Sunday, June 19, 2005

Korean Art

I basically know nothing about Korea, other than a lot of people from there are named Kim and that the country is on a peninsula between two powerful places, Japan and China, yet has somehow retained its own culture and language over countless centuries. I also know, without any detail, that their political situation has been horrible since at least World War II and that the United States has been a big part of the problem.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a party and I got up the courage to ask a young Korean man named Joon-ho Bong if he was indeed a world famous movie director and if any of his movies had English subtitles. He told me to check out the the special edition 2-disc DVD of his 2003 movie, "Memories of Murder."

In preparation for watching the movie with a couple of guests in the evening (from Ireland and the East Bay respectively, but that's another story), I went to the Asian Art Museum to look at Korean art. The repurposed old Main Library building is named after Chong-Moon Lee, who from all accounts sounds like a wonderful person. Even the security guards had nice things to say about him.

An employee found a one-page printout about him with the following info: "Mr. Lee is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made his fortune in high tech. He was born in Korea, the son of an herbalist. As a young man he worked as a businessman and librarian. Forced to flee his country in 1970 for political reasons, he came to the U.S. He founded Diamond Multimedia in the 1980s and later sold three-fourths of his shares in the company for 92 million dollars. Much of that money has been used for philanthropic purposes...including the lead gift of $15 million which he donated to build the new museum. This was the single largest gift ever given by anyone to a San Francisco arts organization. He believes art promotes peace and understanding between people. Mr. Lee is a relatively private individual and serves as a Trustee for the museum."

The museum itself, with the rapacious Avery Brundage's amazing collection of Asian art at its core, is easily the best art museum on the West Coast. It's also a bit overwhelming in that the collection is so rich that by the 200th Buddha, your eyes start to glaze over. It's best experienced in smaller doses.

One of the most interesting things about the Korean wing is that the ancient is mixed with the contemporary.

The screen above is from the 21st century, and so are the "wrapping rags," based on centuries-long traditions.

They stand right next to vases that date from 1400 AD...

...and 400 AD.

A special exhibit had just opened of Tibetan royalty artifacts which did not amuse various Tibetans.

It seems that the pieces had all been provided by the Chinese government, and the Tibetans were pissed that the museum "has censored all historical context of these objects, the methods that were used to acquire them, the lives that were taken in the process, and the countless other equally precious artefacts that were destroyed in Tibet under the Chinese occupation."

Of course, the signage could equally apply to most of the great museums of the world (Elgin Marbles, anyone?), but the Tibetans are organized.

They were also quite sweet. This guy, after having his photo taken, invited me to have lunch with the group, but I declined as we got ready for the Korean movie, "Memories of Murder."

The movie is a police procedural based on a real incident in 1986, with a big city cop from Seoul coming to the country to help catch a serial murderer/rapist. The local police are bumpkins who plant evidence, beat up suspects, coerce confessions and are hated by the local population who are not amused by the fascist police state that is South Korea in 1986.

We've seen the Hollywood version of this tale (CSI tells it weekly on a multiple basis), but this film is so much better than most of that crap, it's staggering. In fact, it's one of the most visually beautiful movies I've seen in years, the character development is superb, and without being too gory the movie is genuinely disturbing. All hail Joon-ho Bong and Korean cinema.


Rose said...

Korean art (particularly the contemporary stuff being produced now) is actually quite diverse, but gets the brush over because its "brothers" are just a lot bigger in the art world. Chinese and Japanese art always gets the headlines in the art section of the NYTimes. Even when Korean art gets some attention, it pails in comparison to the blockbuster shows that you see about Chinese or Japanese art.

The odd thing is that Koreans in Korea really don't seem to care too much about their own art legacy. Their also isn't a museum culture in Korea. People really don't go to museums. I was just in Seoul for the first time a week and a half ago (for 5 days--which is more than enough to see the city) and three of the biggest and most important museums (all of them art related) were completely closed. None of them had temporary spaces open nor did they send their collections out on international exhibitions--which is what most museums going through renovations do.

My friends in Seoul (all Korean) indicated that Koreans just don't care too much about their own art. There is interest in the contemporary scene, but its kinda small and even the Chinese public has a much bigger, grander, albeit younger contemporary art scene.

Some of the best Korean art collections are in the US and Japan. Yes, the best is in Korea, but there is actually much more on display outside of the country.

I'm going to check out that movie though--it sounds great.

the Witch said...

Wow, glad I stumbled upon your blog via HufPo. Thanks for this post, a pleasure.

sfmike said...

Wow. Thanks for all the Korean "art world" info, Rose, especially the fact that they have three large art museums which are all closed. Weird.

And "Witch," I've been reading your brilliant comments throughout the blogosphere for a good year now, and to say I'm thrilled you found this place is a total understatement. Welcome.

the Witch said...

Thrilled to have a witch on board? Lol, OK, I promise to behave myself.

The photos, your words, the insight.. stellar. You move me to miss SF a bit more with each new post. Thank you, your efforts are so very much apreciated, talented one.