Busan Museum of Art

It might seem counter-intuitive to visit Busan during the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) and not see any films. But a) I tried – all the films were sold out days beforehand, plus I was told the temporary box office sold out quickly; b) I only had two full days; and c) there was nothing on I wanted to see. That sounds like a terrible indictment of the 20+ films being shown every day, but seriously, nothing in the write-up sounded remotely appealing. Romances, gangster films, documentaries about red wine or people’s terrible lives; I think it’s a sign of how neoliberalism has narrowed possible narratives about our lives that the ‘social’ gets reduced to intensely individual stories, while the bigger picture, of either class struggle or utopian dreaming, isn’t considered filmable. Besides, I have my own, self-curated and downloaded retrospectives of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ralph Bakshi to get through.

In any event, I spent an extremely satisfying Saturday morning at the Busan Museum of Art. It’s entirely free, in contrast to underfunded galleries in the west which lock up art behind $15 entry fees. While the tourists were queuing elsewhere to glimpse celebrities, I had the cavernous space to myself. Three stories of echoing, warm beige marble with smaller gallery rooms subdivided off to the sides:
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I counted at least 5 special exhibitions in addition to the permanent exhibit. I’ve taken the liberty of retouching some photos: the colours may seem a little stark, but the walls were appropriately blindingly white, tending to overwhelm the hopeless little iphone camera. (In fairness to the labours of the Foxconn and Pegatron workers, I didn’t have much time to compose shots, as “Taking photos is forbidden” signs were everywhere.)

This is Choi Seung-hee, a dancer who apparently was the Josephine Baker of Korea. Born in 1911, she trained in Japan and created modern interpretations of traditional dances. Here she is with the Bodhisattva Dance:
Boddisatva dance, Choi Seung-hee, 1936

That’s quite sexy for the 1930s, no? She counted Cocteau and Picasso among her admirers, but her later story is even more interesting: she joined the Workers Party and settled in North Korea, becoming a major dance figure there, and performing for Zhou En-lai in China in 1960… until running afoul of prevailing political currents and dying/being killed in 1968. The details are murky, but judging by the photos on display, she was immensely talented and energetic, a forerunner of today’s Kpop celebrities – if that’s not an insult to either brand.

On to the permanent collection:
Days in Early Spring, Salvador Dali, 1924
Days in Early Spring, Salvador Dali, 1924
That looked like Freud in the middle-right, when I saw it in the gallery; now it looks like Tolstoy or just some old guy with a big white beard.

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Childish Dream, Henry Miller, 1973
Who knew Henry Miller was also an artist? I quite enjoyed his folk-art: childish palette, not-entirely-childish compositions. People weren’t afraid of colour in the 70s.

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This piece was continually rotating without a power source; seen on edge, the metal was slightly warped, pulling its finely balanced… whatever you call those things… over and over. I don’t usually like sculpture, but this was clever.

Moving to the temporary exhibits, a Korean collector had donated prints and paintings which had been organized into 3 rooms on war, struggle and trauma. It was too broad to comfortably hang together thematically, but the material was incredible. I discovered a few new favourite artists, including the communist, or at least communist sympathizer Ben Shahn:

Ben Shahn, Credo
Credo
I look like this every time I read the newspaper.

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He says no to civilization and survival
I don’t know if the text is readable, but it’s a collection of quotes from a John Birch Society member, the Tea Party’s intellectual forebearers.

Two men screaming or yelling Hitler & Father Coughlin, Ben Shahn, n.d.
Two men screaming or yelling Hitler & Father Coughlin, Ben Shahn, n.d.

There were three rooms devoted to the experience of post-war Korea, including the Korean-Japanese. I’m afraid I don’t know all the incidents the paintings refer to, but the sense of sacrifice, conflict and trauma are clear.
Warehouse No. 31, Cho Yang-gyu, 1955
Warehouse No. 31, Cho Yang-gyu, 1955

Laments/Remnants (Lamnants) of a war, Chun Hwa-hwang, 1960
Laments/Remnants (The translation said ‘Lamnants’, so it may be a play on words) of a war, Chun Hwa-hwang, 1960

A Sad Self-Portrait, Song Young-ok, 1973
A Sad Self-Portrait, Song Young-ok, 1973

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I think this is Gwangju No. 1, 1981, part of a diptych eulogizing the democracy protestors massacred by the Korean government in 1980. Those figures are life-size.

