5 Koreans and People of Korean Descent Who Have Influenced the Global Contemporary Art Scene

Left to right: Hyun-Sook Lee, Founder and Chairwoman of Kukje Gallery; Byung-Chul Han, philosopher and cultural theorist; Doryun Chong, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of M+ in Hong Kong; artist Anicka Yi; and RM, the leader of the K-pop group BTS. 

The art world is intertwined in a very complex network. Artists, museums, galleries, auction houses, nonprofit art organizations, related experts, collectors and art appreciators, and even government agencies are the members that form this complicated and tangled universe.

International media platforms have been shedding light on various members of the art world who have been playing an important role in developing the global contemporary art scene. One of the examples is an American art market website Artnet’s Top 200 Collectors list, which highlights the world’s most influential art collectors. This year’s list was released last October and included two Korean collectors: Woong-ki Kim, the chairman of Global Sae-A Group, and Suh Kyung-bae, the chairman of Amorepacific Group.

Most recently, ArtReview and Artnet each released a list honoring art experts and collectors who have played an important role in the art world this year.

Since 2002, London-based ArtReview, which was founded in 1948, has been announcing the Power 100, an annual list of the world’s most influential art figures. In its 2022 edition, released on December 1, four Koreans and people of Korean descent were included. Artnet, on the other hand, announced a different list that highlighted art world innovators who have had an impact on the art market, such as artists, dealers, collectors, and entrepreneurs. Its first edition was announced in 2020, and this year’s edition, which includes one Korean individual, is its second list.

Top: ruangrupa, Jakarta-based artist collective and Artistic Directors of Documenta 15. Courtesy of ruangrupa.
Bottom: Cecilia Alemani, Curator and Artistic Director of the 59th Venice Biennale. Photo by Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.

According to ArtReview, the Power 100 names individuals based on several basic criteria: “individuals being considered to have to have an influence over the kind of art that’s being shown around the world today; they need to have an influence that goes beyond the local (although at the same time ArtReview accepts that any kind of power begins at a local level); and they need to have been active in forms that are visible or invisible over the past 12 months.”

In the 2022 edition, ruangrupa, the Jakarta-based artist collective that led documenta fifteen, ranked first on the list. This year’s second most influential individual is Cecilia Alemani, curator and artistic director of the 59th Venice Biennale, which brought together women surrealist artists and women and gender nonconforming contemporary artists.

Among Koreans, Hyun-Sook Lee, founder and chairwoman of Seoul-based Kukje Gallery, ranked 75th as the only Korean. Three other people of Korean descent were also on the list, including the philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han in the 48th place; Doryun Chong, the deputy director and chief curator of M+ in Hong Kong with Suhanya Raffel, the director of the museum, in the 56th place; and the artist Anicka Yi in the 57th place.

Hyun-Sook Lee, Founder and Chairwoman of Kukje Gallery in Seoul. Photo by Jisup An. Courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul.

Since 2015, Kukje Gallery’s Hyun-Sook Lee has been on the Power 100 list every year. Kukje, which means “international” in Korean, has been playing an important role in bridging the gap between the Korean and international art worlds since the gallery opened in 1982. Not only has she introduced various international artists to Korean audiences, but she has also supported important Korean artists in building their careers, such as this year’s Benesse Prize winner Haegue Yang, and helped to enhance the reputation of Korean Dansaekhwa as an art movement.

Kukje Gallery’s activities are expected to expand further into the international art world, with Frieze being held in Seoul starting this year. After the release of the Power 100 list on December 1, the gallery announced that it had opened a branch in Paris. Its Paris gallery is situated in Place Vendôme, where art museums, including the Louvre Museum and the Centre Pompidou, are located. “We have been keeping an eye on Paris’ unique artistic identity and its potential to be a base for expanding into the whole European market. Our latest expansion plan will serve as a good opportunity for us to promote the value of Korean art to European audiences,” said Song Bo-young, vice president of Kukje Gallery.

Byung-Chul Han, philosopher and cultural theorist. Courtesy Byung-Chul Han and ArtReview.

