Contemporary Korean Art

[23 Oct 2008]


On the one hand, Korean art is being driven by changes within the country that started 20 years ago with the Olympic Games in Seoul and the first fully democratic elections, and on the other hand, by the remarkable success of contemporary Chinese and Indian artists.
While Asian auction houses, such as Borobudur Singapore and Seoul Auction Center, are driving the market there, the global majors, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, recently integrated Korean art into their Contemporary Asian Art sales. Korea also has its own art fair, the KIAF, whose seventh edition ended in September.

Surrounded by other Asian art fairs of the likes of Art Taipei, SH Contemporary, Art Beijing, Art Singapore, Shanghai Art Fair, CIGE in China, Art Beijing and Art Fair Tokyo, Korea has taken advantage of the economic and artistic dynamism of the entire Asia zone.
In the West, Korean artists who have emerged in the auction world and who are promoted in major exhibitions are very often naturalised Americans, like Soo-Ja KIM and Do Ho SUH who have followed the path opened by Nam June PAIK, a South Korean born in Seoul in 1932 and who died in Miami on 29 January 2006. Nam June Paik was a veritable precursor in the domain of art video and a world recognised artist. The year after his death, the market for his work literally exploded generating a total auction revenue of 2.24 million euros – a sum representing his cumulative auction revenue over the 10 previous years! The Christie’s sales in Hong-Kong in May and November 2007substantially contributed to this result, particularly with the video installation entitled Wright Brothers which set a new record for the artist when sold for double its initial estimate at HKD 4.2 million (USD 540,120). In a gloomy economic period, the two installations presented at Sotheby’s London on the 20th October 2008, and at Christie’s on the next day, remained unsold.

In 2007, while Christie’s was generating million-dollar sales from its Asian Art sales in Hong-Kong with works by ZHANG Xiaogang (Portrait in Yellow, 25 Nov. 2007) and YUE Minjun (Portrait of the Artist and his Friend, 27 May 2007), Korean artists also largely exceeded their estimates at the same sales. Among them, KIM DUCK YONG, CHOI YEONG GEOL, YOON BYUNG ROCK, KIM EUN JIN and several artists in their thirties like AHN SUNG HA, JEONG BO YOUNG, MIN JUNG YEON or PARK JAE-YOUNG. The hyper-realist painting by Jae-Young PARK for example, estimated at HKD 80,000, fetched HKD 100,000 more its estimate (selling for the equivalent of USD 23,000) on 27 May 2007.

Today, young Korean artists born in the 1960s generate results on a par with their Asian peers. Take for example Dong-Yoo KIM, born in 1965, whose work Mao vs Monroe fetched a new record at Sotheby’s London in February 2008. The work, representing the face of Mao Zedong based on an accumulation of hundreds of mini-portraits of Marilyn Monroe, like the pixels of the image, is an extremely buoyant theme in the speculative climate of Chinese art. It fetched no less than GBP290,000, (USD 576,520) … far beyond the record of his elder Kwang-Young CHUN (born in 1944) whose auction high was HKD 2.5 millions (USD 321,500, 25 Nov. 2007, at Christie’s). Both appeared for the first time at public auction the same year (2006). They share – like many other Korean artists – a penchant for the extremely minute, for accumulation and for illusionism. With CHUN KWANG YOUNG, this penchant is expressed in a series entitled Aggregation, inaugurated in 1994. Each work is a surreal landscape composed of an accumulation of hundreds of minuscule triangles made out of Korean mulberry paper… the same paper that his herb doctor used to envelop his herbs and remedies. These works were acquired by buyers from Korea, Japan, China and the United States. On 17 September 2008, at the Sotheby’s’ Contemporary Asian Art sale in New-York, an impressive Aggregation (131.8 x 163.2 cm) doubled its estimate when it fetched USD 85,000. Two years earlier, when Sotheby’s offered a work of similar quality by CHUN KWANG YOUNG for the first time, it was priced at USD 40,000.

Another very successful Korean artist is Do-ho suh. Born in 1962 in Korea, he lives in New-York where his first sculpture submitted to auction by Christie’s in 2007 fetched USD 50,000, twice its estimated value… Entitled Some-One, it is made up of hundreds of soldiers’ I-D plates. The work of Do-ho suh already caused a sensation 6 years earlier at the 49th Venice biennial in 2001 where it represented South Korea.

As the Art market is starting to feel the first effects of the financial crisis, and considering that 30% of the lots remained unsold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong at the beginning of October, in Asia the Artprice AMCI, is getting down and down (reaching -10 on the 27th October). As a consequence The Korean artists rise may slow down within the next few months.