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MMCA Collection Exhibition, “Back to the Future: An Exploration of Contemporaneity in Korean Contemporary Art”

The Selected MMCA Collection exhibition, Back to the Future: An Exploration of Contemporaneity in Korean Contemporary Art, will be at MMCA Seoul from June 16, 2023, to May 26, 2024. The exhibition explores newly acquired works from the 1990s that reveal contemporary aspects of Korean contemporary art.

Poster image of MMCA Collection Exhibition, “Back to the Future: An Exploration of Contemporaneity in Korean Contemporary Art,” MMCA Seoul. (June 16, 2023 - May 26, 2024). Courtesy of the museum.

The Selected MMCA Collection exhibition, Back to the Future: An Exploration of Contemporaneity in Korean Contemporary Art, will be at MMCA Seoul from June 16, 2023, to May 26, 2024.

The title of the recently opened exhibition held at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) was borrowed from the 1985 Hollywood film Back to the Future. Just like the movie, which involves time travel spanning approximately 30 years starting from 1985, the exhibition examines the collection of artworks created between the late 1980s and the 2010s, with a focus on the 1990s.

The MMCA explains that when this film was released in Korea in 1987, it coincided with the emergence of a “contemporaneity” context in Korean contemporary art. The exhibition explores the artistic identity established by artists during this period, specifically the late 1980s and early 1990s, and examines their artistic worlds that have continued until recently through the collection exhibition.

Choi Jeonghwa, ‘Flowers of Tomorrow,’ 2015, Fiber, FRP, rubber, iron powder mixture and fluorescent pigment. MMCA collection.

The exhibition was curated based on the fact that a significant number of artworks by artists who revealed the contemporary aspects of Korean contemporary art were collected from the new acquisitions of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art from 2018 to 2022, with the 1990s serving as an artistic turning point.

The late 1980s to the 1990s witnessed significant changes both internationally and domestically. On a global scale, the collapse of the communist bloc marked the end of the Cold War and the establishment of a U.S.-led international order. The process of globalization and the rise of neoliberalism in the economic sphere dismantled barriers between nations.

The emergence of the internet further accelerated these developments. The advent and popularization of information and communication devices during this period shortened the physical and psychological distance between people worldwide and brought forth entirely new issues that had not been experienced before, completely transforming people’s lives globally.

These changes had a significant impact on the South Korean art world. Just as the rapidly changing political, social and economic conditions in Korea influenced popular culture forms such as film, music and comics, they also had a profound influence on the emerging generation. Artists active during this time freely explored phenomena and situations that deviated from traditional conventions and defied interpretation by previous logic.

This exhibition introduces key artworks within the art historical context while revealing the nature of the programs presented by the Seoul branch. It also features collections that showcase artworks that effectively reflect the exhibition policy and direction of the Seoul branch.

It examines the history of experimental art created by young Korean artists in the 1960s and 1970s, a turbulent period of modernization, industrialization, and national reconstruction in Korea. Through their artistic experiments, these artists not only revitalized the Korean art scene but also expanded their practice within the global art world.

Bahc Yiso, ‘Entrance of History,’ 1987, Acrylic on canvas, 181.4×187cm. MMCA collection.

The exhibition consists of four sections: “A New Era of Diversion, and Paradigm Shift in Art,” “Energizing Nonconformity,” “Heterogeneity and Its Critical Time and Space,” and “‘Interfering With’ or ‘Intervening in’ the Future.”

“A New Era of Diversion and Paradigm Shift in Art” looks at artistic acts expressed from a perspective of “contemporaneity.” Korean contemporary art of the ’90s to ’00s is both universal and specific in that it drew from global transformation occurring at the time as well as related developments in the Korean social environment. Adopting this as its starting point, the exhibition demonstrates the significance of the establishment of contemporaneity in Korean art through MMCA acquisitions over the past five years by artists such as Kong Sunghun, Kim Beom, Bahc Yiso, Lee Dongi, Lee Yongbaek and Choi Jeonghwa.

“Energizing Nonconformity” uses media-based work as a lens to examine how contemporaneity was not a merely temporal concept but rather a method for critically examining existing hegemonic structures. Taking the late 1990s as the period in which Korean single-channel video works truly bloomed, it explores an era in which the vocabulary of media artwork began emerging in earnest. This includes aspects such as nonlinear story structures, fragmented screens, temporal refraction and distortions of audio-visual sensations. In particular, it focuses on early media work by artists such as Kim Sejin, Park Hwayoung, Ryu Biho and Ham Yangah.

“Heterogeneity and Its Critical Time and Space” shares work by artists who developed their creative capabilities while growing up in a dynamic environment of disorder and novelty. Korean society in the 1990s saw different timeframes coexisting as the benefits and drawbacks of accelerated growth achieved through rapid industrialization and modernization intersected and collided. It looks at the creations of figures such as Koo Donghee, Kim Dujin, Kim Sangdon, Rho Jaeoon, Keum Hyewon, Roh Choonghyun and Jung Jaeho — artists who worked unconfined by 3 / 8 conventional genre distinctions. Those who readily accepted their environment while being quick to spot currents of change both at home and abroad.

Rho Jaeoon, ‘God4Saken,’ 2009, Web based art, color, sound. MMCA collection

“‘Interfering With’ or ‘Intervening in’ the Future” shows how the contemporaneity that formed in Korean contemporary art during the 1990s has developed and expanded through media-based work today. As it examines the overall trends in Korean contemporary art, it extends its scope to include the media work of 2010s artists who showed complex networks of temporal and spatial relationships. Such artists include Kim Ayoung, Nam Hwayeon and An Jungju.

This exhibition, held for approximately one year in Exhibition Hall 1 of the Seoul branch, is expected to be a comprehensive exhibition showcasing the recent significant collections of the museum. It aims to trace and explore the contemporaneity and significance of Korean contemporary art through these major artworks and is anticipated to be widely showcased to domestic and international visitors.

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