One yen twenty cents a day, Che Jun, 1999
One yen twenty cents a day, Che Jun, 1999

I believe this refers to Korean labourers in Japan. There’s a term in art – which I can’t remember – that connotes an item completely out of context, which is placed in a painting to estrange the viewer, reminding her that this is not simply a portrayal but a statement. The slick, organic, animal-thing she’s carrying on her back conveys menace and exploitation more effectively her coworkers’ cement sacks.

Pieta of Gawngju, Tomiyama Taeko, 1980
Pieta of Gawngju, Tomiyama Taeko, 1980
I found it fascinating that a Japanese artist could convey the suffering of Korea’s democracy movement so well. And given the context of Japan’s occupation of Korea, this is a tremendous gesture of solidarity. And the Japanese know design: it’s nice to see the bold, simple colours and shapes of Japanese tradition put towards struggle-art. Here’s another example:

May 1st, Tomiyama Taeko
May 1st, Tomiyama Taeko

The collages of Park Bul-dong looked instantly familiar; I realized I saw his work last year at the Seoul Museum of Art. I’ve tried collage-making, so I know how difficult it is. Park’s detail, composition and concepts are masterful (sorry for the reflection):

The Structure of Government Troops, Park Bul-dong, 1992-93
The Structure of Government Troops, Park Bul-dong, 1992-93

A new colony, national monopolistic capital, Park Bul-dong, 1990-93
A new colony, national monopolistic capital, Park Bul-dong, 1990-93

Next to these were a series of woodcuts detailing the Hanoake Incident, or failed uprising by Chinese and Korean slaves against brutal work conditions at a Japanese mine in 1945. My anti-imperial Japanese spirit was running high when I got to the third floor, to discover a photo exhibit on the civilian victims of the Nagasaki bombings. It opened with a photo of a watch whose hands were frozen at the blast time. The photographer had revisited Nagasaki over the decades, in 1961, in 1979 and then in the 1990s and 2000s – later, there was a photo of that same watch 35 years later, still frozen and more eroded. I found this just as effective as the photos of generations of Nagasaki families, including one of a girl in 1961 who was born with only one eye, and then one in the 1990s when she’s getting married and has two eyes – though one looks a little wonky. After that exhibit, I was reminded that the victims of war were civilians on both sides, and I found this particularly moving given today’s upsurge of nationalist sentiment in Japan and right-wing reaction in Korea.

The room full of 16th-18th century Spanish saints, patrons, and saints painted to look like patrons left me cold. Really, why should I care that rich people got their portraits painted? The inbred aristocracy are hideous in any century. But the room of Goya drawings – looking simultaneously even more grotesque, yet a lot more human than the aristocrats he parodied – was a great counterpoint. I wanted photos of every print but had to settle for a quick snap of a ‘folly’ when the guard wasn’t looking:
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I had great hopes for Kim Bong Tae based on the title alone:
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But it turned out to be accumulations of branded objects, stacked and grouped thematically. OK, it was clearly a nod to Warhol, who remains inexplicably popular here. But capitalism is far, far more than the goods we consume. How many times do I have to say this, people?

Honorable mention goes to Sing Sang Ho‘s Final Frontier, for giant scupltures inspired by Gene Roddenberry. I like both the Star Trek reference, and the unabashed optimism in human technological potential that’s so rare these days:
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The sculpture garden was small and surrounded by flyovers, hotels and the Bexco convention centre. But it had space for both Ho and this lovely, faux-Mickey Mouse hand covered in American and Japanese anime characters:
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The only let-down was the gift shop, which had no actual art from the exhibitions. I’m used to not seeing the art I like reproduced in the gift shop – my tastes tend to the darker, and while I’d love to have a giant commemoration of the Gwangju massacre in my hall, most people prefer water lilies, starry nights, or courtly ladies available as place-mats and puzzles. It seemed odd, given how much design and money had gone into the the gallery, not to have bits of it available to take home. Still, that’s quibbling over trifles. The Busan Museum of Art is beautiful, its collections are broad and politically relevant, and unlike BIFF, you don’t have to queue for the chance of a ticket the morning of. Oh yes, and it’s easy to find, as Busan has helpfully built a subway station called “Busan Museum of Art”.

Also, a quick plug for Busan itself: it’s a cleaner, quieter, better-organized Seoul, with a beach. I would live there if I could:
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