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Korea's experimental artists reborn in different context at MMCA

'Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s' will open at New York's Guggenheim in September

By Park Yuna

Published : July 8, 2023 - 16:01

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An installation view of “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s” at MMCA (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald) An installation view of “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s” at MMCA (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald)

Korean avant-garde artist Lee Kun-yong stood in front of the audience at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea in Seoul, performing “In Snail’s Gallop,” just as he did when it premiered in 1979. But the reception to the performances couldn't be more different.

“My performance is about interacting with audiences. I feel like the audience’s attitude on art has changed a lot from the 1970s. They were quite stiff and seemed to find it difficult to interact with the artists. But now people are flexible and open,” said the 81-year-old artist after finishing his performance on June 28.

Artist Lee Kun-yong performs Artist Lee Kun-yong performs "“In Snail’s Gallop" at MMCA on June 28, attracting hundreds of people to watch online and offline. (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald)

The artist, crouched low, moved across a long black plastic covering on the floor, drawing with a white chalk on the canvas. He then erased the marks as he slowly made his way to the other end. He had to stand up a couple of times in the middle to take breaks, joking that he has aged.

People applauded and gave shouts of encouragement, as well as offered him water. Someone in the crowd played a popular Korean pop song called “Snail," which then became part of the originally musicless performance.

Lee was one of the leaders of the Korean avant-garde movement in the 1960s to the 1970s. The national museum’s “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s” sheds light on the artists and their practices during a time of remarkable modernization and industrialization.

An installation view of “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s” at MMCA (MMCA) An installation view of “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s” at MMCA (MMCA)

The '60s and the '70s were a time of turmoil in and outside the country. Korea was undergoing rapid industrialization under an authoritarian regime while the world was in the midst of the Vietnam War and a rising feminist movement.

The exhibition looks into three crucial groups of avant-garde artists in the early days of the movement -- Origin and Zero Group formed in 1962 and Sinjeon Group in 1967. The artists made their presence known when the groups took to the the streets of Seoul with picket signs on the opening day of the Union Exhibition of Korean Young Artists in 1967. They criticized the artistic establishment of the time, which centered on the government's "National Art Exhibition."

The artists also criticized the mainstream Informel art of the time, calling for a new approach to art. Informel art prevailed after the Korean War (1950-1953) with artists expressing their anger and agony.

“Newspaper: After 1st of June, 1974” by Sung Neung-kyung (MMCA) “Newspaper: After 1st of June, 1974” by Sung Neung-kyung (MMCA)

Among the 29 artists showing at the exhibition is Sung Neung-kyung, whose work “Newspaper: After 1st of June, 1974” is on display. Using a razor, the artist cut out news articles from newspapers for 26 days, leaving the pages with advertisements and cartoons.

He displayed the newspaper on the day of its publication and dropped it into a transparent plastic box the next day. It was a time of strict censorship by the authoritarian regime. The artist recently admitted to the press that he was “really nervous every morning” in conducting his art, worried if he might be arrested for it.

An installation view of “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s” at MMCA (MMCA) An installation view of “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s” at MMCA (MMCA)

The exhibition is co-curated by Kang Soo-jung, a senior curator at MMCA, and Kyung An, an associate curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum. After the exhibition ends its run in Seoul on July 16, it will travel to New York, where it will open at the Guggenheim Museum on Sept. 1. It then moves to Hammer Museum in Los Angeles to be launched on Feb. 11, 2024.