The development of Seoul’s creative industry has been phenomenal. The K-pop culture, Korean blockbusters, and TV Shows have gained a tremendous presence, not only in Asia but in the entire world’s entertainment industry. There are so many songs on my Apple Music Playlist – artists like Chancellor, so soo bin, Yong Jun Hyung, DEAN, DPR Live, and Crush are some of my favorites. Today, Seoul is also home to many excellent art galleries and museums. Lots of International artists and performers are invited to Seoul to showcase their work of all genres and forms. To art lovers, the following list is some of my recommendations and the best art/creative spaces in Seoul and your input is very much welcome!
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
Leeum is my first choice on the list as the museum embraces the characteristics of my interpretation of a truly contemporary art museum: a permanently incredible art collection and modern, sleek architecture. Leeum is run by the Samsung Foundation of Culture and it is separated into two sections, focusing on the old and new. Museum 1 is designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta and houses a collection of traditional Korean art, and Museum 2 is designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and showcases contemporary and modern artworks from both Korean and foreign contemporary artists.
I like Museum 2 more, obviously. Titled “Beyond Space”, the museum consists of three exhibitions under this overarching theme. On each floor, the artworks are mindfully organized which takes visitors on a journey to topics of an expressionist tendency in modern art. The first-floor gallery is presented around the keyword ‘expression’, from Korean artists who perceived art as an expression rather than representation, Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, to international artists (like Willem de Kooning!) who sought to express personal experiences through art. The galleries on the second and third floors continued the exploration of Abstraction, to modern art that goes beyond boundaries. Those could be paintings, sculptures, or installation that encompasses diverse tendencies; after all, the art world is becoming more and more dynamic and boundaries among regions, genres, and times are getting obscured. I was excited to see that Leeum features quite a few influential artworks, including Mark Rothko’s color field paintings, Ad Reinhardt’s abstract painting, Andy Warhol, Murakami Takashi, and more.
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art – MMCA
The MMCA (Seoul) is another great art museum that I love to visit. MMCA is the very first national organization in the country that showcases contemporary art from all around the world. The main museum is located in Gwacheon, and its second branch, Seoul-guan, is located in the heart of Seoul in the Jongno District. Jongon District is a quieter “art” neighborhood where lots of art galleries, showrooms, and museums are located. You will find that many of my recommendations are actually in that area. The Seoul branch is a restoration of a former military and defense facility and the site offers plenty of space for big-scale art installation; The basement of the museum has a multi-project hall and theatre for film screening and all sorts of performance art exhibitions.
MMCA Seoul branch doesn’t have a permanent collection (as of now I know), and the last time I visit the museum was showcasing Robert Rauschenberg, a renowned American painter and graphic artist’s work in the 1920s. His work made a mark in the anticipation of the pop art movement and he used non-traditional materials and objects for his work in an innovative and experimental manner. The other part of the exhibition showcased the work from E.A.T.: Experiments in Art and Technology. The group was formed by Rauschenberg and other three partners in the 1966s and explored new ways to create art with technology. As a result, the installations go beyond traditional boundaries and probably inspired many others in the way they create in the modern days.
The museum has an art zone that sells merchandise related to the exhibition, a Café, and a tea house, with a stunning view of the garden inside the MMCA.
The ARARIO Museum was a pleasant surprise because it looks small from the outside. In fact, it has much more space when you venture into the old brick house. The museum is funded by the ARARIO Corporation, which the chairman, Kim Chang-il, has a passion for contemporary art, and decided to share his unique taste with the rest of the world. The museum has two sites in Seoul and Jeju, aiming to nurture the art culture and offer a platform for visitors to communicate about their artistic experiences.
The museum showcased artworks collected by ARARIO’s chairman. He was deeply impressed by the works he saw during his first visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1981, and since then, he started collecting artworks from all over the world, including Germany, China, India, Southeast Asia, and more. Now, he has a collection of over 3,700 pieces! The exhibition hall doesn’t show them all, but they have a selection of Korean artists and some famous international artists that you may find quite recognizable. The list includes “Warhol in Astonishment” created by Hyung Koo Kang, paintings of Barbara Kruger, self-portraits of Cindy Sherman, works of Keith Haring, Tatsuo Miyajima, Leslie de Chavez, Geraldine Javier, sculptures of Jörg Immendorff (the apes?!), an award-winning exhibit from Li Qing, the taxidermied deer of Kohei Nawa (Which is this blog’s cover pictures – and I have seen it in Leeum as well)… and many more.
Hangaram Arts Museum / Seoul Arts Center
Hangaram Arts Museum is part of the Seoul Arts Center. The museum is a venue that displays contemporary arts. There are 6 exhibition halls that host temporary art exhibitions, notable exhibitions include “World Stars in Contemporary Art” featuring Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Gerhard Richter, among others; “Revisiting Munch” featuring valuable artworks (of course, “lithograph of The Scream”) by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch; and Mark Rothko’s exhibition featuring 50 paintings of the influential American contemporary artists Mark Rothko, which are on loan from Washington D.C.’s National Gallery.
The Art Square in front of the museum features a wide range of exclusive artwork and it’s free for visitors to see. Check out their website and you may find some exciting exhibitions during your visit to Seoul!
