention to individual experience and the trivialities of ordinary existence. Artists also began observing the cities in which they were chiefly active. Where natural features such as mountains, fields, and rivers had been the subject of past artwork, the new subjects were the city’s structures and roads, and the ordinary people living within them. 

Atomaus Eating Noodles (2003) by LEE DongiNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Meanwhile, the 2000s were also a period in which popular culture and consumer culture took hold. With the growth of the music market, the emergence of cable television, the development of the film industry, and the arrival of fashion trends, popular culture established itself as part of Korean society. The work of artists likewise transformed as a matter of course. Indeed, Koreans were encountering mass media every day in forms such as television, newspaper, film, and magazines. The various images appearing in mass media had already become part of everyday life, and artists began borrowing or combining from the flood of images to create new images.

Deoksu Palace-Seoul (2009/2010) by IM SangbinNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Deoksu Palace-Seoul, Im Sangbin

Im Sangbin's work starts with city and people who living there. It focuses on the encounters, relationships, and collisions that take place in it, including nature and artificiality, past and present, East and West. Deoksu Palace-Seoul is a work based on Seoul. He filmed a scene in Manhattan, New York, with few ancient ruins before creating a full-fledged Seoul landscape where tradition and modernity coexist and nature and man-made.

Cinemagician (2010) by JUNG YeondooNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

15. Mid-2000s

Onward Interdisciplinary Arts and the Broadening of Expression

In the mid–2000s, “interdisciplinary arts” became the focus of growing activity in Korean art. In general terms, interdisciplinary arts refers to artwork that crosses boundaries of genres such as art, dance, theater, music, and film. While it certainly does focus on convergence and juxtaposition among genres, it does not simply refer to genre mixing. As each genre poses fundamental questions about genre perse, this gives rise to things that cannot be addressed through that genre alone, and a unique form of artwork emerged as a natural consequence of the sharing of those things.

Ten Single Shots (2013) by AN JungjuNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

 Interdisciplinary arts was thus energized by the meeting of visual and performing arts, and artists would frequently come to collaborate with choreographers, dancers, and musicians. Sound and movement emerged as important elements in artwork, and works appeared in which the sounds and physical movements were important parts, even if they did not necessarily adopt a performance format.

Ten Single Shots (2013) by AN JungjuNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Ten Single Shots, An Jungju

An Jungju made Ten Single Shots which depicted people who move in response to specific sounds. Gathers 10 distinct shots from the war movie and asks 6 dancers to move with the feeling that they are going to die in the war. Each dancer falls down while struggling to hear the sound of a gunshot, they sometimes appear exaggerated and dramatic.

Through Japanese occupation, liberation, the Korean War, national division, the April 19 Revolution, the Yushin regime, and the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, leading into the era of globalization, Korean artists have demonstrated an unyielding artistic consciousness, striving to sublimate the ordeals brought upon by history into works representative of a zeitgeist. We hope that this exhibition helped audiences to open their eyes to Korean art and history.

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