Art | Finders Keepers

Korean art

Korea’s fusion of tradition and technology is a fertile breeding ground for contemporary art. Bettina von Hase meets a leading collector and his adviser.

October 07 2009
Bettina von Hase

Contemporary Korean art has stepped into the international spotlight, and not a moment too soon for collector David Ciclitira. As the founder and chairman of sports marketing and event management company Parallel Media, he regularly visited Seoul in the 1990s for business, but a 2007 chance visit to an exhibition in Karlsruhe, Germany, stopped him in his tracks. “It was called Thermocline of Art: New Asian Waves, and I was astonished by what I saw. I had been collecting Chinese and South African art for years, but here were undiscovered yet dazzling Korean artists.” Later that year he visited Seoul, determined to find the artists Kim Joon, Sang Hyun Lee and Gil Woo Lee, whose work he had seen in Karlsruhe.

“For the uninitiated, Seoul is not the easiest place to simply turn up and look for artists,” says Ciclitira. “Language is a real barrier and, like China in the early 1990s, there are no books.” However, with research and advice from local curator Daehyung Lee, he found a vibrant scene made up of artists such as Lee Woolim, Cho Hoon, Lee Rim and his favourite, Joon Sung Bae, whose works include figures from 17th- and 18th-century masterpieces transferred to new backgrounds.

Back in the UK, Ciclitira felt he needed more expert help and called upon Rodman Primack, UK chairman of auction house Phillips de Pury, with the idea of putting together a Korean collection. “Right away I sensed his complete enthusiasm,” says Primack. “It was a different conversation than I’d had with other collectors.” They arranged to meet in London and immediately hit it off, despite – or perhaps because of – their different knowledge. “Of course, I knew much more about the commercial part of the art world, but I was sometimes jaded,” admits Primack. “David approaches everything with a fresh mind. We have opened each other’s eyes.”

Through Phillips, Primack had already been selling international and postwar art to seasoned Korean collectors, who have long bought the likes of Willem de Kooning and Brice Marden – unlike in China, where collecting is a more recent phenomenon. “Korean collectors have also bought their own artists for far longer than the Chinese have,” says Primack. “The market in Korea is very sophisticated and the chance to be immersed in the contemporary side was irresistible.” Fired up by the possibility of creating a collection, the two travelled to Seoul five times. “Once you have made headway there, artists are quite willing to meet western collectors,” says Ciclitira. “Rodman and I spent quite a few nights sitting in their kitchens, talking until 3am.”

The collection now spans more than 40 pieces, and its mixture of established and new media – photography, painting, sculpture and video – is much in keeping with Korea itself, where tradition and craft skills loom large but exist harmoniously with the latest cultural innovations. “Korea is very technological and the techniques behind the work were very different from anything I had seen before,” Ciclitira comments. And here his collecting history came in useful. With his wife Serenella, he has nurtured a 20-year relationship with London’s Royal College of Art, founded two annual prizes and amassed a collection of some 260 works, which he refers to as “a snapshot of contemporary art”. In any given year they have bought between five and 10 pieces – a figure Ciclitira intends to increase with his Korean project.

Primack also experienced his own learning curve. He was obviously familiar with the work of Nam June Paik, internationally famous since the 1960s, and Lee Ufan, but in 2007 took notice of the Korean focus at ARCO (the annual art fair in Madrid) and Hyungkoo Lee’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. “David’s enthusiasm fell on fertile ground,” Primack says, “and because of his and Serenella’s work with the RCA, their eyes were much more connected with art and artists.” Indeed, direct contact with artists is the Ciclitiras’ prime motivator; they invite them to their house in Italy, introduce them to western artists and support them. In all this, Primack acts as their guide, editing their choices, travelling with them to exhibitions and advising them on new projects.

The first of these is Korean Eye: Moon Generation, an exhibition of contemporary Korean art that previewed in Seoul in May before opening to public acclaim at London’s Saatchi Gallery in June. The goal of Korean Eye is to put Korean art on the map for a general audience. Primack looked at hundreds of artists’ work to create an interesting short list, and both he and Ciclitira like the fact that the work is beautifully executed, not just conceptually intriguing. “Korea’s obsession with technology is not just a passing fancy for the iPhone or the convenience of a BlackBerry; technology is integrated into people’s lives in a way that I don’t see anywhere else, and it influences everything they do,” says Primack.

A good example of this is Debbie Han, who works with cameras and computers, and even produces the software and programmes she uses herself, to create images of people that look like classical sculptures. Also in the collection is work by Lee Rim, a 26-year-old painter. Ciclitira bought one of her paintings for £5,000, and now she has London galleries fighting over her.

Contemporary art is a mirror that reflects identity: “In Korea’s case this is an interesting layering of Christian on Buddhist, traditional on hyper-tech, future on past. There’s political and social unease, fear of the north and fear of their bigger neighbours, China and Japan,” says Primack. “It seems to be changing and building faster than anyone else. It’s like a pressure cooker.” Both he and Ciclitira are striving to capture this essence and are in the process of creating a second edition of Korean Eye, which will tour Asia and arrive in London next summer, and are already looking ahead to a major London show to coincide with the Olympics in 2012. By then, it looks as though their dream of establishing public awareness of Korean art will be fulfilled.