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Sunday, February 5, 2012

SeMA to block blockbusters

Seoul's blockbuster exhibition frenzy* may cool down a few notches. As we saw over the past few years, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Klimt, Rodin, Warhol, or Chagall came to town in unprecedented waves, while at the other end of the spectrum, younger generations got a pretty nice share of spotlight**. Unsurprisingly, confirmed Korean artists didn't receive the attention they deserved, so the new head of the Seoul Museum of Art wants to switch to a more balanced diet*** (NB: I promise, that's it for my f***g ***s today).

Even if it doesn’t look as impressive as the massive Seoul Art Center complex in Seocho-gu, SeMA does have a lot of space to fill, but it's split between different venues. Until now, the editorial line looked (a little bit) like this:

  • for power hitters: the main building in Jung-gu (former Supreme Court HQ in Seosomun). Bonus: print and TV ads, plus bright flag advertising banners all along Deoksugung-gil.
  • for minor league players: a small yet cute Nam Seoul annex in Gwanak-gu (the former Belgian Embassy in Namhyeon-dong). Bonus: subliminal pop-ups on SeMA’s website.
  • for little league toddlers: an architectural mess at the entrance of Gyeonghuigung (picture the roof of Munich Olympiastadion next to a royal palace – Prada Transformer did a much better job for the contrast). Bonus: the place seems to open only between 2.37 and 3.45 AM on certain holidays every leap year (of course I’m exaggerating: I remember among other successes a recent Seoul Photo Festival)
  • Note that SeMA also acts as an incubator for promising artists in Mapo-gu (Nanji Art Space in Sangam-dong, in the Seoul Art Space spirit)

Significantly, these days, SeMA stars Yann Arthus Bertrand in yet another photo expo milking his Earth from Above series and Home movie ("It's my home"). Seosomun building also hosts a less advertized show about "Korean Abstract Painting - 10 Perspectives", and chances are I won't go all the way down South to see the most original program ("Where's my friend's home?" almost seems tailored for the Seoul Museum of History).

Typically, the new boss, who only took over a few days ago, wants to make more room for Korean artists in their 40s and 50s, and why not, to push beyond walls, towards the charming walkway of Deoksugung-gil (the museum gardens were already used as a stage in recent expos, and a couple of years ago, a trio of bronze sculptures featured at
KIAF 2008 has been permanently installed across the entrance, by the palace walls).

It would take a Paik Nam-june to bring the same crowds as the blockbusters of the Noughties, but I don’t think that’s the aim of the game anymore. It’s not about flash events featuring big brands, but about brand building for art itself: now people must come even when there isn't a big name. Museum executives used to outsource the organization to a well connected producer: they will now have to do their jobs, and to contribute to a vast pedagogy effort that must also involve the media and school systems.

If SeMA already contributed a lot to the democratization of modern and contemporary art in Seoul, it cannot fulfill all its missions and fill all its venues with blockbusters occulting the rest (which also includes such recurrent events as the Media Art Biennale or the Print Biennal). So it can leave classic blockbusters to say the SAC, and devote more energy to more ambitious programs and to permanent collections... even if, of course, it cannot build as extensive a collection as the MOCA's (SeMA does propose a decent exhibition of its New acquisitions every year, though).

Speaking of the National Museum Of Contemporary Art: here too, a new chief has just been named this very week. Among the big challenges: preparing the inauguration of the "UUL National Art Museum" next year (
reminder: the former Defense Security Command in Sogyeok-dong, a future landmark).

This period of fine tuning in normal considering the boom of the past years, as Seoul caught up with fellow world capitals in cultural infrastructures. As a younger player, it can learn from past mistakes. For instance, as a Parisian, it's interesting to see how long it took for the Musee d'Art Moderne to adapt to the new 'competitive environment' following the success of Centre George Pompidou.

To be continued.

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*"Gustav Klimt at Seoul Arts Center - Pompidou at SeMA"

** see for instance the
ASYAAF series

SeMA to shift away from 'blockbuster' exhibitions" (Korea JoongAng Daily 20120206)

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