The Leeum Museum: “Korean Rhapsody”

Korean Contemporary Art

Known as “representing the beauty of South Korea”, the Leeum Museum’s architecture symbolises the 3 most important values of the Samsung Foundation of Culture: Korean traditional values, the movable nature of contemporary art and the importance of cultivating the future of world culture.

The complex project came to light in 2004, even though talks to construct it had started long before in 1995.  Due to the crisis of 1997, building had to be postponed until 2002. Each of the 3 buildings were erected to convey a fundamental value representing the strengths of Korea and of the art world, for instance, Museum 1 symbolised Korean tradition, history and aesthetics.  The Swiss architect, Mario Botta, employed a geometric design and used terra cotta materials that created nuances when exposed to light, to explore the city’s heritage as a castled town during medieval times.

 

Museum 2, built by the French architect Jean Nouvel, used rusted stainless-steel for the first time as it is a metaphor of the junction between technology and contemporary art, where glass walls and cubes of different proportions embody the contrast and flexibility of contemporary art. The last building, the Samsung Child Education and Culture Centre, conceived by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, expresses the transparency of the institution and its longing for educating its audiences. The three structures take into account the city’s pioneering topography and influencing urbanism in the country’s capital. In 2005 – after the opening – the complex received the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s award of excellence for the design of civic architecture.

 

Beneath each building, lobbies and passages connect, reuniting the three structures and reinforcing the museum’s motto to bridge the past, the present and the future of South Korean art. The museum’s collection includes incredible ceramics from the prehistoric period to the Joseon dynasty (the last one before the country’s division); the institution also possesses works of art from contemporary artists such as Willem de Kooning, Paul McCarthy, Gerhard Richter, Lee Bul, Cindy Sherman, Yee Sookyung, Anselm Kiefer and Mark Rothko amongst many others, consolidating the relationship between the West and South Korea. However, unlike the majority of the museums around the word, the curatorial vision of the Leeum Museum is to display all the artworks combined without making a chronological or geographical difference between them. In 2014, the curatorial team of the museum decided to reassemble the entire collection to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the museum. The exhibition, Beyond and Between, explored the multifaceted nature of the institution’s collection as it explored a new direction within the museum dialectics encouraging the dialogue between cultures, between South Korea and the West. Since this year, the museum has adopted this alternative display providing the spectators with extensive visual experiences.

The museum’s attempts to give another perspective to Korean history are not dictated by the government nor by an imperative identity, their rhetoric is rather closer to allowing the audience to understand history through arts prism.”

Other than giving alternative ways of looking at things, Leeum intends to revisit the past and the present of the nation. The exhibition Korean Rhapsody (2011) examined the tempestuous history of South Korea: the unfinished montage suggested a post-historical approach that allowed the spectator to freely read the unfolding events that marked the country and to ponder about the future. Notwithstanding, the museum’s attempts to give another perspective to Korean history are not dictated by the government nor by an imperative identity, their rhetoric is rather closer to allowing the audience to understand history through arts prism. This statement resonates in the way they envision contemporary art.  Their biennial exhibition Artspectrum aims to discover emerging Korean artists by creating a platform for the young generation and positioning them on the contemporary international art scene. Although the blossoming generations tend to be reluctant to return to the past, Artspectrum has proven the contrary, as young Korean artists are increasingly showing interest in studying and learning the ancient pictorial techniques. The period of modernisation – between the 1960’s and 1970’s – has brought with it technology’s glory, eradicating part of South Korea’s past. The Leeum Museum, along with other institutions such as the Art Sonje Center, have been fighting to recover lost heritage. Furthermore, “Leeum Biennial” endeavours to discover fresh Korean talent regardless of the topic, genre of the artist or area of study, giving the exhibition an incredible diversity.  This year’s edition will include the work of a Danish-South Korean artist pushing Artspectrum’s boundaries further.

 

The museum houses around 5,000 pieces including approximately 40 national treasures, for example, the current exhibition Buncheong: Traces of the Mind exhibits ceramic designs from the Joseon dynasty. Through education, the Leeum Museum aims to create a harmonious architectural environment where the audience feels at ease and empathises with the sometimes closed contemporary art. Healing past wounds and conversing with the present time is the only imaginable path to the future.

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