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Frieze Seoul: After K-Pop, will we see the rise of K-Art?

K-Pop, K-Beauty and K-Drama are an integral part of our lives. But as Frieze comes to Asia with its inaugural fair in Seoul, will we see a rise of K-Art?

Detail from a work by Korean artist Kim Hyunsik
Detail from a work by Korean artist Kim Hyunsik

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Anyone with an eye on international art will have heard of Frieze, the world’s pre-eminent global art fair launched in London in 2003 by a magazine of the same name. Its success resulted in annual fairs in New York city and Los Angeles as well as Frieze Masters, a subset of Frieze that showcases masters from across the world.

This past weekend Frieze and Frieze Masters landed in Asia for the first time with its inaugural edition in Seoul, South Korea. As a collector, curator, and art consultant, I wanted to see first-hand the impact this large global institution would have not only on the Korean art market, but on the Asian market and potentially the larger global art market as well.

Frieze and Frieze Masters were held collaboratively with the local Korean art fair, Korea International Art Fair, or KIAF. Both fairs were held at the same venue, the COEX convention centre, with Frieze on the third floor and KIAF on the first. Transitioning from one to the other was seamless, making the experience feel like you were at one big fair.

Earlier this year, the South Korean government pledged $3.7bn ( 30,000 crore approximately) to the arts in a bid to make the country more culturally attractive. Frieze zeroed in on South Korea for two reasons. The first, according to Nathan Clements-Gillespie, director, Frieze Masters London, was because the country has a well-established art community with collectors committed to supporting local institutions and artists both in Korea and abroad.

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Second, he said, the offer made to Frieze by the Galleries Association of Korea, the body that organises KIAF, arranged the venue at COEX and rescheduled KIAF to dates that were “mutually convenient”. “It seemed right to do something in partnership and to add something instead of inserting yet another fair week,” said Clements-Gillespie.

As a strategy, this collaboration seems to have worked. Barring a few Korean artists, most notably Nam Jun Paik, an eminent modern master who has received critical acclaim in Korea and abroad, Frieze showcased more international works.

A work by artist Ivory Lee
A work by artist Ivory Lee

For Korean galleries, this was an opportunity to present the artists they represented to a global audience, even though most sales were restricted to local Korean patrons, said Seoyeon Chang, a senior art consultant at Gallery Hyundai. However, she added, running the two fairs alongside, gave her gallery as well as the larger market of Korean artists more attention than they would otherwise have got.

Ji Yeon Yu, an associate at the Seoul-based Hakgojae Gallery agreed. “Even though we cannot lead to sales, we can at least talk about our artists to international collectors and museums,” she added. Most of the 160 galleries present at KIAF do not showcase their works in fairs outside of the country.

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I began my tour of the art fair at the third floor with Frieze before walking down to KIAF. Up at Frieze were exactly the sort of artists and galleries you’d find at any of Frieze’s western outposts. I was hoping to see a more diverse curation with a significant inclusion of Korean artists. But once I came down to KIAF, I was blown away by the display of Korean modern and contemporary art.

A common theme in many of the portrait-style works was the style first made famous by Japanese artist, Yoshitomo Nara, a member of the Japanese Superflat Art Movement. Hyper real landscapes were another theme that was present in the contemporary works.

Two floors above at Frieze Seoul, the presence of industry heavyweights, including Perrotin Gallery and Pace Gallery, both of which have local galleries in Seoul, as well as Gagosian Gallery and Acquavella Galleries signalled seriousness of intent.

India was represented by leading galleries such as Vadehra Art Gallery and Nature Morte. “In terms of response, collectors attending are mostly from the region, which is nice because that was why we came to Seoul—to reach out to collectors from this region,” Parul Vadehra, director, Vadehra Art Gallery said.

Mumbai-based Jhaveri Contemporary was selected to be a part of Frieze Focus, a curation of ten galleries from Asia, each spotlighting an artist. Jhaveri Contemporary chose Rana Begum, who has an established presence in South Asia as well as London where she currently lives.

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Frieze’s Korean outing in a post-pandemic world has exposed global collectors to regional art that may not have been on the radar. At the same time, Korean buyers and buyers from East Asia including Japan and Hong Kong are gaining access to global art. For many collectors it is not easy to travel to Europe or the United States for fairs but by bringing Frieze and its roster of top tier galleries to Seoul, these buyers and, symbiotically the galleries, are engaging with a completely different region. To further facilitate this flourishing of culture, the South Korean government does not charge import tax on art works bought from outside of the country.

By organising a fair in Seoul, Frieze has strengthened South Korea’s position as a global art hub, but that does not eliminate countries like Japan or Singapore. In fact, Singapore may seem like a more appropriate choice in the region with the lack of a language barrier and track record of tax efficient trading. However, the South Korean government has made it clear that it is structurally and financially ready. 

Peter Femfert, director of Frankfurt-based Die Galerie, one of the few European galleries to show at KIAF, told me that he had been showcasing at KIAF for 17 years. He had shown at India Art Fair previously but found the many logistical and regulatory hurdles made it unfeasible to be a long-term prospect, though he did notice interest from Indian buyers. 

Outside of the United States, Asia is the second-largest art market accounting for 29% of overall art sales, according to numerous art market reports commissioned by Art Basel and The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). With South Korea laying its claim to East Asia, India could distinguish itself in South Asia and bring its artists and galleries to the world through more investments in the arts, efficient regulatory structures and conducive business practices.

Teesta Bhandare is a Delhi-based collector, lawyer, curator, and art advisor. She lives and works in New Delhi. She recently launched Young Collectors’ Weekend, a nation-wide platform to promote contemporary South Asian art.

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