Moving on, we return to the Jongon District where I explore quite a lot of art galleries that were exciting for art lovers, and they probably should not be missed if you are in the area. Perrotin Seoul is one of those that made an impression. The gallery is a small gallery that only features a few artworks but it is worth a visit as it’s close to MMCA, and it’s free :P. I said it made an impression because the gallery was showing Zach Harris’s carved panel paintings when I visited there; I was taken away by the vibrant colors and complicated yet precise layers of composition. To me, the carved paintings are a modern take on the woodwork in cathedrals. It was the artist’s first show in Asia. Perrotin galleries could also be found in Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, Shanghai, and Paris; and they feature one artist at a time for about a month or so. The website has a great archive of their previous exhibitions info and some photos.
Website (Perrotin): https://www.perrotin.com/
Walking down the Cheongwadae-ro and Samcheong-ro, outside the walls of the Gyeongbokhung Palace, there are a few more galleries and art spaces. Kukje Gallery has a modern and interesting exterior, and the gallery is committed to presenting works of local artists. Kumho Museum of Art displays new pieces of art from both promising new artists and accomplished artists. Foreign artists are invited to showcase their works in the three-story exhibition space. Gallery Hyundai is founded in the 1970s and aims to introduce modern and contemporary art to Korea. One of the most important exhibitions was Lee Ufan’s art exhibition. Lee Ufan is a world-recognized minimalist painter and sculptor and his work could be found across Japan, and South Korea. I once have seen his exhibition in New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The National Folk Museum of Korea is a national museum and illustrates the history of the traditional life of the Koreans. Don’t miss out to take a turn at Anguk subway station exit 2 and explore the Bukchon Hanok Village as well!
Website (Kukje Gallery): https://www.kukjegallery.com/
Website (Kumho Museum of Art): http://www.kumhomuseum.com/
Website (Gallery Hyundai): http://www.galleryhyundai.com/
Website (The National Folk Museum of Korea): http://www.nfm.go.kr/home/index.do
Common Ground is not an art museum or exhibition site. It’s a creative landmark in Seoul established with over 200 shipping containers. It has a shopping area, cafes, food trucks, markets, shops, and entertainment that attracts many local trendsetters as well as tourists. It was opened in 2015 – one of the first and also largest shipping container shopping malls in Seoul. There are more and more shopping malls that popped up across Seoul afterward in a similar form, but still, they can’t quite replace the special status of Common Ground just yet.
Culture Station Seoul 284 & Seoullo 7017 Skygarden
The site is a restoration of the Old Seoul Station. The old building was shut down in 2009 and reopened in 2011. The renovation kept the facility’s original exterior and now it serves as a cultural complex with spaces for all sorts of artistic and cultural events, shows, and performances. Like the [Project 284] The Clock of Time Traveler exhibition, a special art exhibition in 2017 with displays, activities, and performances related to the nature of the past, present, and future. In 2018, the site featured RTO365, a post-military facility, and presented different artworks, videos, and literature.
Another highlight in the area is the recently transformed Seoullo 7017 Skygarden. The site was an old, abandoned roadway and now it’s turned into a pedestrian-friendly skywalk and a tourist attraction. It’s called “7017” because the flyover is opened in 2017, it is 17 meters high, it serves the neighborhood since 1970 and the entire pedestrian zone has 17 walkways that conveniently connect four districts around the Seoul Station. After the redevelopment, the skywalk offered plenty of green space, recreation areas, cafes, and benches. It’s so much easier to commute between both sides of Seoul Station now.
Website (Culture Station 284): https://www.seoul284.org/
Website (Seoullo 7017 Skygarden): http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/ATR/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=2497803
The Starfield Library is the latest addition to the COEX Mall. The mall was an old-fashioned shopping mall (yes, I have been there a few years ago and it was old. In just a few years, the mall was renovated and quickly becomes one of the newest and most trendy hotspots for the locals. The Starfield Library has a collection of 50,000 books and magazines, both in digital and print, and is free to the public. While most of the books are in Korean, some English literature is available as well. Everyone is welcome to sit down on one of those comfortable plush sofas or benches and read the books. Even if visitors are not planning to read, the shelves are beautifully designed, and the transparent glass ceiling allows a great amount of sunlight and illuminates the hall on a sunny day – a great photo-taking spot. The area offers free Wi-Fi and coffee shops, and it’s connected to the largest underground shopping mall in Asia. The open area hosts seminars and lectures; it has a large art display throughout the year.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid, Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) are a major urban development and a multi-function complex located in the fashion hub of Seoul – Dongdaemun. The site was a stadium (so you could imagine how big the area is), and it connects to the part of the Seoul fortress. While luxurious brands are mostly in Apgujeong and Cheongdam-dong Fashion area, high-end, niche designer brands in Sinsa, department stores in Myeong-dong… ) The redevelopment successfully vitalized Dongdaemun, making a “used to be lower-end fashion shopping district” a hip and trendy district once again.
Some iconic buildings in the world, like concert halls, commercial skyscrapers, or museums – look striking. Yet sometimes you may not be able to “interact” with the structure: They may not be opened to the public, or you need to pay to get in.
Therefore, the great thing about DDP is the openness to the public, and its permanent location so close to the Dongdaemun shopping district. DDP has numerous shops and it constantly holds different exhibitions / commercial events with different themes; People from all walks of life could go inside the building and “enjoy something” with it.
DDP is also surrounded by Dongdaemun Shopping Complexes and is connected to malls. 80% of the textiles traded in South Korea go through the Dongdaemun Complex (So you can imagine the scale). The street food market around Dongdaemun is also excellent.