|Kimsooja's "To Breathe" (2021) is installed on the ceiling of the iconic rotunda of the remodeled Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, in Yongsan District, central Seoul. Courtesy of Leeum and Kimsooja Studio|
By Park Han-sol
March 2017 marked the moment when the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, one of the top private art museums in Korea, began to falter, signaled by the sudden resignation of its director Hong Ra-hee, wife of the late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee. Her influence in the Korean art scene had been dutifully noted for over a decade since the museum's founding in 2004.
Hong's decision came after the arrest of her son and Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong on charges of bribery in a political scandal involving former President Park-Geun-hye.
This sudden managerial vacuum led the art museum to call off all scheduled thematic exhibitions, with only its permanent collection of antiques and contemporary art on display ― a tentative state that ended up lasting for over four years. It even had to temporarily close its doors in February 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep the country.
Last Friday, however, Leeum made a triumphant return to the public ― adorned with a remodeled interior space, as well as its newly curated permanent collections and large-scale special exhibition titled "Human, 7 Questions."
Its reopening has thus once again put the Samsung family's already prominent presence in the domestic art scene on the map, followed by the donation of more than 23,000 art pieces from Lee Kun-hee's private collection to state-run museums in April.
|Leeum's renovated lobby with a digital display screen showcasing the work of the installation artist Jennifer Steinkamp / Courtesy of Leeum|
Upon entering the museum's renovated lobby, visitors' eyes are drawn to the 11.3-meter-wide digital display screen awash with vibrant media art from the American installation artist Jennifer Steinkamp.
The screen is one of the new features installed to emphasize the architectural details of the space surrounding Leeum's iconic rotunda, whose ceiling is now covered with artist Kimsooja's clear, holographic film sheets that transform the incoming sunlight into a soft rainbow.
"The museum, designed by the three world-renowned architects [Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas and Mario Botta], used to contain various subsidiary structures simply placed out of convenience," creative director Jung Ku-ho said at a recent press conference. "We focused on clearing them away and adding visually interesting yet complementary features, with a goal to revive the building's original aesthetics."
|Installation view of the permanent showcase of the museum's traditional Korean art collection / Courtesy of Leeum|
|"Jar Decorated with Dragons and Clouds" produced in 18th century / Courtesy of Leeum|
As a result, 160 pieces displayed in the traditional Korean art section include not only National Treasures ― the rare, surviving Buddhist painting "Amitabha Triad" from the late 918-1392 Goryeo Dynasty and "Daoist Immortals" (1776) by master painter Kim Hong-do of the 1392-1910 Joseon Kingdom ― but also the newly exhibited ceremonial "Jar Decorated with Dragons and Clouds" symbolizing the prestige of the Joseon Kingdom and "Box Inlaid with Mother-of-pearl," a finely decorated lacquerware produced between the 14th and 15th century.
Six pieces of modern artwork by Park Seo-bo and Byron Kim among others that share similar materials, aesthetics or methods of production with such antiques are nestled throughout the section as a compelling intersection between the old and the new.
|Installation view of the permanent showcase of the museum's contemporary art collection / Courtesy of Leeum|
The number of pieces exhibited for the first time at the museum is even greater in its contemporary art section, with more than a half of the 76 paintings, sculptures and installations on view having never appeared before the public.
To achieve this, curators devised creative and unique themes outside of typical, historical classifications of art that befit a wide range of Leeum's collection. These include "Black Blank," a visual exploration of the color black; "Ephemeral Gravity," a world of non-material art; and "Strange Planet," a curiosity shop featuring fossils of imaginary creatures (Lee Hyung-koo's "Canis Latrans Animatus") and a constellation of crystal spheres that produce countless inverted reflections of viewers when approached (Olafur Eliasson's "Your Unpredictable Path").
Lastly, Leeum's large-scale special exhibition, "Human, 7 Questions," which runs through Jan. 2 of next year, examines a fundamental, timely topic of human existence against the mosaic of social inequality exposed and exacerbated by the global pandemic.
|Ron Mueck's "Mask II" (2002) on display as part of the special exhibition "Human, 7 Questions" / Courtesy of Leeum|
Works of more than 50 artists ― including Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Lee Bul, Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Ho Tzu Nyen ― are curated to investigate the human body in the complex context of self-reflection, psychological fragility, diversity and cohabitation with the surrounding environment.
"Leeum's future mission as an art museum is aligned with the goal of its advisory committee chair, Lee Seo-hyun," the museum's new deputy director Kim Sung-won said. Lee is the daughter of the late Samsung Chairman.
"The committee is determined to support Leeum to become a global art museum beyond the domestic art circle as well as Korean artists to gain more recognition in the international art scene. Preserving the cultural heritage cherished by the late chairman remains an equally important task."