Home » KIAF Seoul 2021 and the Korean art system

KIAF Seoul 2021 and the Korean art system

di Valentina Buzzi

Everything you need to know about the 20th edition of the Korean International Art Fair

Sunday 17th October marked the end of the 20th edition of KIAF, the Korean International Art Fair, which after a pandemic-related break, returned to its physical space of COEX Mall’ exhibition halls for its last year as an independent fair, before partnering with Frieze in September 2022.

The 2021 edition, which presented over 170 leading galleries from the Korean and International landscape, announced a record-breaking sale of 65 billion won ($54.8 million) – confirming once again how the South Korean art market is becoming increasingly significant in the global scale. The fair presented also an online viewing room (which is still visitable until the 23rd of October), a series of talk hosted in the “Talk Lounge” at the entrance of the fair, and an exhibition celebrating its 20th anniversary at Incheon Airport lasting four weeks:

“a unique event that can maximize the promotional effect for Kiaf SEOUL by setting an extended period for promoting KIAF SEOUL to gallerists, collectors, and domestic and foreign guests arriving in Korea at Incheon International Airport, the first gateway to Korea”

The contemporary art scene is constantly gaining space in the vibrant city of Seoul, where recently many new international leading galleries opened their branch in the capital (such as Koening Gallery and Thaddeus Ropac) but also where local galleries, public art projects, art events and museums initiatives are flourishing more than ever (with an impressive re-opening of Leeum Musem, which I will write about soon).

The oncoming partnership with Frieze can thus be seen as another marker of that art capital that Seoul is becoming: needless to say that the two fairs took place simultaneously in Seoul and London, even organising a cross-talk to introduce each other to their respective collectors and public.  

Korea seems to be willing to taking over the artworld, after having already conquered millions of hearts with hallyu – and we are all exited to witness the results of this new wave.

Chiharu Shiota at Gana Art booth, Pic. by Friederike Glietsch

An overview of KIAF

The fair, which opened its doors for the VVIP & press preview on Wednesday 13th October, presented a wide and diverse selection of Korean and International art, represented respectively by leading and emergent galleries. Among the major Korean galleries, we could see the presence of Gana Art, Kukje Gallery, Leeahn Gallery, Hyunday Gallery, PYO Gallery; whereas the international presence saw leading and established galleries such as Pace, Lehmann Maupin, Perrotin, Sprtuh Magers and Tang Contemporary Art among others.

Overall, KIAF presented artworks with several different mediums, from painting to sculptures, video, installations and even a discrete number of digital & NFT art. Photography was almost not present, following the trends of Korean collectors, who prefer works on canvas over others.

Korean International Art Fair
Takashi Murakami at Perrotin booth, pic. by Friederike Glietsch

Korean major galleries presented many works by leading painters of the Dansaekhwa (Korean Monochrome Painting movement established in the mid-1960s) and post-Dansaekhwa such as Park-Seo Bo, Lee Gang-So Kim Tschang-Yeul, Yin Hyong-Keun and Korean minimalist and 3D painters such as Kim Tae-Ho and Lee Ufan among others. The galleries were also mostly committed to showcase Korean contemporary and ultra-contemporary art, with both established, emerging and young artist, following the aim of KIAF to promote contemporary art to a wider international public.

Regarding international artists, big names such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Alexander Calder, George Condo, Kaws, Takashi Murakami (with a solo show at Perrotin’s booth) were present among many others.

It is perhaps remarkable to note how African art was less present compared to what we can observe in the trends of western fairs and market, which makes me wonder if Korea still has to be affected by the wave of black art which is successfully taking over the west. Another noticeable factor is the lack of presence of art related to contemporary social issues such as feminism or climate change. Sure, there were few works that touched these currents (mostly presented by international galleries) but overall less compared to what we could find in a European or western fair. For instance, this also reflects the socio-cultural reality of Korea, where feminism is still a word that is whispered quietly. But it may also reflect a different kind of sensibility, which is totally eastern, and sees the harmonic concepts of applied confucian philosophy in the delicate power of monochrome, colors, layerings and work with matter and volumes.

Yet art is often carrier of new sensibilities, and it is interesting to see how climate change-related art has instead already taken over many galleries in Seoul (but perhaps still needs to take-over the collectors’ coup-de coeur).  Furthermore, I am really looking forward to see what will be the results of the contamination between KIAF and Frieze, between the Korean system and the international one (but for this, we must peacefully wait for September 2022).

