The South Korean capital is Asia’s hotspot for cutting-edge creativity. Independent, politicized and trained around the world, Seoul’s artists are fueling this development
You feel it in your stomach first: a tickling that makes you want to hold your breath. Jun Ahn, 34, leans over the balustrade on top of the 23-story Mijin Plaza tower. “Yes, I’m afraid of heights,” she admits. “But looking down toward the ground I feel the present. It’s like an empty space between the past and the future.” Her self-portraits on skyscrapers have made the Seoul-based photo artist famous. The pictures, where she dances along the rooftops like Mary Poppins, dangles over edges or hangs out of windows, have been shown in exhibitions in Asia, Europe and the U.S., winning her numerous awards. It’s not about the thrill, she says. “I always wear a climbing harness, but I still get dizzy – it is a very natural fear.”
»Fine art or commerce? To me, the difference is obsolete. I work on the intersection
Down on the intersection people scurry like ants. Gangnam, the famous district in the city of 10 million, is where Seoul’s reputation as a hipster hotspot started. The rise of K-Pop began here in the mid-90s, culminating in 2012 with the global hit “Gangnam Style” by Psy. Across Asia, North and South America and the Arab world, K-Pop girl and boy groups, plastic-surgery enhanced from head to toe, like Girl’s Generation or Big Bang, have fueled Hallyu – Korean Wave. The skyscrapers and flashy shop windows in Gangnam reflect the economic miracle that has made South Korea one of the key industrial nations in the world.
Apgujeong Rodeo Street, named after Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, is lined with the flagship stores of the West’s most coveted brands, K-Pop production companies and giant statues of Hallyu stars. There are advertisements for plastic surgery everywhere: In Gangnam alone there are over 500 clinics, and many people on the street wear bandages on their faces. The city is obsessed with optimizing its facade, but there is a dark side to this fixation: the pressure to succeed causes up to 50 suicides a day, giving South Korea the highest suicide rate
of all OECD nations. Jun Ahn’s breakneck photos are not a comment on this. The idea came to her in 2008 while studying in New York. “I had a tiny studio on the 21st floor in Manhattan and a roof where I would get some fresh air, have a coffee and admire the view.” This is where she took the first photos in the Void series, which she completed two years ago. Gravity and falling remain her artistic focus: Her new series, Float, features photos of falling stones.
Not far from Mijin Plaza is a side street where artist Sho Jang, 45, lives and has his studio, Col.l.age+. His hypercomplex montages of hundreds of thousands of photos – of chocolates, brand logos, jewelry or butterflies – are compositions in the tradition of Hieronymus Bosch. With ten million photos on his hard drives, Jang edits and prints the pictures, cuts them out by hand and puts them together on the computer to form a digital kaleidoscope. He prints his designs on tiles, sculptures, handbags and dresses, animates them in videos and on catwalks. He illuminated the facade of the Grand Palais in Paris, has created fabric patterns for the South Korean avant-garde fashion designer Lie Sang Bong, designed video clips for BoA, the queen of K-Pop, and next year he will be creating an Art Car for Lamborghini. “Fine art or commerce? To me, the difference is obsolete,” he says. “I work on the intersection. Art is life, life is art.” Jang, an amateur musician, returned from the U.S. in 2009 inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory and wanted to create something similar in Seoul.
For three years, his studio was a meeting place for musicians, DJs and designers. Even the U.S. band Limp Bizkit popped by for a private session. Just as European visitors today goggle at the blinking touchscreens, the monitors in the sleek underground trains or the cheap shopping malls in Dongdaemun Market, Jong was once greatly impressed by Times Square: “The simultaneousness of too much information pouring down on us modern, urban people daily, our fixation with the surface and the Buddhist belief that the entire world can be revealed in tiny details – these are my topics,” he explains. On the other side of the Han River, which flows through Seoul, Platoon Sonnendeck rebels against the slick Gangnam style. The names sounds German because it is. Along with German beer and curried sausage, the venue offers culture events: readings, exhibitions, DJ gigs and films. Anything, as long as it’s not mainstream. Co-founder Tom Büschemann, 51, sees his mission as “cultural development,” just like the original Berlin Platoon, where since 1999 mobile containers have moved between building gaps, acting as hang-outs for the city’s hipsters and dotcom folks, often sponsored by big brands like Adidas, Hugo Boss and Absolute Vodka.
Here in Itaewon, Büschemann feels almost as at home as in Berlin: African, European and American expats and the gay community all live and party here. Smoke rises from the street food stalls all night long. “There was no subculture and no alternative art scene when we came to Seoul in 2008,” says Büschemann, “but that was precisely what South Koreans were looking for.” To a small, new avant-garde scene there’s more to life than work and shopping. “We have created an independent platform for people who dare to swim against the current,” he says. Seoul’s many private galleries and museums are firmly in the hands of the “Jaebeols,” the family-owned conglomerates who control the nation’s economy. The Hyundai Card Music Library or the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art are a ten-minute walk from Sonnendeck. They feature impressive architecture but inside it’s mostly Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst or Anish Kapoor. Edgier artists like Sungpil Han have little prospect of securing a show.
In 2013, Han, 44, showed his pictures of the Marx-Engels monument in East Berlin at Platoon. The visual artist focuses on political history and its significance over the years. His works, mainly photographs on giant screens, turn buildings inside out, alter landscapes or cityscapes. For the Havanna Biennale last year he brought the Korean Gameunsa Temple to the Cuban capital – on a giant backdrop. Han plays with illusion and reality, an obvious topic in Seoul. “You could call what I do plastic surgery for buildings, cities and landscapes,” he says with a grin. He has exhibited in the world’s major museums, from Tokyo to Houston, but his pet project is a two-hour car ride north of the city in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korean: four kilometers wide, roughly 250 kilometers long. The country has been divided since 1953 and there are no border crossings, telephone lines or mail service like when Germany was divided. Military provocations are common: Last year, rockets were fired from North Korea, landing just behind the DMZ, where farmers on both sides of the border grow ginseng, beans or blueberries. Han’s grandfather was killed in battle in the DMZ; his body was never found.
“The opening show in the Yeongang Gallery has a personal significance for me,” he says. This is probably the only gallery in the world that has a border control point and an armed soldier guarding it. The former communal hall and air-raid shelter opened earlier this year. Han covered the exterior walls with photos of the facade of the Bauakademie in Berlin, the natural landscape in the border region, pictures of thousands of doors and peace messages from all around the world.
The border guard speaks fluent English. He grew up in the U.S. and is now serving his two-year conscription in Korea. He tells us about the bloody battle that took place on the border by the Han River, scarcely 500 meters away. And he wants to know all about how Germans experienced Reunification. South Koreans feel a close connection with Germany due to the shared history of division. Han has called his exhibition Innocence, after the natural beauty of nature that flourished in the thinly populated border region – contrasting starkly with political reality.