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[Herald Interview] Guggenheim Museum puts Korean experimental art on global art stage

Jan. 31, 2024 - 16:50 By Park Yuna
Kyung An, associate curator of Asian Art at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)

Experimental art in Korea from the 1960s to 1970s has received little attention compared to other Korean art genres despite its unique place in Korean art history. Setting the art genre in the global context for international audiences was a recent exhibition at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York co-organized with the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

The exhibition “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s” ended its four-month run at the Guggenheim in early January, marking the first introduction of Korea's avant-garde art in North America.

“The exhibition was an eye-opener to many audiences. My most memorable moments include hearing visitors analyze and discuss the works as well as seeing the artists’ delighted reaction to the exhibition when they saw the show in person,” said Kyung An, associate curator of Asian art at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in a recent email interview with The Korea Herald.

Visitors to the "Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s" at Guggenheim Museum view works on display on Sept.10, 2023. (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald)

The exhibition landed in New York in September after a run at MMCA in Seoul from May to July last year. Korean experimental art, called "silheom misul" in Korean, created by young artists of the time, was rebellious – yet subtle. They also criticized the artistic establishment of the time and prevailing Informalism after the Korean War.

The nation was under the repressive authoritarian Park Chung-hee regime from 1961 to 1979, which was notorious for its censorship of the arts and freedom of expression, even banning long hair for men and miniskirts for women. This generation of artists also lived through the earlier student-led April 19 Revolution of 1960, a mass protest against the country’s first President Syngman Rhee.

“It was important to situate this exhibition within our ongoing attempts to expand the narrative of postwar contemporary art with a focus on amplifying the voices of artists and movements that have hitherto been under-recognized. We are proud to have the MMCA as our co-organizing partner as they brought their wealth of knowledge and expertise on the ground,” An said.

Visitors to the "Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s" at Guggenheim Museum view works on Sept.10, 2024. (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald)

The featured artists include Lee Kun-yong, Kim Ku-lim, Ha Chong-hyun, Sung Neung-kyung, Lee Seung-taek, Lee Kang-so, Kang Kuk-jin, Park Hyun-ki and Jung Kang-ja.

“(The exhibition) furthered our aim to research, collect and exhibit works by Asian artists and artists of Asian descent. The performance program onsite by Sung Neung-kyung, Lee Kun-yong and Kim Ku-lim were very memorable. It was wonderful seeing Sung and Lee interact with the New York audiences in person,” she said.

Sung performed “Reading Newspapers (1976)” at the museum in November, cutting out the headlines and bodies of articles from the local newspaper published that day. Leaving only the skeletal frame, he holds up the newspaper to read after every incision. Lee showcased his iconic performance “Snail’s Gallop (1979)” in October traversing the floor, squatting and marking the ground with continuous lines.

“Korean art history and Korean artists are receiving more and more attention these days, which is wonderful. There’s much synergy across the cultural field with film, literature and music. I see it as both my duty and pleasure to continually explore the diversity and dynamism of this landscape,” An said.

An installation view of "Untitled (Sprout)" by Lee Seung-taek at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (Solomon R.Guggenheim Foundation)

The exhibition will travel to Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where it will run from Feb. 11 to May 12.

“The checklist of works are almost identical to the New York presentation. The LA exhibition also follows the same narrative but the experience of the works will be somewhat different since the Hammer exhibition is on one floor with adjoining galleries while the Guggenheim exhibition was split over three floors," she said.

An joined the Guggenheim in 2015, playing a significant role in the research and collection of Asian and Asian-diaspora artists at the museum. She received her BA and MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, where she also obtained her Ph.D. in 2015.

Visitors to the "Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s" at Guggenheim Museum view works on Sept.10, 2024. (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald)