Home » In conversation with Choi&Choi Gallery on building relationships between the European and the South Korean art market

In conversation with Choi&Choi Gallery on building relationships between the European and the South Korean art market

di Valentina Buzzi

Jinhee and Sunhee Choi

If you are based in Seoul or Cologne, you probably might have visited Choi&Choi Gallery, founded, and managed by the vibrant twin sisters Jinhee and Sunhee Choi. Strong of over a decade of experience in European cities such as Paris, Geneva, Cologne (among others), their work is fundamental in building bridges and facilitating relationships between Korea and Europe. Driven by a profound ethos which respects artists’ role and relationship with the gallery, throughout the 10 years of their work at the Choi&Choi, Jinhee and Sunhee have contributed to the flourishing of the Korean market, introducing various international artists to the Seoul scene, as well as inviting talented Korean artists to Europe through various programs, both commercial and institutional. In a moment in which we are very attentive at how the art market can easily become a bubble, and thus we tend to look up to practices that foster healthy relationships within a country’s market as well as across continents, Choi&Choi can be an interesting example of finding a longt-term balance as well as of building sustainable relationships between East and West.

In this article, we enter in conversation with Sunhee Choi, discussing about the history of the gallery, the constant work in nurturing relationship beyond borders, and what’s ahead for the Choi&Choi in this fast-paced Korean art environment.

Berlin Meets Seoul, installation view – Courtesy of Choi&Choi Gallery

In conversation with Sunhee Choi

Choi&Choi was born with its former name “Choi&Lager” in 2012 in Cologne, since then you have worked for over a decade to nurture exchanges between Europe and South Korea. Could you tell us more about the history of the gallery and the motivations behind your decision to work across regions?

I had already gained 10 years of experience working in the field as an art consultant, independent curator, and art journalist before founding the gallery with Jinhee Choi. We had been working with international artists alongside emerging Korean artists, and it was becoming increasingly necessary to establish a solid platform for us to continue working with these artists whose names were growing in international art circles. Back then, there were very few interests and opportunities for Korean artists in Europe, and we planned to introduce them through long-term promotions and engagement strategies. On the other hand, there was growing curiosity towards Western artists among Korean people. There was an existing market for Western artists, but it was very limited to select blue-chip artists introduced by the few major galleries who could afford to bring their works. We planned to introduce emerging artists from the West that were less known in Korea, but we were uncertain how long it would take for us to start receiving local attention. However, our very first exhibition in Seoul was a great success, and that gave us the confidence we needed to pursue what we had set out to do.

Since 2021, the art ecosystem in Seoul has significantly developed, becoming today one of the leading art hubs of Asia. How has this influenced your work and how do you envision this development within the gallery’s activity?

Since we opened our Seoul branch in 2016, having a presence in Seoul has enabled us to work with many internationally established artists who wished to show their work in Asia. We currently have more plans to invite artists from abroad, and in turn introduce Korean artists in international art scenes. We aim to continue to create interesting and dynamic cultural exchanges between the East and the West.

You worked across several cities in Europe, such as London, Paris, Berlin and Geneva – being able to develop an impressive network of artists and institutions. This network is then linked to Seoul: how does this concretize in practice in your programming and work?

It was crucial for us to understand different cultures before even thinking of developing an international network. We have lived and worked in these cities for many years and have learned from the myriad of perspectives and lives that exist within these communities. This lived experience of being immersed in different cultures gave us the insight needed to better understand the works of our artists, who hail from various cultural backgrounds. We constantly travel, observe, and engage, and it enables us to effectively understand and translate creative diversity.

Could you tell us some of the best and worst of working across borders? What has been one of your most memorable experiences within your practice?

The worst part of it would be the physical travelling and the time difference. There have been many restrictions, especially since the onset of the pandemic, and it hugely influenced our programmes both in Seoul and Cologne. The most memorable moments, however, were also the travelling – especially to Seoul with our Western artists that we invited for exhibitions. It’s a joyous privilege to introduce their work to the Korean public. Also, it has been an immense pleasure to introduce different places, people and cultures to these artists. It is quite an interesting and at times an eye-opening experience for us to review our own culture through the fresh eyes of our artists, many of whom were visiting Korea for the first time. Johnny (Abrahams), for instance, was seriously considering moving to Seoul and setting up a studio space here.

Having worked since 2012 across regions, you must have been witnessing the major shifts in the relations between Europe and South Korea. Has the interest in Korea shifted when it comes to collectors, galleries, institutions, or key players in Europe?

There has been an undeniable shift. Back in 2009, I interviewed Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is currently serving as artistic director at the Serpentine. He predicted that the central focus of contemporary art would shift from the West to the East in the next 10 years. It was hard to believe it at the time, but his words came true in the last 3-4 years, and the increasing interests in Korea from European artists and collectors are now palpable.  

“Flower” installation view – Courtesy of Choi&Choi Gallery

What are, in your opinion, the key differences between the art market in South Korea and in Europe? For instance, when it comes to collectors.

Compared to South Korea, Europe’s art market has more of an extensive history behind it. Europe’s cultural approach and attitude toward the art of ‘collecting’ has therefore become more sustainable over generations. They understand the nuanced relationship between artists, galleries and museums that makes up the art world’s delicate ecosystem and are well aware of the often years or even decades-long effort it takes to support an artist’s career. There are, of course, many Korean collectors who share this mindset, yet we often come across collectors who view collecting as a purely monetary investment. It is disheartening to see some collectors focus on auction records to determine the artist’s worth, rather than weighing the cultural value of exhibiting in galleries and museums. On the other hand, Korean collectors’ strength lies in their immense curiosity, willingness to learn, and their eagerness to share their knowledge with others. Through various social media platforms and online collecting communities such as Instagram and Naver Cafes, collectors are actively sharing their collecting experiences, as well as any information on new artists and exhibitions. All these efforts inevitably lead to the expansion of Korea’s art market.

