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Art & Seoul: revel in modernism in K-pop city

Seoul. Let me guess, you've recreated the scenes in your favorite K-drama and walked the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace in traditional Korean garment? Feasted on street food along Myeongdong? Snapped your shots of coffee and cakes at the cafes? 

Historic palaces and villages tours dressed in Hanbok, coffee shop hop, dine under Michelin stars or Bib Gourmand and street food, see World Heritage Sites, do K-pop and K-drama tours. South Korea can be addicting in more ways than one. Even if the passport bears multiple entry stamps, the ride on the Hallyu (aka Korean Wave) is always stoked. Who knows, a chance encounter with a K-pop star may just happen. 

How about adding an art appreciation tour on the itinerary? If you don’t fancy dynastic artifacts, perhaps the modern artworks can stimulate your artistic sensibilities. 

Seoul displays contemporary art in public spaces around the city—the murals and street art at IWHA, Apgujeong Tunnel, Hongdae, and the neofuturistic design of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza edifice can be regarded as the largest sculptural piece in the metropolis. 

Neofuturistic architcture. DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza) can be Seoul's largest sculptural art piece

Even hotels are turning their spaces into art gallery-like, IG-worthy spots to lure in the modern day travelers. The hospitality sector is adapting its interior design aesthetics to the new breed of social media savvy tourists. Like Moxy in the heart of Myeongdong, next to the famed shopping streets, the Marriott brand mirrors the vibe and energy of the district in its core. Its curated decor is unique and as exciting as its address— a large-scale glittery airplane at the reception area, graffiti art across surfaces and a neon-lit social hall. Hotels like Moxy can serve as the primer to countless rendezvous with Seoul’s modern art and the finale to an art-filled adventure in K-pop city. 

Seen at the reception area of Moxy Seoul Myeondong hotel

And if you want more, head to the galleries and museums dedicated to this genre. And yes, these are havens for Insta-perfect posts that can amplify influence. 

From the roster of Seoul’s modern art houses, these three are worth putting on top of the must-see list. The others? What’s left on the list—and there’s a lot—will justify why returning to the city again (and again) is a must. 

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. After the establishment of the Samsung Foundation of Culture in 1965, the Samsung Museum of Arts was built and opened in 2004 in Hannam-dong at the foot of Namsan mountain. It grew to be one of the leading museums in Korea and holds a collection of more than 15,000 works of art. 

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Hannam-dong at the foot of Namsan mountain

Within the three buildings, designed by internationally renowned architects, are the museum spaces— Museums 1 and 2, where both modern and traditional artworks by Korean and International artists are exhibited. 

Dark Side of the Moon by Yee Sookyung. Ceramic shards.
A modern piece in the the traditional exhibit area of Leeum

My/Our Country by Do Ho Suh. Figures cast in bronze forming a map

Museum 2 showcases modern and contemporary artworks. Along with notable Korean artists are renowned international artists: Warhol, Rothko, Damien Hirst, Yves Klein and others, whose works have permanent exhibition spaces. Meanwhile Museum 1 houses traditional Korean art- paintings, ceramics and metal craft, calligraphy—of which 36 pieces are designated national treasures. However, the museum integrates a pop of modern pieces on the display halls in this wing. Why skip the chance to see those as well? 

Large canvases at Leeum's Museum 2

Installation art at Leeum's Museum 2

Scuplture at Leeum's Museum 2

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA). When it was established in 1969, the MMCA was the only national art museum in Korea that houses modern and contemporary art of different time periods by local and foreign artists. It has four branches located in Gwacheon, Deokgsugung, Cheongju, and Seoul. 

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Sogyeok-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul

The MMCA Seoul opened in 2013 converting the former Military Defense Security Command in Jongno-gu into the art space it is today. The museum design adopted the madang (yard) concept in its architectural design and successfully fuses the building’s exterior and interior to the surrounding environment. The outdoor space functions both as a leisure area and the venue for artistic events. 

Wall of Blades, 2023. Jung Yeondoo. MMCA Seoul

Yin and Yang 2023.. MMCA Seoul

The museum’s collection is said to reach around 10,000 artworks, including pieces by famed contemporary Korean artists Go Hui-dong, the first Korean painter to adopt Western styles; Park Su-geon, a self-taught artist known for his unique painting style and colors; abstract artist Kim Whan-Ki; and a list of celebrated international artists like prominent pop art movement figure Andy Warhol; Fluxus art movement founder Joseph Beuys; sculptor Jonathan Borofsky, and many more. 

Jung Yeondoo-One Hundred Years of Travel, MMCA Seoul

Yin and Yang 91-L 13. Kim Kulin. MMCA Seoul

Yin and Yang-Car, 2023. MMCA Seoul

Why is MMCA hard to miss? Its address is right beside the most visited tourist attraction, the Gyeongbokgung, and for green tea foodies, the Osulloc Tea House is in the museum complex.

The K Museum of Contemporary Art (KMCA). Opened in 2017, the six-level museum in the heart of Gangnam-gu is the largest private museum in its district. Its aim is to engage, excite and encourage the audience to gain appreciation and joy in contemporary art. KMCA has hosted a number of innovative art projects including exhibitions, performances and educational programs, and will continue doing so.

K Museum of Contemporary Art in Gangnam-gu

One of the interesting shows on KMCA’s roster is “Geeky Land,” a series of exhibitions that started in 2017. The 2023 show is the third of the series and exhibits 1,050 artworks by 80 Korean artists. The show gives a platform for “geeks” —both the artist and the audience—for self expression and to celebrate uniqueness. 

Rectangle Face. Lee Song-Joon. KMCA

Oil on canvas 2022. Heo Jineui

Oil painting by Jung Sunok

Take an art appreciation break before or after a shopping spree, KMCA is a three-minute walk from the Apgujeong Rodeo Street. 

A word of advice. It’s easy to get engrossed with the collections, especially when the museum displays art of various movements and forms— from paintings to sculptures, photography to digital— in large numbers. The bigger the museum, the more time it may take. Thus, make sure to dedicate an appropriate number of hours inside each stop. If it’s a quick trip to Seoul, squeeze in a couple of museums to visit. 

With Seoul’s efficient public transportation system, the modern art spots across the city are easy to reach. Tip: Naver Map App will suggest the best transport mode, travel time and fare to destinations.

Also published in the Manila Bulletin newspaper & website: Art & Seoul: Tripping on modernism in K-pop city