Monday, May 5, 2008

A trip to Seoul National Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA, Seoul)

Sunday at the MoCA

In a recent burst of springtime enthusiasm, I headed for the first time to Seoul Grand Park for a Sunday outing to the National Museum of Contemporary Art. To do this I actually had to overcome my general aversion to large-scale, government-run cultural institutions and my prior impressions of the MoCA as an uninviting fortress-like building in a seemingly remote location. But having done it I can now honestly say the trip was well worth the effort.

It was a very pleasant surprise to step off subway Line 4 after only 30 minutes and enter a lovely, uncrowded park, and stroll with my friends past a scenic lake and through a grassy sculpture garden leading up to the entrance of the museum. The current main attraction until June 15 is a world-class exhibition of contemporary installation art by French artist Annette Messager, for an inexpensive 3000 won entry fee.

So after relaxing with a good coffee on the museum's outdoor deck, my friends and I entered the gallery.

It was immediately obvious that Annette Messager's work has truly taken over the space in Gallery 1 and 7 of the MoCA. This retrospective show is a surprising mix of very large-scale kinetic works, intense black and white photographs, and installations consisting of everything from stuffed birds, netting and children's toys to collections of books, clothing and drawings. At times, you can feel like you are watching a colorful circus or visual theatre show rather than what you would normally expect to see in an art museum. As many of the works are also displayed in specially constructed spaces that deliberately restrict the audience's view, this exhibition is doubly stimulating to the mind and senses.

'The black spots' is an installation housed in a very large darkened space, which can be viewed only through slit-like windows in the wall. The viewer sees multitudes of constantly moving tiny black balls of feathers apparently floating in space for almost as far as the eye can see. These "black spots" hang almost invisibly from the ceiling by fishing line while hidden electric fans disturb the air, creating a strange and mesmerizing effect.

This movement of air is used in many pieces, notably in the very dynamic installation 'Casino' where a huge wave of red silk rolls towards us through a door-like opening.

This red wave seems to threaten to engulf us only to subside while mysterious objects light up as if under a red sea, followed finally by a mass of black skull-like symbols rising up on wires to the heavens. Likewise, the almost magical 'Inflate/Deflate' (2006) presents a jungle of inflatable silk bodily organs, that "breathe" in a synchronized, cyclical group movement, like a grotesque parody of our own visceral existence.

There is certainly a lot to see in this exhibition and it is often colorful, strange, intriguing, disturbing, humorous, bizarre, and at times, beautiful. It's the kind of show one can enjoy on a purely experiential level, or take the time to mull over the artist's concepts of life, death, gender roles and emotional realities. A particularly thought-provoking work is the installation piece called 'The Boarders' (1971-1972).

This is a collection of hundreds of dead small birds (like sparrows), clothed in tiny hand-knitted woolen jackets symbolizing healing and representing the nurturing role of women. I also found myself spending a lot of time looking closely at Messager's very striking large black and white close-up photographs of body parts such as an ear, foot, hand, mouth etc in her series 'My trophies' (1986 - 1988), on which she has painted strange and symbolic images that seem to tell dream-like stories.

In another room a 70-minute video of the artist discussing her work is shown, but unfortunately the language is French (with the audio levels set so low it's difficult to hear anyway) and the subtitles are only in Korean.

So if you want to know more about the artist you'll have to wait until you get home to search the Internet. You can read an in-depth interview with the artist here.

Surprisingly there were no exhibition catalogues or postcards available at the museum shop on the day I visited - a full month after the exhibition opening - although the staff did assure me they were "coming soon".

My friends and I left the MoCA feeling inspired and refreshed and we chose to stroll again through the leafy, green park back to the subway station. Even some days later, many of the images from the Annette Messager exhibition were still fresh in my mind, and the whole MoCA experience counts as one of the highlights of my time in Seoul so far. I strongly recommend that you too make the effort to get down to Seoul Grand Park and catch this unusual exhibition before June 15.

For more information visit or call 02-2022-0600. The National Museum of Contemporary Art is located near Seoul Grand Park (Subway Line 4). For those who don't want to walk to the Art Museum there is a shuttle bus every 20 mins from Exit 4 of the Seoul Grand Park subway.

The author of this blog, Penelope Thompson, is an Australian contemporary artist living in Korea who works in performance, installation and community art events. You can see her personal exhibition blog at

1 comment:

minju said...

wow. I am not kind of art person but those pictures seems quiet something..! I, as a student who 's learning English from you couldn't recognize you are an art person but now I finally can see that. Someday, wouldn't it be nice to talk about your interests in the class?