What are your key principles, working ethos and vision when it comes to working with artists?

Artists observe and open doors to realms that are beyond our perception – worlds that cannot be perceived through science or reason alone. As a gallerist, I always strive to be a conduit for sharing their visions and philosophies with the wider public.

You recently re-inaugurated the Seoul Gallery as “Choi&Choi” with a wonderful inaugural group show named “Flower”, which features over 40 artists, with many commissioned works that spans over several mediums. Could you tell us more about the show and the experience of preparing it?

Transitioning from CHOI&LAGER to CHOI&CHOI, we wanted to celebrate the momentous occasion with many of the artists with whom we have been working since the beginning, as well as with some new artists that we have met in the past year. At the beginning, we envisioned 20 or so participants, but many artists from the artist communities in Cologne and Berlin heard word about the show and the list kept getting longer. Over the course of the one year it took to prepare the show, we visited ateliers in Germany, France and the UK, and those were some of the most meaningful moments throughout the process. Most of the artists created new works around the theme of ‘flower’. With so many artists, transportation alone was a logistical nightmare, and the war in Ukraine further complicated shipping routes. In the end, though, we managed to open the show with all 41 artists, and it was the massive bouquet of flowers we had hoped it would be. It came with messages of joy and celebration and reaffirmed the friendship we had cultivated with our artists.

Some key artists of the exhibition you would like to introduce to us?

The exhibition ‘Flower’ was inspired by our exhibition with the British artist ‘Daniel Crews-Chubb’, which we held early last year. Daniel also contributed to this exhibition with a fantastic painting. Another British artist ‘Matthew Stone’, whose solo show was the very first exhibition we curated back in 2012, also participated with a series of paintings. One of his paintings contained the colors of the Ukrainian flag, as well as flowers. The work was placed into a private collection and all of the proceeds from the sale were donated to Refugee Community Kitchen, an organization that serves to aid displaced people in the UK and France. ‘Philip Grözinger’ is a Berlin-based German artist, whose work delves into the apocalyptic realities of today’s world. His paintings may seem bleak at first, but he maintains a sense of hope for the future. He caught the attention of the Korean audience with his compositions filled with flowers and vibrant colors. We would like to see ’Stella Sujin’, whose watercolor works on paper borrow from the plethora of symbols throughout human history, continue to receive more attention. Other than that, we would like to see all of our artists’ works reach as many people as possible, and we hope people can discover them through our website or Instagram.

“Flower” installation view – Courtesy of Choi&Choi Gallery

You recently worked on an important show “Berlin meets Seoul”, which features a conversation between key artists of the Korean and German scene. The show is now in Berlin, but will arrive in Seoul by the end of the year. Could you tell us more about this show and about the experience of creating bridges and conversation between artists? What was most exciting about this experience?

The exhibition was curated in collaboration with Kunstleben Berlin and the Berlin-based gallery Bermel von Luxburg, featuring the works of Korean artists and Berlin-based German artists. All of the artists are considered ‘contemporary’, but the distinctions in their styles and expressions hint at their respective cultures of origin. Berlin and Seoul are both receiving great attention from the international art world, so the exchange was all the more exciting. The upcoming follow-up exhibition in Seoul has already garnered interests from the German embassy in Korea and the Goethe Institute, and we are looking forward to continuing the dialogue in Korea.

It is important today to focus on highlighting female artists and entrepreneurs in the arts, as a response to the inequality of the art market. How do you envision this issue within your own experience, especially in South Korea? Has being a women affected your practice, positively or negatively, throughout your career?

The art world may be the field best suited to raise these issues and facilitate change in the world. It is also a field where women’s achievements are perhaps better recognized and appreciated, in comparison to other industries. Some of the conventional aspects of womanhood and femininity may even be seen as an advantage. Whilst Korea’s attitude toward gender issues remains conservative in many ways, I feel that the situation is very different now compared to 20 years ago when I first stepped into the art world.

If you had to give some advice to young women entrepreneurs who want to start their career in the art sector, what would it be?

Stay humble and bring passion and enthusiasm to everything you do. I think the best way to get into the field is by starting from the ground up. You can really appreciate your projects once you’ve paid your dues cleaning up the gallery or hanging paintings on the walls.

We are curious about your future: what is next for Choi&Choi?

In the summer, the Berlin-based painter Philip Grözinger’s solo exhibition will be held simultaneously at CHOI&CHOI Gallery and HORI Artspace in Gangnam. In the second half of the year, Armin Boehm, Jaeho Jung, and the ‘Berlin meets Seoul’ group exhibition will be on view. Next year, there will also be various exhibitions introducing European and Korean artists in both Seoul and Cologne.

One last more informal question: if you could work in any venue and with any artists from the history of art – what would your dream exhibition look like? 

I would like to exhibit the works of the proto-Renaissance painter Giotto (1266-1337) together with pieces by contemporary artists at Basilica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence. I can’t forget the fresh shock of coming across Giotto’s painting for the first time. I want to plan an exhibition that focuses on the pure sentimentality and lyricism found in his religious compositions.

Choi&Choi is currently showing “Why So Serious?”, a solo exhibition by Philip Grozinger in Seoul.
For more information: https://www.choiandchoi.com/

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