Digital art in Korea: Reflections on KIAF 2007

From Nam June Paik to chaebol

Submitted by: VideoArtWorld

Written by: Pau Waelder

Start date: 01-08-2007
End date: 01-08-2007
Location: Seoul, SOUTH KOREA
Web URL: http://

Courtesy of This past May the sixth edition of the Korea International Art Fair (KIAF) took place in Seoul. Considered to be the largest contemporary art fair in Asia, this year it doubled its exhibition area and could count 208 galleries from 18 countries (more than half were Korean), with a total of some 5000 works by 1,300 artists. These impressive numbers, however, contrast with the minimal presence of digital art, a fact that is completely unexpected in a country whose economic power is based on new technologies and whose cultural icon is the artist Nam June Paik.

If we except the pieces by the so-called father of videoart, which were small in scale and found in one or another gallery, the well-known nudes modeled in 3-D by Kim Joon, the decidedly kitsch multimedia compositions of Lee-Nam Lee, and other random pieces, the only consistent offer here came from the Berlin gallery DAM. Its founder and director, Wolf Lieser, commented on the reception of digital art by the Korean public, who, despite the country being so dedicated to new technologies, is at the same time very conservative, and how the introduction of these works into their market is still very difficult: 'In Korea it's even more difficult than in Germany'(1) . The fair, in general, stuck to conservative agenda, and contrary to expectations, paid little attention to new media art, not even in an experimental format such as the 'Black Box' area of ARCO (Madrid's art fair).

So there was a curious contradiction, Korea being a society immersed in technology but with a conception of art still marked by modernism. The average Korean watches TV on his wide-screen cell phone while riding the subway, sees interactive ads projected on the floor of shopping centers, watches publicity offered by hundreds of flat screens of all sizes installed in every corner of the city, but when he thinks about art he still thinks above all of painting and sculpture. While the arcs of economic and technological development have followed an exponential progression, the transformation in ways of thinking is developing at a much slower rate.

We should remember that South Korea did not have a civil president until 1993, Kim Young-Sam, followed by Kim Dae Jung in 1998, and that in just 14 years a democratic society has developed based on an aggressive capitalism with its eyes set on the West. In addition, the spirit of continual renovation and a decided aim to become one of the protagonists of the Asian market is observed in all the initiatives that arise in the country, devotee of great international events. Digital art does not escape this trend, and thus after 2000 there have appeared new centers of art and technology, festivals and biennials.

The First International Biennial of Media Art, Media_City Seoul 2000, took place at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) and in various public spaces in the Korean capital. It had a comfortable budget of 9 million dollars and big ambitions: a multimedia art collective featuring big names (Matthew Barney, Laurie Anderson, Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman and of course, Paik) and urban interventions in 13 subway stations and on 42 huge screens, not to mention the participation of artists and curators of international pedigree. The title itself, 'Media_City', indicates a wish to identify the city with new technologies, even if the selected works were largely video and slides, with very little electronic art and no net art whatsoever.

The Korean artist Young-Hae Chang, known for his work on the Web along with the American Marc Voge, criticized the exhibition that year, which he qualified as 'the desire of Korea to have new media, but without an appropriate cultural attitude'.(2) He opposed the focus on digital art as monumental and spectacular when, in his opinion, the format is better suited to an intimate viewing, especially in the case of video art. Media_City Seoul 2000 did not fulfill the expectations of the public that it had proposed, and the following edition (2002) had to make do with a drastically smaller budget (500,000 dollars). Directed by Wonil Rhee, that and subsequent editions have kept up an international profile, though with more modest aspirations and limited mainly to the spaces of SeMA.

In 2000 two of the principal centers dedicated to art and new media in Seoul also initiated their activities. On the one hand, Ssamzie Space, which promotes all kinds of cutting-edge visual and theater arts; on the other, Art Center Nabi opened as part of the Walker Hill Museum and maintains a vital program of exhibitions, events, and workshops centered on the encounter between art and technology. Parallel to these, diverse festivals of uncertain continuity have taken place in recent years, such as the Uijeongbu International Digital Festival, and the Korea Web Festival. In sum, a fairly active digital art scene exists in Korea, even if affected by two factors which appear to be influential.

One is the paradoxical case of Paik who despite having passed the greater part of his life outside the country, has become a symbol of Korea's commitment to contemporary art, and in particular with new media. Paik was present at the media art biennials in Seoul and is a customary reference point for curators, art center directors and artists in the sector. His figure has served as a figurehead for the introduction of Korean artists in Europe, as happened with Paik and Beyond: A New Media Art from Korea, at ArtCologne 2005 (Cologne, Germany), and at the 2007 edition of ARCO, where Korea was the featured country. But Paik's link with Korea seems somewhat artificial and 'politically correct', and can contribute to foster a misleading image of the art produced in the country.

The second important factor is that marked by chaebol, a form of plutocracy imposed by the large companies that determine how the country functions. This was denounced in 2001 by Young-Hae Chang and Marc Voge in a text the dissects the Korean art world (3) and where they recall an occasion in which one of their pieces that satirized the multi-national Samsung, was criticized as though it were an attack on the nation itself. The identification of Korea with large corporations, catalyzed through the new technologies, has created a strange situation for digital art, whose creative use in the new media must confront powerful industries and a competitive society. The main centers depend on the big companies: SSamzie Space belongs to the fashion and complements company Ssamzie Co. Ltd., while Art Center Nabiis is the property of the huge SK Group; and even the Korean branch of the well-known New York digital art gallery Bitforms is found in the building of the MUE store, part of the multi-national fashion house Handsome Corp.

In addition, the courses for artists about technological resources are provided through the large corporations. Arduino, an 'open source' project developed by numerous programmers and engineers to provide a simple medium with which artists and designers can create objects and interactive environments, was presented at a workshop at the Samsung Art and Design Institute (SADI). Of the 50 attendees to the workshop, 40 belonged to Samsung. Beyond this direct involvement of the companies, one can also speak of the 'chaebol mentality', which is what promotes the monumentality of events like the first media art biennial and its subsequent abandonment when it did not fulfill established expectations.

All in all, digital art in Korea possesses numerous and powerful resources for a sustained development, but it needs to confront a fairly conservative art world and an industry that could capitalize on its researches.

(1)Waelder, Pau: Interview with Wolf Lieser, in Vernissage TV
(2) Hankwitz, Molly: Interview with Young-Hae Chang: web artist, in FineArtForum, vol.14, nº12, December, 2000.
(3) Young-Hae and Voge, Marc: New Media Art and Ethics in South Korea, in FineArtForum, vol.15, nº7, July 2001.