Are we engaged or just hanging out? Korea-Australia arts exchange

Sarah Bond on the act of giving and taking as cultural exchange

Sanghyun Lee, First Tales of Korean Made
Sanghyun Lee, First Tales of Korean Made ICBM, 2014, digital C print. Courtesy the artist

Exchange can be executed in a myriad ways; an exchange of currency, ideas, words, locations; and each valued accordingly. But what of the contemporary art world and those who populate it: is it capable of true give and take? If the last 20-plus years are any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. It is nothing new for Australian artists to seek out challenges, new audiences and markets internationally; however, to actively engage and exchange requires a mental shift. Many Australian artists, curators and institutions have exchanged ideas, art and exhibitions with South Korea for over 25 years; many of these exchanges were initiated by Asialink Arts which pioneered Australian international exhibition touring and artist residencies in the early 1990s and was acknowledged as one the major pathways for engaging with contemporary Asian art. This platform opened up contemporary Australian art to Korean colleagues and vice-versa, leading to over 30 dedicated curated/co-curated/collaborative exhibitions, biennale opportunities and countless professional experiences for leading artists and curators of both countries.

Australia's curiosity with Asia was expanding fast through the 1990s and the art sector was no different. The Keating government, credited as a catalyst, supported the beginnings of the Asialink Arts program, and other organisations still thriving today: among them, the Asia Pacific Triennial, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and other artist-run spaces and residencies. Korea also began exploring alternative spaces and by the late 1990s there was an emergence of private organisations enabling the so called "New Generation" of Korean artists like Ssamzie Art Space, Artsonje and Loop. Soon the government and leading institutions joined in, resulting in an influx of residency centres destined to reinvigorate abandoned buildings, mainly across Seoul. It appeared as though we were on the same page and the idea of a borderless artworld had emerged.

This article is by no means an exhaustive list of Australian–Korean projects, but rather a reflection on a few notable people and projects that paved the way, with most exchanges in Seoul, including universities, national galleries, private and government centres. Key to success and crucial to cross-cultural understanding were the personal and professional relationships that were nurtured through collaboration and investigation. Curators like Kim Hong Hee and Kim Sun Jung, and forerunners of video and multimedia art exploration Nam June Paik and Lee U-fan built a presence here. Australian arts leaders, like then Asialink Arts Director Alison Carroll, worked with artists, curators, galleries and universities to develop a strong framework for future engagement.

Kibong Rhee, There Is No Place – Shallow Cuts, 2008. Courtesy the artist

In 1993 Asialink Arts toured the exhibition Australia Gold: Contemporary Australian Metalwork curated by Peter Timms and Ray Stebbins to Seoul, followed in quick succession by a suite of Australian exhibitions (thirteen in the next decade) exploring various media. A notable exchange in 1997 was Sense, co-curated by Stuart Koop and Jae-Young Kang as a literal exchange between artists exhibiting simultaneously: Fiona Foley and Geoff Lowe at Whanki Museum, Seoul; Kyung-Hee Shin and Ki-Won Park at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Melbourne. In 1998 Asialink Arts facilitated the reciprocal exchange Unhomely between the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), led by curator Jason Smith and ArtSonje, Seoul, with curator Kim Sun Jung. This was the first major exhibition of Australian artists including Howard Arkley, Tracey Moffatt, Sally Smart, Anne Zahalka and Kathy Temin in Korea.

Later that year, the NGV exhibited The Slowness of Speed Contemporary Korean Art curated by Kim Sun Jung, which was also exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1999. The first Asialink Arts resident to Korea Yvonne Boag co-curated Affinities: 11 artists from Korea and Australia for the Walker Hill Art Center, Seoul, in 1998. And in 2001, Tracey Moffatt: Fever Pitch curated by Michael Snelling from Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art (IMA) attracted the highest visitation of any exhibition at Artsonje. More recently, in 2011, Asialink Arts exhibited Selectively Revealed, an exhibition of Australian and Korean artists who investigate the blurry line between private and public, co-curated by Clare Needham, (then curator Experimenta), Sarah Bond from Asialink and Eunjung Kim, curator at Aram Art Gallery in Goyang. Asialink also supported Craig Walsh and Hiromi Tango’s Home residency project as part of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale curated by Alia Swastika.

Through the Asialink Arts Residency Program, an alumni of Korea-informed artists and curators continues to expand. Yvonne Boag, a 1995 Asialink resident, has sustained perhaps the longest connection with Korea for over twenty years; going beyond her own art practice, she curated, collaborated and acted as consultant for many and varied exchange projects. In partnership with Asialink Arts, Kim Hong Hee, founder of privately-run Ssamzie Space, empowered a generation of Australian artists and curators to explore Seoul and surrounds in the 2000s. She also hosted curators who have maintained ties with Korea like Sarah Tutton and Alexie Glass-Kantor and artists such as Ian Haig, Larissa Hjorth, Richard Giblett and Ash Keating. With the rise and rise of government-supported residency spaces in Seoul, Artspace in Sydney has maintained a commitment to hosting reciprocal residencies in partnership with Goyang Art Studio (affiliated with the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) now in its fifth year and the National Art Studio, Changdong, supporting artists like Yongseok Oh, Locust Jones, Guy Benfield with Hae-Young Seo and Kevin Platt in the exchange of ideas.

Brook Andrew, Loop. A Model of How The World Operates, 2008, wall painting, animated neon, electrical components. Installation view, Tell Me, Tell Me: Australian and Korean Art 1976–2011, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (MCA) has also recently announced its second major exchange project in four years, with New Romance: Art and the Posthuman, co-curated by Anna Davis Curator at the MCA and Houngcheol Choi, Curator at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea for exhibition in Seoul and Sydney. This follows the earlier collaboration between the same institutions with Tell Me Tell Me: Australian and Korean Art 1976–2011 presented in 2011 and 2012 at both sites.

New Romance is the result of research visits undertaken by both curators in each country, resulting in a selection of new and existing work by fourteen contemporary artists from Australia and Korea, including Australians Rebecca Baumann, Ian Burns, Hayden Fowler, Patricia Piccinini, Justin Shoulder, Stelarc and Wade Marynowsky, and Korean artists Seung Jung, Siyon Jin, Airan Kang, Sanghyun Lee, Soyo Lee, Kibong Rhee and Wonbing Yang. The works explore the idea of a post-human encounter, questioning age-old divisions between concepts of human and non-human, organism and machine, plant and animal, nature and culture. Opening at the NMMCA, Seoul (22 September 2014 – 15 January 2015), the MCA will host a new iteration of the exhibition (30 June – 4 September 2016).

Woven into all of these more structured exchanges is of course a pattern of chance encounters, exhibitions, conference and art fair invitations involving many artists, curators, academics and organisations from each country. So should we consider the idea of Korean-ness vs Australian-ness as relevant in the limitless search for identity and understanding that we undertake through exchange, or perhaps conclude we will always be curious collaborators?


Sarah Bond is Director of Visual Arts, Asialink Arts and Chair of NETS (Victoria) the touring exhibitions organisation. Asialink Arts is a division of Asialink, based at the University of Melbourne. |