Overall the fair was quite diverse, mostly leading in works on canvas and paintings which varied from monochrome to materic work (lots of piece presented works which would play with materials and volumes with a minimal yet bright choice of colour), but also textile, mixed-media, abstract, pop, expressionist play and (less present) figurative work would mark their presence. Some impressive sculptural works were also brought to the fair, such as Alicja Kwade‘s piece at Koening gallery. The presence of digital and NFT art (with works by Teamlab, Matthew Stone, Nam June Paik or Cody Choi) also followed the shift of the art world and market trends regarding non physical art (already highly present in Hong Kong). Esther Schipper gallery, for instance, also presented a VR work by the German video and digital-art pioneer Hito Steyerl.

On Korean collectors and art system

I personally visited KIAF both on Wednesday 13th October during the VVIP preview and two days after, on Friday 15th, to take a better look (the fair was very big, taking both hall A and B of COEX mall) and meet more artists and gallerists. What I interestingly noticed since the first day was the high number of sales (signaled by the small red dots close to the artworks). Whereas during the VVIP preview there were already a discrete presence, on Friday I couldn’t walk past one gallery booth without seeing several of them. On Friday (which was the first public day) , many galleries already changed their exhibited works as the previous ones were already sold and taken home by collectors.

I noticed how many emerging or established neo-pop or post-pop art together with graffiti-inspired art with references to mainstream and logo culture were “sold out” in several booths (established artists such as Kaws, Murakami but also emerging talents such as the Taiwanese-American James Jean or the Korean N5bra).

Nevertheless, many of the international artists brought to the fair already had their exhibitions in galleries or museums in Korea, a smart move in order to “educate” the taste of the local collectors and “tease” them before KIAF.

On the matter, I had an interesting chat with a gallery representative of Gallery Planet. Together we commented on the behavior of Korean collectors, realizing how there is a certain frenetic will (or need) to buy, and doing it fast.

“Korean collectors want to buy immediately; they wait outside the opening of the fair since early morning to get their hands on the piece they want”

This new-acquired frenetic need on buying and collecting art, as an investment or an affirmation of status, is perhaps linked to the socio-economic landscape of South Korea, which experienced an incredible economic development in the last decades (the so-called “miracle of the Han river”). Furthermore, the country’s efforts in investing in soft-power and cultural policy in the latest years attracted foreign attention, increasing its influence and broadly opening its borders to various types of tourism in the pre-pandemic period. Today, more and more are patiently waiting for the re-opening of the borders to come and visit Seoul.

Increasingly, the generation of the young and wealthy find themselves involved in the art, fashion and luxury world, while walking the flashing streets of Gangnam. Social media nevertheless plays its role: nowhere as in Korea I have seen such a wide social-media participative culture related to art. And it is an interesting phenomenon, which opens infinite possibilities for those who make, sell or buy art. Furthermore, the investments of the Korean art and cultural sector in the digital, virtual or meta-verse realms is also significantly taking place, broadening the horizons between art, culture and technology.

Recently, The Art Newspaper published an interesting article explaining why Korea may be the new art capital of Asia, where some main factors can be seen in the absence of taxes related to art (compared to the almost crazy real-estate conditions), and the recent dawn of Hong Kong with the increasingly restrictive measures implemented by China.

“Recently, Korea became the subject of interest of the world’s prominent galleries and auction companies. Galleries that used to establish small branches expanded their scale, and subsequently, more and more galleries are preparing to launch branches or offices after witnessing those expansions. It is also expected that more internationally prestigious auction companies are going to enter the Korean market. The joint hosting of the KIAF Seoul and Frieze Fair in 2022 will bring considerable changes to the domestic and Asian art market”

Jinsu Seo (professor on Economics at Kangnam University) on Kiaf and the Global Art Market

The 20th edition of KIAF Seoul, which marked a high-sales record and a presence of 88,000 visitors, can be seen as a symptom and effect of the immense change in the South Korean socio-economic structure . The possibilities for the art world, whether private or public, seem endless and exiting. Personally, I can’t wait to see what will be next for this flourishing vibrant country that more and more chooses art and culture as an important investment.

The second part of this report will be published in the following days, with a selection of works curated by the author.

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