No matter where I go in the world, I always make sure that I visit a museum, art gallery, or exhibition of the local culture. I find it is one of the best ways to provide insight to the history of the country, and the sometimes untold narrative of its people.My visit to Seoul was no exception. In between my visit to a Buddhist temple, Seoul Fashion Week, and numerous foodie stop-offs, I made sure to get a sense of the South Korean art scene. I arrived to Seoul on a Friday night, and luckily didn’t have much jet lag, so when I woke up on Saturday morning, I had a full day of exploring ahead of me.
I came upon All Me Art Space gallery by accident, which is always the best way to find hidden gems while you’re traveling. Wandering through Insadong neighborhood, I had two things on my tourist “to-do” list: register for my Buddhist templestay and find a famous stamp carver and calligrapher that I had seen on Instagram just days before my trip. After a warm bowl of bibimbap in my belly and my to-do list complete, I aimlessly strolled up the street and found All Me Art Space. Lucky for me, the artist was in the gallery talking to the owner and walked me through his exhibit “Black on White Phantasy”, telling me why he chose the Korean mulberry paper as his medium, and how he came to get his signature black ink for his work.
Taking advantage of the gorgeous fall weather in Seoul, I ventured to another favorite place to see art in South Korea – the Seoul Arts Center. This center is a collection of architecturally stunning museums, galleries, an opera house, an outdoor water display, and manicured gardens that will enchant you at every turn. Plan to spend at least half a day here.
My first stop at Seoul Arts Center was a temporary exhibit featuring the work of French painter Alain Bonnefoit. His delicate designs of the female figure were displayed amongst a backdrop of alluring piano music. Truly sublime! His nudes, with names like Melancolie, Filomana, and Isaura, pushed me into a reflection of my own femaleness, fragility, and fleeting emotions.
Across town, but easily accessible by Seoul’s extensive metro system, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a must-see masterpiece. The chosen site of Seoul Fashion Week, it is the perfect frame for fashion shows that draw the best names from all over the world. Famed architect Zaha Hadid left behind her signature style in Seoul with the structured, yet sensual curves of this massive structure. Hadid, the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, has woven her genius into the crevices of this building – the largest 3D amorphous structure in the world. Plan your visit and become enchanted by DDP’s numerous galleries and public sitting areas, with plenty of opportunities to look up in awe!
Adjacent to Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace, I hit the art lover’s jackpot. Leaving my favorite jeweler, Tentacle, I wandered down to a neighborhood filled with art galleries. A few of the most memorable: Another Way of Seeing, which is an art lab for the blind, Arario Gallery (not to be confused with Arario Museum across town), and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. As I pored over the descriptions of each piece, I finally understood why governments around the world have a history of censoring, limiting, and sometimes imprisoning artists. Artists push boundaries. They use their art to challenge our thinking. Sometimes the powers that be see them as a threat to “order”. Watching a video of the Okin Collective, winners of the 2018 Korea Artist Prize, one of the artists stated this sentiment succinctly: “The question, ‘Why it is as it is and why do we live this way?’ is, I think, unavoidable.”
So why is it as it is? I was pushed to think about this question further at Arario Museum in Space. Climbing up a gorgeous, yet dungeon-like stairwell, I arrived at Dongwook Lee’s provocative sculptures of tiny nudes. With names like Drive and Hooker, I stared at these small works that scream at you to challenge social constructs. The man strapped to his Mercedes – how many of us are held captive by material goods? Ensnared by shiny objects that distract us from our souls? I literally felt like I was in The Matrix as I walked through this exhibit.
With my brain, body, and soul cracked opened by the art at Arario Museum, I took a moment to sit in their lush garden. The smell of sweet cinnamon wafted from their cafe, Fritz Wonseo, and lured me to stay even longer. As I sat and reflected on my visit, a fellow museum-goer mentioned that he had reservations for Arario’s Michelin star restaurant on the 5th floor, Dining in Space. Ok, so what did Arario Museum not have?!? Besides this French restaurant at the top of this eye-catching building, there is also a Korean restaurant serving traditional royal cuisine, and an Italian brasserie. Wishing I could stay another week so that I could come back and dine at Arario, I immediately texted my dear friend, Jiuhn and thanked her for telling me that there was more than one Arario and to “see them both.” Duly noted!
My friend Jiuhn is the epitome of “cool”. An art consultant by trade, she used to be my English student when I was teaching over 10 years ago. She exudes a demeanor that defines that word, but with no effort. She just is. So it was without a second thought that I followed all of her recommendations on where to see art in South Korea. I had already visited the tourist hot spots, but Jiuhn’s list led me down the hidden path. Quite literally! Finding Piknic at the end of a winding road was a treat. Piknic is a amalgamation of art gallery, outdoor garden, exquisite cafe and wine bar, and event space that is tucked at the end of a small street in Hoehyeon neighborhood. With the bright blue sky above, I sat on their patio and wrote in my journal, thinking about all I had seen on this magical trip to South Korea.
Magical? Yes it was! As I wandered through the immense collection of ancient art at the National Palace Museum of Korea, I was transported to another era in the country’s history. The ornate relics from the Joseon Dynasty mingled with powerful sculptures of dragons, and symbols of longevity like cranes and deer, filled in my understanding of Korean culture. Sitting on the steps of this historic landmark, I was again reminded of why I travel – to understand a little more about this vast world, and the beautiful diversity that it brings.
Where to stay: Conrad Seoul
What to eat: My top picks
See you in South Korea!