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(Yonhap Feature) Korean artists gaining foothold abroad
By Robert McGovern
Contributing writer
HONG KONG, Jan. 15 (Yonhap) -- When the eyes of the world were on London last summer, contemporary Korean artists were also sporting their best throughout the city, getting exposure and recognition as Asia's new pack of rising talents.

   In the shadow of the Olympics, Kim Dong-yoo, Choi Jeong-hwa and Shin Mee-kyoung, not to mention Korean Eye 2012 -- a collection of 33 works by contemporary Korean painters, sculptors and photographers -- exhibited their work across London.

   Perhaps the most significant, in terms of public exposure, of the exhibitors was Kim Dong-yoo. As a participant in "The Queen: Art and Image," an exhibition of portraits and creations inspired by Queen Elizabeth II at London's National Portrait Gallery, Kim put his name alongside big names from the art world.

   The fact that he was the only Asian is perhaps indicative of the growing status of Korean artists. According to curator Paul Moorhouse, the exhibition was about how the queen has been represented by artists, photographers and the media during the course of her reign, and the way her public image has been constructed and developed. Alongside people like Andy Warhol and Lucien Freud, Kim's piece "Diana Vs Elizabeth" was on display until the exhibition came to a close at the end of October.

   The painting, sold by Lee Hwaik gallery in Seoul, is made up of hundreds of individually painted portraits of Princess Diana. It took Kim about two months to paint and was perhaps the most controversial of the images included in the exhibition.

"Diana Vs Elizabeth" by Kim Dong-yoo (Photos courtesy of Christie's)

Moorhouse said he included Kim in the exhibition because his portrait of the queen encapsulates one of the most significant recent developments in British history, namely the significant role played by Princess Diana in influencing the public perception of the monarchy.

   "Diana raised the profile of the royal family. For some her popularity was a positive force; for others, her celebrity status denigrated the dignity of monarchy. Kim Dong-yoo's portrait captures this ambiguity very well. The fusion of the queen's image with those of Diana can be seen either as a resolution of different elements or as opposition between inimical protagonists," he said.

   Explaining his thought process when conceptualizing the image, Kim said, "I found the pairing of the symbolic Queen Elizabeth of England, who is still living, in contrast with the image of Diana, whose short life has already passed, interesting, and my piece's title corresponds to the issue of one 'life and death.'"

   At around the same time, Choi Jeong-hwa's "Life-Life" installation colorfully decorated trees on the approach to the city's Hungerford Bridge with wavy balloons. The original intention was to use 20,000 balloons but the plan was deemed too ambitious by the city. Curated by the Korean Cultural Centre UK (KCCUK), Choi's work was part of the centre's "All Eyes on Korea."

   "My purpose is for people to look at my art and question why I did it," said Choi in the video clip from the KCCUK. "How can the artificial and the natural be intrinsically linked? I keep questioning how the artificial and nature can be in harmony."

   Choi's first solo exhibition is currently in Hong Kong at the K11 Art Mall. He was commissioned to produce three large-scale art installations, which will be on display at the mall during "Love. Sweet. Life.," a festive program that runs until Jan. 25.

   Then there is Shin Mee-kyoung, the "soap queen," who was commissioned to sculpt a replica of the equestrian statue of the Duke of Cumberland in London's Cavendish Square. Called "Written In Soap: A Plinth Project," the piece will be on show for one year from the summer of 2012. This project will also bring focus to the passage of time as the appearance of the sculpture changes as the soap erodes. Shin is monitoring the progress of the sculpture as part of the overall project.

   The exploration of weathering is important in Shin's work and is a development of her translation series that includes reimaginings of ceramics, a Venus sculpture and the Buddha toilet series -- several Buddha carvings that were placed in toilets in the U.K. and South Korea and used by patrons. What was left of the Buddhas is in the exhibition.

   Perhaps the biggest supporters of Korean contemporary art in the U.K. are the organizers of Korean Eye, specifically David and Serenella Ciclitira. Based on their private collection, the exhibition has become a fixture in London since its inception in 2009. "The exhibition presents the largest survey of new Korean art to date, and highlights an exciting group of artists who have recently emerged on the global art scene, producing work that provides an arresting insight into the future of contemporary art in Korea," according to the Satchi gallery.

   The show highlights just how competitive and deep the field is as the 33 artists were selected, one of which was Shin Mee-kyoung, from a pool of 2,000 who entered over 28,000 works for consideration.

   If all this seems like things are going a little too well for Korean artists, Philip Gowman, owner of popular K-portal in the U.K. London Korea Links (LKL), warns against getting overly excited.

   As he says, London has been the main destination for Korean art students coming to Europe ever since the advent of the so called YBA, Young British Artists, and there is an increasing number of young Koreans starting their careers as curators and organizing exhibitions in hired project spaces. "One or two British commercial galleries have been showing an interest in Korean artists over the past 6 to 8 years, and Korean-owned commercial galleries also have a foothold in central London," Gowman noted.

   Specifically of London, however, "not too much should be read into 2012 and no conclusions should be drawn about Korean art having 'arrived' in London (as) not many people would be able to tell you that the equestrian statue in Cavendish Square is made of soap and made by a Korean artist," he said.

   Aside from exhibitions in galleries, another way to judge the perceived value of art is to see what people are willing to pay for it. Since 2004, Lee Hwaik gallery in Seoul has worked with Christie's auction house in Hong Kong. Here, Kim Dong-yoo's "Marilyn and Mao" sold for 25 times its 12 million won (US$11,320) estimate. Christie's was the first international auction house to offer contemporary Korean art, which they did in 2004, a year before they offered contemporary Japanese art.

   "The level of both visibility and interest in (Korean contemporary art) today as opposed to our first sale 8 years ago is significant," said Eric Chang, international director of Asian 20th century and contemporary art for Christie's Hong Kong. "We have a clear vision of the unique aesthetics of Asian art and have been focusing on how to most effectively introduce this intrinsic uniqueness to the international art market."

   Since 2004, there have been some exceptional sales of Korean pieces in Hong Kong. Paik Nam June's Wright Brothers, a mixed media and video installation, sold for HK$5 million (approximately US$648,000) in November 2007 -- a world auction record for the artist. Likewise, Kang Hyung-koo's haunting Vincent Van Gogh in Blue, which sold for HK$4.57 million at the same auction, was also a world auction record for the artist.

"Beethoven" by Kang Hyung-koo

In Christie's most recent auction in November that included Korean art, there were 27 lots including two pieces by Kim Dong-yoo which sold for HK$764,000 and HK$620,000, both to private collectors in Asia. A piece by Kang Hyung-koo sold for HK$620,000. The figures, however, pale to Chinese artist Zhou Chunya's "We Come from Germany," the top seller that went for HK$5.78 million.

   "I think that the growth in interest in Korean contemporary art has increased so much at such an incredibly fast rate, even quicker, in fact, than the rise in interest in Chinese contemporary art," Chang said. "That category saw the shift over a 14-year period, while Korean art has seen this market shift in really just 7 years. More and more I think collectors are seeing the category very broadly as 'Asian Contemporary' rather than individual regions such as Korean, Japanese, etc. and this clearly has helped Korean art - and will continue to do so certainly."