Newsletter 508

Published September 11, 2023
Making new friends in Korea

It’s been all about art fairs this week. To begin, I had the annual nail-biter with Sydney Contemporary – having to (p)review the show while it was still being set up, because of the weekly newspaper deadlines. To add a degree of difficulty I was due to get on a plane to Seoul on Tuesday evening, directly after returning from the fair. Somehow, on that ten-hour flight, I had to write the SC piece, while warding off the jetlag that was still lingering from a previous flight, about three days earlier. Upon arriving at Incheon, with an extended deadline fast running out, I stood in the immigration queue for more than an hour. After further obstacles were overcome, I found myself desperately trying to email the finished piece via hotspot while on a speeding bus heading into the city from the airport.

So to those people who say: “Wow! I wish I had your job!” I offer this as an example of be-careful-what-you-wish-for.

Now that my stress levels have returned to the customary red zone, rather than off-the-chart, I’m left to reflect on what I’ve been seeing over the past few days in Sydney and Seoul. The brief summary is: many thousands of artworks in the form of an aesthetic tsunami that has crashed over my brain, leaving me to try and rescue a few salient impressions from the onslaught.

Looking back over my snapshots, I can see how I was taken by the quirky, the unusual, and occasionally the classic, as in a stunning early Joan Miró, or a Picasso that floored the contemporary stuff, or even a first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, for a mere £300,000.

This was in Seoul, where there were two fairs: the Korean International Art Fair (KIAF), which was a monumental free-for-all; and Seoul Frieze – the first iteration of the ultra-chic contemporary fair the Koreans had to bid for, and win, ahead of their Asian neighbours.

In Sydney, with 96 galleries in attendance, the stakes were lower, as were the price points, but this year’s fair was almost certainly the biggest commercial art event the city has ever seen. The confidence was palpable, although from Seoul I’m in no position to confirm whether it was justified. Either way, there was a strong sense that this fair would be a success.

If I had to define the feeling further, I’d say there was a much more general acceptance of the organic role that art fairs are now playing in the way contemporary art is bought and sold around the world. In Australia many galleries have resisted this trend, and indeed, still resist it. A good number of the country’s leading dealers decided to sit this one out, but the ones who came along had a more decided attitude, vis-à-vis the importance of such events. Win, lose, or draw, they were determined to take part, with no regrets.

From my point of view, I always have regrets – for the dozens of galleries I would have liked to mention, but either couldn’t eke out the space, or found the writing had taken me off in a different direction. The problem with trying to cover too much ground is that if one indulges these altruistic impulses, the result is a boring list that means nothing to most readers. With art fairs, it’s almost like throwing darts to decide which galleries get a fleeting mention. It’s not my preferred method of writing, and as I look back over SC, all I can see are the ones that got away. Time to avert one’s gaze, as Nietzsche would recommend.

In Korea I’ve barely had time to check my emails between one engagement and the next. This over enthusiasm is a typically Korean vice, as they are determined to demonstrate superior commitment to their near neighbours and rivals. One can only appreciate the effort, but it would be good if they could allow a little more breathing space.

KIAF was another symptom of wanting to do too much. This vast, sprawling art fair seemed to go on forever, but with very few booths that made one want to pause and look harder. Seoul Frieze was a better, more selective event, with all the Uber galleries in residence. There was, however, still a suspicion that they were clearing out their stockrooms rather than putting their best work on the wall.

At present, South Korea is pushing hard, in competition with Singapore, to wrest Hong Kong’s mantle as the centre of the Asian art market. Even allowing for the political shadows that have fallen over Hong Kong, this is still a huge task. HK is so advantegeously located, has such a favourable tax regime and ingrained commercial instincts, that even Beijing’s heavy-handed antics may not be enough to discourage galleries and collectors.

What Korea has over Singapore is a groundswell of popular interest that has seen huge attendances at KIAF and Frieze. If anyone is likely to dethrone Hong Kong, it’s most likely to be the country that went from being among the poorest in the world to a top ten economy in the space of two generations. And is still a work-in-progress.

The Korean commitment to culture has been one of the nation’s consistent strengths, creating a viable export network of films, TV series and art. So it’s only appropriate that this week’s movie – quite by coincidence – is Celia Song’sPast Lives, which tells the story of a Korean expatriate who reconnects with her childhood sweetheart, amid nostalgia, marital tensions, and cross-cultural complexities. It’s a romance that never quite ignites, keeping the viewer in a state of anticipation. It could serve as a metaphor for Korea’s attempt to become the leading art nation in Asia.