In Seoul, a Major Player Surveys the City’s Changing Scene Ahead of Frieze

In the 1990s, gallerist Tina Kim watched her mother’s business, Kukje Gallery, thrive. It would eventually set her on a path to become a major player in the Korean contemporary art scene. Now, Kim, at the age of 53 and with an eponymous gallery in New York, is readying herself for the opening of the second edition of Frieze Seoul next week, for which, she will present works by Dansaekhwa artists, among them Ha Chong Hyun, Kim Tschang-Yeul and Park Seo-Bo.

Kim is an influential voice in the Seoul art scene now, and a long-time tracker of less-recognized Korean artists active from the 1960 and onward. Those artists who once made up the avant-garde circles in Seoul are receiving increased institutional attention and being recognized as the bedrock of the current contemporary art scene there and elsewhere in Asia, Kim told ARTnews in a recent interview.

As a committee member for Frieze, Kim is one of a small handful of voices charged with tapping into the networks of rising artists that make up Seoul’s art world and that, in some ways, are often hidden from plain sight. Rising global appreciation for K-Pop and Korean film has added to Seoul’s —and Korea’s— rising profile in the art world, she said, adding, “There’s now a great interest in Korean culture in general.”

Kim sees other changes afoot, as artists on her roster – both young and more established – tap into unexpected, cross-generational connections with each other. Meanwhile, she has found her role as a dealer shifted, as she focuses on promoting artists to new collectors many of whom she believes have the potential to become the next generation of cultural patrons. She’s found they often lead with their own interests, and are less concerned with playing by the market’s rules.

ARTnews spoke with Kim from Seoul as she prepped for the fair to talk about the city’s rise as an art destination, new attention on 20th century Korean artists and more.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.)

ARTnews: You represent Suki Seokyeong Kang, who is the subject of a current show at the Leeum Museum of Art in Seoul. You’ve described her work as drawing from the past, but speaking to the future.

When I bring collectors to look at Suki’s work, it has a recognizable draw because from the first encounter, it appears traditional. But in the work, she’s dealing with tensions between the old and the new. Being featured in the Venice Biennale in 2019 and before that in [the 2018 exhibition] “Black Mat Oriole” at the ICA Philadelphia, her first museum show in the U.S., brought her more recognition. For the younger generation of Koreans, there is sometimes a resistance to engaging with traditional subject matter, primarily due to how there could be a tendency for what is considered Korean traditional, or folk, used to promote a certain kind of nationalist agenda that the younger generation is suspicious of.

Suki’s engagement with these ideas is quite conceptual and structural–she’s looking at traditional musical notation (Jungganbo) in her work, rather than using literal imagery– she’s able to bypass the complicated lineage of image and to broach these ideas from a more minimal, modernist aesthetic, that also speaks to a larger history of art, outside of Korea.

AN: There’s more of a foundation for Korean art.

There is great research and a number of foundations for Korean contemporary artists when we look at video art, such as Nam June Paik and Park Chan-Kyong), performance art, like Kimsooja, or Korean Avant Garde artists like AG Group, or collectives like Space and Time, sculpture/installation, such as Haegue Yang, Do Ho Suh, or Dansaekhwa, such as Ha Chong Hyun, Lee Ufan, and Park Seo-Bo.

AN: What needs more recognition?

There is definitely a gap in terms of painters who are working in a sort of realistic way, while thinking about new media and photography. An artist like Kang Seok Ho really fills that gap in Korea’s recent history of contemporary art.

AN: You’re also looking at how, outside of the art world, funding at the corporate level has risen Seoul’s profile as a cultural hub. Frieze, as a franchise, is a part of that ecosystem.

Bottega Veneta is bringing artists to Seoul. Chanel is sponsoring Frieze. The fashion brands want to show that they are tapped into what’s going on in culture. It’s a sign that they believe their brands would be upgraded by being associated with fine art. In the past, Korean companies have been more interested in funding sports. I think the support from those decades of sponsorships are just now being realized.

