There’s nothing like coming from a chilly winter in Aotearoa New Zealand to a humid summer in South Korea to underscore the fact you’re in a new country, very different from the one you left. Over the five days of the Curator’s Tour the delegation was not only enveloped in Seoul’s climate and unique culture but also immersed in the local art scene.
One of the main drivers of the tour was to attend the international art fair Frieze Seoul, but the week was also filled with visiting cultural sites, galleries and museums, providing insights into South Korean contemporary and traditional arts.
Kicking off the week, the New Zealand Embassy in Seoul hosted a reception for the curators at the Art Sonje Centre, a leading institution in contemporary art. Bringing together so many interested people from both New Zealand and South Korea showcased the valued connections between the two countries.
It was also a reminder of New Zealand’s increasing interest in Korean visual art, said Simon Bowerbank, director of the Whangārei Art Museum.
“I’ve been interested in Korean art for a while, but it feels like right now there’s quite a lot of attention on it.
“I’m not entirely sure why, but now is the moment for Korean art, which is kind of exciting.”
Director arts Craig Cooper and curator Simon Bowerbank at Frieze Seoul
An enlightening and exciting aspect of the visit for the curators was talking to their counterparts at some of Seoul’s major art institutions about how they could further develop arts connections between New Zealand and South Korea.
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) was a highlight of the tour for Chloe Cull, Pouarataki Curator Māori at Te Puna o Wai Whetū Christchurch Art Gallery.
“The MMCA has been fantastic, and we really enjoyed meeting members of the curatorial team who were able to give us some real context to the exhibitions that they presented.’’
New Zealand curators Hiraani Himona and Natasha Conland with MMCA Curator
Frieze Seoul and the local Kiaf Arts Show, which was held alongside Frieze in the same venue, allowed the curators to see diverse works from across the globe.
With galleries and museums from London, Shanghai, Paris and beyond exhibiting, Frieze was a 101 on who’s who in the art world.
The share volume of art on display might have been overwhelming for your average gallery-goer, but for these curators it was heaven. They spent their time connecting with fellow curators, meeting inspiring new artists, and scoping out potential collaborations for their respective institutions.
To compliment the two art fairs, art galleries across Seoul stayed open late so the many patrons in town for the fair could explore a different area of the city each night.
Aaron Lister, senior curator of City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, said wandering the streets of Seoul and exploring the smaller galleries in the evening was a standout part of the trip for him.
“The galleries are just pumping full of people from the art world [and] from the broader communities… coming together to see what the best aspects of art in Korea are… It has been a really exciting, innovative way to immerse oneself inside this culture.”
At the National Museum of Korea, museum curators showed the group calligraphy and ceramic exhibitions, as well as a few national treasures.
The curators emphasised the value of engaging with subject experts and getting insight into the historical evolution of Korean art, the process of creating artworks, and the very definition of 'art’ in a Korean context.
An exhibition that stood out for the curators was the The Room of Quiet Contemplation that was created for the display of two pensive bodhisattva statues, each designated a national treasure.
The curators described the exhibition as a curatorial ‘masterclass’ – an immersive experience where attention to detail was noted and enhanced the space for anyone who entered.
'A Room of Quiet Contemplation' exhibition at the National Museum of Korea
For Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki senior curator, Natasha Conland, a connection that could only have happened on tour stemmed from a chance conversation over lunch.
During the lunch with Foundation Honorary Adviser Heekyung Jo Min, Natasha mentioned her current research into work by Korean artists Do Ho Suh. On hearing this, Jo Min shared that she had a personal connection with Do Ho Suh and his family and offered to take Natasha to see their family home – the very house central to many of Do Ho Suh’s works.
The next day, Nastaha, who had spent considerable time researching the famous house and the associated art works, was astounded to find herself standing at its front door, being greeted by Do Ho Suh’s mother.
“I met his mother, who is a national treasure and has been an informed part of the post-war experience and the revival of arts and crafts in South Korea. It was an extraordinary privilege to get that chance as well.”
The Foundation’s director arts Craig Cooper, who led the tour, says it is serendipitous moments like Natasha connecting with Jo Min that highlight the value of being in-country making contacts.
“Chance encounters like this just can’t happen from back home, and they’re a feature of the Foundation’s arts practitioners tours to Asia.
“If you put feet on the ground, immerse Kiwi arts practitioners in the local arts environment and introduce them to arts practitioners and patrons, magic like this just seems to happen.”
He says he has little doubt that connections made on the tour will lead to future collaborations.
“I’m excited to see what materialises from the visit over coming months and years.
“I have little doubt connections made in Seoul will result in New Zealand audiences getting to experience more of South Korea’s exciting artists and art works.”
New Zealand curators at an art installation at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
The Foundation's arts programme aims to bring Asia into the mainstream of New Zealand arts by inspiring New Zealand arts professionals to grow their connections and knowledge of Asia. It also supports the presentation of Asian arts in partnership with New Zealand arts organisations and events.