South Korean-born, Berlin-based Byung-Chul Han is best known in Korea for his book The Burnout Society, published in 2010. Han has a broad number of followers in the art world, not only in Europe but also around the world. His books describe the situation that people face in a fast-changing technology-driven society brought about by neoliberal capitalism, with a focus on sexuality, freedom, popular culture, and mental illnesses such as burnout syndrome, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

One of his books, Undinge, criticizes the problems we face in an age where information has replaced all objects. In Infocracy: Digitization and the Crisis of Democracy, published this year, Han argues that the greatest threat to humanity today is the illusion that we are free when, in reality, we are constantly monitored, directed, and controlled.

Suhanya Raffel & Doryun Chong, director and chief curator of Hong Kong’s M+ museum. Photo by Winnie Yeung @ VISUAL VOICES. Courtesy M+.
Suhanya Raffel & Doryun Chong, director and chief curator of Hong Kong’s M+ museum. Photo by Winnie Yeung @ VISUAL VOICES. Courtesy M+.

The M+ Museum in Hong Kong claims to be “Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture.” Suhanya Raffel, director of the museum, and Doryun Chong, deputy director and curator of the museum, are the two leaders who have been putting much effort into opening the long-awaited museum.

The museum has encountered numerous obstacles. After being four years behind its original schedule due to construction delays and personnel problems, M+ finally opened in November 2021. However, the museum had to close its doors because of the pandemic. M+ also faced censorship threats from the Chinese Communist Party and was forced to take down three exhibited artworks because they were politically charged. Nonetheless, the two M+ leaders, Raffel and Chong, contributed to incorporating more diverse Asian artists and collaborating with various international institutions, including the Sydney Opera House, Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, and Shanghai’s Power Station of Art.

Artist Anicka Yi. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Anicka Yi, a Korean-American artist, creates conceptual works that blur the lines between technology, chemistry, biology, and art. Yi’s solo exhibition at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, which had twelve electricity-generating machinery called “aerobes” floating in the air, and her retrospective at Pirelli Hangar Bicocca in Milan, which included an artwork showcasing a bacterial biological world, to suggest an alternative ecosystem. Yi’s works attempt to highlight the interconnectedness between humans, plants, animals, organisms, and machines in a world where machines and technology are gradually replacing humans. Yi also held solo exhibitions at the Gladstone Gallery in Seoul and New York this year. At TED Talks, Yi explained her interest in the future, where machines, artificial intelligence, and advanced technology are viewed as more organic and can coexist with us.

RM, leader of BTS. Concept photo for his solo debut album "Indigo." ©Big Hit Music, Seoul.

Artnet gathered recommendations from 50 art experts worldwide to create a long list of names and narrowed it down from more than 110 people to the final list of 35 innovators. The 2022 Artnet Innovators List includes those who have influenced and set the direction for the future of the art market through ground-breaking activities, regardless of age, genre, or place of origin.

Among the 35 names, RM, the leader of the K-pop group BTS, was introduced as an avid art collector and art supporter in Korea. He is a collector who has collected artworks by KAWS and Takashi Murakami, as well as Korean artists such as Kim Chong Hak, Lee Bae, Kwon Jin Kyu and Yun Hyong-keun, among others, and an art patron who uses his social network services to document his passion for art. His account, which introduces large and small art museums and institutions, has attracted much interest from his followers.

In 2021, RM donated 100 million KRW to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) to celebrate his birthday. The donation was used to support the production of art books introducing Korean artists that are out of print and difficult to find. The books were donated to public libraries and school libraries in rural areas across the country. The books are also placed in the public library of the MMCA.

RM also participated in narrating an audio guide for ten works in the exhibition The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). He also collaborated with the estate of Yun Hyong-Keun and included the artist’s image in one of the Umber-Blue artworks and recorded the artist’s voice in one of the songs on his recently released solo album Indigo, which helped bring the artist’s work to the attention of a wider audience.

Last year and this year, RM donated 100 million KRW each to the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation for the preservation and restoration of national cultural assets located overseas. The donation will contribute to the preservation of the Joseon Dynasty’s Hwarot, traditional Korean clothing worn only by royal women for ceremonial occasions, which is in the collection of LACMA. The funds will also be used to publish a catalog introducing Korean paintings.

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