AN: The lens on Korean contemporary art is more focused globally now. How has your relationship with Sunjung Kim, the Seoul-based curator behind the Real DMZ Project, informed how you’ve shaped your roster?

Back in the day, when my mom’s gallery was thriving, it was very different. After the 1988 Olympics, these were artists coming to the U.S. in the 1980s and going back to Korea in the 1990s. They were shocked by the industrialization. Kim Sunjung, the artistic director of Art Sonje Center in Seoul at the time, she was looking at a lot of these artists before anyone else. A lot of the artists on my roster I first saw at Art Sonje Center.

Regarding the DMZ project, the military zone was for many years forbidden and has been undeveloped, so it has become the most well preserved natural protected area. It is still a military zone, and you need to get a permit prior to visit. When Kim Sunjung started this project, it was not only about exhibiting and commissioning artists, but really about creating research. It was also about trying to explore how the division has impacted the psyche of Koreans, both in terms of an ideological divide, as well as a physical divide. Many people in South Korea have normalized learning to forget about it, rather than remembering. I think this approach has big resonances as the South Korean art scene continues to develop.

Installation view of Kang Seok Ho: Deep is the rising sun, far is the falling one at Tina Kim Gallery, New York (June 29 – July 29, 2023). Courtesy of Tina Kim Gallery. Photo by Charles Roussel.


AN: The Guggenheim Museum, New York’s forthcoming show “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea 1960s–1970s” focuses on some of the less-explored origins of contemporary art in South Korea. Do you think museums are responding?

Museums are careful about the timing of their exhibitions. The museums in and around Seoul are mindful of the audience that Frieze Seoul brings. And museums in the U.S. are becoming more aware that their audiences are international, and that they need to keep up with being globally recognized institutions. LACMA is very active in sending members of their development and curators to Korea, as is the Art Institute of Chicago.

AN: In Seoul, you’re one of a small group of organizers of Frieze in charge of shaping the program and vetting the local talent. What are the hurdles in being successful at tapping into the scene?

On the Frieze Seoul Selection Committee, in the application process for galleries, we talked about some of the issues with tracking the contemporary art spaces that are a part of the local ecosystem. A lot of these newer spaces in Korea that function as non-profits, they also have to support themselves by selling. And a lot of them close in two to three years, some of them don’t have websites, so there isn’t as much information recorded. We had to go to their Instagram pages.

AN: Are there any spaces on your watch list?

CYLINDER in Gwanak-gu, Seoul is participating in Frieze Seoul’s Focus Asia section. It sits on the border of alternative and commercial art. Spaces like WESS, Museumhead, and Audio Visual Pavilion Lab (AVP Lab) are not-for-profit contemporary art spaces that function as artist, curator, and research-centered platforms.

AN: Mire Lee, one of the young artists on your roster, is the subject of a show at the New Museum centered on her large-scale sculptures and fabric works. What was it like getting introduced to her practice?

I first saw her work at Art Sonje Center. I was so impressed with the scale of her work, because a lot of Korean artists are not working at the scale. Her work —it’s grotesque, it’s like the inside turned outward. And just her confidence. Because I’m a New York dealer, when I first visited her studio, I thought here is this young artist, I expected her to want to explain her work to me. She didn’t do that, her position was that she can’t explain it to someone, it’s for them to figure out. She has the persona, the look, the charisma. 

AN: Right, Seoul has this edge. It’s different than in the U.S., where collecting is more dynastic. Do you mean that the collecting base is younger?

I think the market is so much driven by the top end—the auction houses and the blue-chip [galleries]. In Korea, compared to other places in Southeast Asia, that isn’t so true. It’s much healthier. I get inquiries from collectors who I have never heard of; I have to be very careful about where I’m placing the works. I’m usually surprised. I have a young collector, he’s barely thirty, who recently flew from Korea to New York to see Mire Lee. He doesn’t come from a lot of money, but he’s just really interested in the artist. They are more driven by a lifestyle, and an interest in what’s happening in culture than by investment.