The land that gave us K-Pop and KBBQ also happens to be a hotspot of contemporary creative talent. Today, we’re taking a deep dive into Korea’s white-hot art scene by way of 5 artists’ and creatives’ IG accounts. Jot these names down in an iPhone note—you’re going to be hearing from them a lot.
In past decades, the birth of democracy and rapid industrialization have totally transformed Korea from an isolated, dictatorial Cold War battleground to a hyper-urbanized urban landscape plugged directly into the global economy. The tension between old—a rich Buddhist and Sindo tradition that emphasizes harmony with nature, as well as Japanese imperialism, dictatorship and a communist/capitalist tug-of-war—and new—a late capitalist world populated by screens, gadgets and XXL hoodies—has given rise to a vibrant art scene that, like the rest of the country, is constantly in flux.
As you would expect, Korea’s main creative hub is the capital, Seoul, a megacity of nearly 10 million people. Its size and scale clearly influences the art coming out of Seoul. Industrial landscapes, grungy haircuts, streetwear and all things oversized, à la Euro/NY/L.A. “alternative” culture (if that even exists anymore), abound, but so do escapism and fantasy. After all, modernity comes with its downsides, and who can resist the temptation to create new worlds when you’re fed up with the real one around you? In a way, the duality of the Korean art scene reflects the same two sides of the coin that digital technology offers us: on one hand, easy connection to places and people far away; on the other, the chance to hide from our lives in a virtual fantasy world.
And who are the people behind (and in) these pictures? While Korean visual artists like Suh Do-Ho and Ham Kyung-Ah have been making waves worldwide since the ‘90s, today, a new creative generation is on the rise. You might not be able to find all their work at Sotheby’s (yet), but you can find it on Instagram. And in tomorrow’s art world, the most important figure will be how many thousands of followers you have, not how many thousands of dollars your work goes for at auction.
Since photography is the go-to medium of social media, the art gallery of the future, we’re highlighting artists who work in this medium. Below, meet five photographers of Korea that you should definitely be following.
1) KangHee Kim
KangHee Kim is the most well-known name on our list, and for good reason. This New York-based, mostly self-taught photographer makes surreal, dreamy pictures of tropical landscapes and creamsicle clouds photoshopped into her mundane, everyday surroundings, like a subway seat or a shop window.
It’s her way of escaping the boredom of her daily routine—and as of now, her only way. Since the Trump administration’s suspension of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy that helps people who came to the US illegally as children live and work in the country, Kim been trapped inside the borders. If she leaves America, she can’t come back.
Because of her uncertain visa status, Kim had to miss her first solo exhibition at D Museum in Korea, which showed her ongoing photo series Street Errands, started in 2016. “I feel really frustrated and pretty hopeless because of my visa status, but this is a kind of therapeutic process because it’s making impossible things possible for me, beyond the limits and restraints of my real life,” she told Fader. “It’s like utopia for me.”
To check out more of the series and Kim’s work, browse her IG, or buy her books, Magic and Golden Hour.
2) JeeYoung Lee
JeeYoung Lee creates fantasy world and then captures them on film. Over long periods of time, she sculpts intricate landscapes, from her takes on Alice’s garden, the Last Supper to wholly imagined scenes that reflect her inner states. Her most recent series, Stage of Mind, plays off the idea of the mind as a room and imagines what it would look like in different moods or stages. The artist herself appears in the pictures, a character acting out her own inner world. Broken Heart becomes a blue box, torn on the inside by rocks poking in, filled with cracked eggs, while Nightmare is a tangled tornado of yellow paperclips. The effect is both whimsical and spooky, perfectly communicating the feeling of being trapped in your own head.
Lee was born and raised in Korea, where she studied photography and lives and works today. Her work has been shown in Korea and abroad, in Europe, Australia, New York, and all around Asia. To see more, check out her IG.
3) Soyeon Kim
Soyeon Kim is a photographer and illustrator whose two mediums come together in whimsical and original spreads. In today’s art world, different media collide in the same works all the time, so the idea of blending photography and illustration is not new at all. But Kim’s work strikes the perfect balance of serious and whimsical, sharp and playful. We love the use of bold colors, geometric shapes and loose, expressionistic lines—the effect is a Petra Collins-meets-California neo-noir photo aesthetic which perfectly captures the look of the oversaturated Instagram age.
4) Lindsay Gary Ryklief, a.k.a. Ligrye
Lindsay Gary Ryklief, a South African-born, Seoul-based photographer, DJ and promoter, is a big figure on the Korean LGBTQ scene. After struggling with his identity and sexuality throughout his childhood, he moved to South Korea to teach English and within months, felt free to come out. That’s not to say that being queer in Korea is easy; the country is relatively conservative, so the queer community is fairly small and not very visible.
But Ryklief is working to change that through his work as a musician and photographer. As a producer and promoter, he throws parties for the Seoul queer community and tries to expose it to global queer club culture, Ryklief told i-D in 2017. Boys of Seoul, a photography IG account that he runs, posts tender and erotic photographs of Korean men that often overtly evoke homosexuality. His quasi “girl gaze” way of capturing these men challenges stereotypes about the gay community like hyper-masculinity and lack of feelings.
5) Hong June Hyung
You’ve probably seen Hong June Hyung’s candy-colored pictures if you’ve ever browsed a copy of Dazed Korea, Elle Korea, W Korea, Marie Claire Korea, Vogue Korea… the list goes on. But Hyung isn’t just another editorial photographer/videographer—his spreads are as dreamy as they are crisp and guaranteed to pull you into their world, whether it’s strutting through ancient temples with Adidas or donning an unlikely ensemble of Converse, ballet tulle, feathers, black hair extensions and a Cyrus Kabiru-inspired metal crown for your next night out.
With more stuff to buy and more media to consume than ever before, consumers today (that’s us!) are drowning in options. That’s why, these days, to sell some clothes or a magazine, you have to tell a damn good story. And since a picture’s worth a thousand words, photographers like Hyung, who can capture a mood, a character, a personality in a single snapshot or a 30-second movie, are such a hot commodity.
This also means less and less distinction between art and commerce; with ads and editorial spreads rivaling art photography for creativity and grandiosity, and art photography becoming more and more commercially driven all the time, can we even draw a line between them? Maybe, but photographers like Hyung are smudging, burning, blurring and erasing that line, one shoot at a time.
Text by Katya Lopatko
Images via @tinycactus, @jee_young_lee, @wyw_kiki98, @boysofseoul, @hungjunehyung.