Seoul | Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA)

seoul // seoul museum of art SeMA

As proof that I didn’t just eat during our last visit to Seoul (though that would be a fairly accurate description of my time there), here are some photos of an afternoon spent getting lost, going to the wrong museum, thinking I could still get to the museum I wanted to go to, roaming around clueless for another hour, then backtracking to the first museum and deciding it would have to do.

In other words, I wanted to go to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) but ended up at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA). It seeeds like an easy enough place to find except for the fact that Google sucks in Korea. When I looked up the MMCA, it pulled up the correct photos, description, etc, BUT THE WRONG ADDRESS.  The address listed was for the SeMA. I should have just gone along with what was listed on the MMCA website, but since there were three MMCA branches as well as a bunch of other National museums of some sort in the same area as the SeMA, I got confused.

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I suppose getting lost wasn’t the worst thing in the world – I got to explore the outside of an old walled- in palace 

seoul // seoul museum of art SeMA

Jangdockdae by Yi Hwan-Kwon was one of my favorite sculptures. From afar the figures looked like huge traditional ceramic kimchi jars. In my frantic efforts to find the museum I was searching for, I didn’t realize until maybe the third time I passed by the “jars” that they were actually people.

According to the artist’s description of this piece:

Koreans store many kinds of fermented sauces in the traditional sauce jar called Jangdock. Those sauces are used to season Korean traditional dishes. For Korean women, it is an important job to take care of it and hand it down to the next generation. There is a place called Jangdockdae where many different sizes of sauce are gathered together. Jangdockdae recalls family-oriented memories for most Korans. When I saw the Jangdockdae covered by snow, I thought of the family enduring winter. The scene inspired me deeply, therefore, I planned to make deflated family figures just like Jangdock in the Jangdockdae. My work reveals three generations of family consisting of grandparents, parents, and their children…

The interplay between food and family really struck a chord with me because in our family, food is life, is us, is the way in which we communicate. Loved this piece.

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who’s ready for a seizure?

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Because I spent much of the day getting lost, I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the Seoul Museum of Art, but in a way it sort of worked out for the best. The museum itself wasn’t too large, and I skipped over the Renoir exhibition in favor of an exhibition called “Korean Art in the 1990s.”

Like most art students, I mostly studied European and Western art and artists while at school. We touched on a few Asian artists that had an international presence but beyond those famed few, I barely learned anything about modern Asian art, or specifically, modern Korean art and artists. I found this exhibit to be interesting because I was curious as to how Korean Art in the 1990s compared to other (Western) art movements of the time.

In Korea, the “1990s,” refers to the decade between 1987 and 1996 when society and culture changed drastically. The Gwangju Democratic Uprising of 1987, the Olympics in Seoul in 1988, the collapse of the Eastern bloc, political turmoil, and the collapsing of a department store and bridge were all key events during this period of time. “It was the period of excess, loss and collapse of what we’ve accumulated throughout the modernization and development as well as leaping into another stage.” I was intrigued. It sounded like the perfect backdrop to make good art.

Many of the pieces of art had a punky, underground, deconstructionist feel to them. Artists eschewed traditional Korean subjects (landscapes and calligraphy, for example) and often gathered and displayed their artwork in cafes and clubs. One of my favorite pieces from this exhibit was E J-yong’s “The Story of a City,” a raw collection of shoot-from-the-hip snippets taken over a 24-hour period of time of everyday moments in Seoul, a city on just on the edge of modernity. I watched the video at least two times, completely mesmerized. E J-yong has since gone on to become a pretty famous film director in Korea. One of his latest films, Bacchus Lady, about elderly women who turn to prostitution in Seoul (poverty among the elderly is a big issue in Korea), is on my to-watch list.

I may not have visited the “correct” museum, but at least I walked away with a better understanding of Korean history and art. Also, I learned one very important lesson: never trust Google maps in Korea. Let’s be real though, I’m pretty sure I won’t learn from my mistakes and will end up lost and confused once again the next time I’m in Seoul. I should probably submit an address fix to the Google database too, but then, I kind of think it would be awesome if other people made the same mistake and ended up discovering a part of Seoul and/or Korea that they never intentionally planned to visit.


Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) | COST: FREE. Special exhibitions extra fee. | LOCATION: Jung-gu (near City Hall, Deoksugang Palace, and a bunch of embassies, including the US embassy. If you are looking for the MMCA and see any of these places on your map [because you are most likely using Google], abort mission immediately and refer to the MMCA’s website for the correct address). | DESCRIPTION: This museum isn’t a landmark art museum as say, the Louvre, the Prado, or the Met, but I mean that in a good way. It’s a small museum with a concise collection and a couple of rotating special exhibits. I often prefer museums like this because they are less overwhelming and I don’t feel the need to SEE ALL THE ART. Most of the descriptions and guides are in English, as well as Korean (possibly Japanese and Chinese as well). There’s a small book shop on the top floor, as well as a coffee shop/museum store on the main level. Like most museum shops in Korea, the selection is bizarre and has nothing to do at all with the actual museum collection. I know I’m just a capitalist American who is obsessed with gift shops, but I swear I need to start a gift shop merchandising company in Korea. But then that would mean I would probably have to pay off some government official (like the ex-president and her cronies. Burn.), so instead I’ll just complain about it every time I visit a gift shop that sucks. Which is like 95% of them.  | VERDICT: If you’re in the area – and the area is quite nice in its own right – it’s definitely worth a visit, especially since it’s free.

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  • Kevin
    March 27, 2017 at 11:23 am

    All great exploration is based on not knowing where you are. That’s how I’m looking at it.

    Jangdock cookie jars. I’d give that a look in a museum gift shop.

    Keeping Good Thoughts…

  • veronika
    April 4, 2017 at 12:37 pm

    It’s hard these days to really “explore” given the amount of info that is at one’s fingertips: maps, social media, etc. Sometimes it’s nice getting lost because at least the experience feels authentic, not just a carbon copy of some guide book.