Take a walk through modern history at Korean Rhapsody
By Kwon Mee-yoo
The dynamic history of 20th-century Korea has inspired a museum exhibition, featuring some 80 artworks in various forms ranging from Japanese “ukiyoe” and paintings from the period to contemporary media art.
“Korean Rhapsody: A Montage of History and Memory,” ongoing at the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, in Hannam-dong, Seoul, sheds new light on the country’s modern history with a creative fresh perspective.
“Koreans miss places where memories were made and this is related to social amnesia,” Lee Joon, deputy director of Leeum, said. “The contemporary history of Korea embodies both the past as well as the present, so we placed 100-year-old works next to contemporary artists’ work, juxtaposing our histories side-by-side.”
Seemingly odd matches of old and new works direct the viewer’s attention to Korea’s tumultuous past.
The exhibition is presented in two sections. The Black Box of Leeum hosts the first part in “Symbols of Modernity,” portraying the time from when ports were opened to foreigners to when Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945¬ .
It begins with two landscapes of Seoul, one by Hubert Vos and another by Ahn Joong-sik, providing the contrasting views of a foreigner and a local artist. Also featured is artist Jung Yeon-doo’s video clip, “A Day in the Life of Gubo,” which reconstructs Seoul in the 1890s and 1930s through miniature sets based on the 1934 novel “A Day of Novelist Gu Bo.”
“Since not many artworks from before the 1930s have survived, we brought in ‘ukiyoe,’ Japanese woodblock prints, to show the life of people in the late Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) from a Japanese point of view,” Lee said.
Cho Duck-hyun’s 2011 work “Reflection Reflection” combines the image of a 1930s modern woman with that of the artist’s daughter in retro costumes, and visualizes the lapse of time by featuring mirrors standing face-to-face.
The section also displays an archive of photographs and video clips of dancer Choi Seung-hee and poet Yi Sang.
Continuing in the Ground Gallery, the second section of the exhibition “Unfamiliar Hopes,” features the period around 1945 up to the present.
Lee Que-de’s “Liberation Notice” (1948), Byeon Yeong-won’s “Anti-Communist Spirit” (1952) and Lee Jung-seop’s “Fighting Bulls” (1956) demonstrate the hardships Korean artists experienced during the Korean War (1950-53) though vivid, dynamic paintings.
A series of three photographic works by Koo Bohn-chang, “Park Weayeon, Age 101, She Lost Her Son during Korean War,” “A Letter to Mother” and “A Steel Helmet” speak volumes about the war.
Video artists Jo Seub’s “When the Day Comes,” however, unravels the story of war in a rather light, humorous way while sculptor Song Young-su expresses it in an abstract form through “Work 59-2.”
“The keyword of this exhibition is ‘memory’ and we wanted to show how people remember the same thing in different ways,” Lee said.
The timeline continues onto industrialization and Lee Jong-sang’s 1962 painting “Work” and Kim Chul-hyun’s “Industrial Picture Project” (1992-2001) portray the diligent people that devoted themselves to the economic development of Korea.
The trend of abstract painting settled down in Korea in the 1980s, amid the rise of new media and diverse artistic trends. Oh Yoon’s “Marketing” (1981) series and Paik Nam-june’s “Korea Relief” (1991) are examples of such movements.
Suh Do-ho’s “Uni-form/s: Self Portrait/s: My 39 Years” (2006) shows the artist’s way of portraying his identity in a synthetic, symbolic way through the uniforms he wore. Oh Hein-kuhn’s “Ajumma” (1997) series explores the identity of middle-aged Korean women — wearing a pearl necklace, a tiger fur print dress or a flower print scarf.
The exhibition is on view through June 5. Tickets cost from 4,000 to 13,000 won.
The docent program is available at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. every day and English explanations are offered at 2 p.m. on weekends. The museum is closed on Mondays. Visit www.leeum.org for more information.