There were rumours for years that Frieze — the contemporary art fair behemoth that started in London and now includes events in New York and Los Angeles — was eyeing a site in Asia. A few contenders were floated about in whispered tones: Seoul, Singapore, Shanghai.
In the end, Seoul won out, and this Friday, more than 110 galleries will descend on the inaugural Frieze outing in the upscale Gangnam district — the one made internationally famous a decade ago by that viral galloping dance.
“The arrival of Frieze in Seoul is a huge validation of the city and its place within the arts ecosystem,” says Patrick Lee, director of Frieze Seoul.
“Of course, we hope it will replicate the success of what we have achieved in other cities — the best fairs facilitate dialogue and lasting relationships.
"The art world has its own wonderful machinations and network. Korea is already an important part of this — as shown by the fact that Frieze Seoul has landed here — but the fair can play a leading role in extending this international reach and continuing the development of the art scene here in Asia.”
In retrospect, it was inevitable. South Korea has become an incredibly wealthy nation over the past 40 years. Cars, electronics and technology companies such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG have generated a huge amount of cash and contemporary art has been a favourite destination for this money.
Lee Kun-hee, the son of the founder of Samsung, amassed an art collection estimated at $1 billion by the time of his death two years ago; 23,000 of these works will be donated to local museums. One of these is the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art or MMCA, which now has four branches across the country.
Corporations have also been particularly active in the art scene, such as Hyundai’s gallery in the city and its partnerships abroad, while the highly respected Busan and Gwangju biennials have given the country curatorial credibility.
Collecting has grown exponentially and is set to continue upwards. South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol, elected last year, ran on a platform of market-friendly policies, and the country is an efficient place for individuals to buy art, with no VAT on artworks.
Despite South Korea’s strong local art scene and art history, this new era is highly international in character. Seoul has become a destination for a number of blue-chip galleries: since 2016, Lehmann Maupin, Emmanuel Perrotin, Pace, Thaddaeus Ropac and Konig Galerie have all opened branches. Barbara Gladstone also has an office, and last year, the smaller Los Angeles space Various Small Fires also opened a site.
Jason Haam, who opened his eponymous gallery in Seoul five years ago, says that the recent boom in art activity has been shaped by a generation of the art world who are looking outward.
“A lot of people seem to think that this [collecting boom] is happening out of thin air, but it really started from Art Basel Hong Kong,” he explains. “We’re a small country. We have 50 million people, but it's still one-fourth the size of California by land. So we are always eager to know what's outside of our country, and we always want to engage with the bigger communities like China or the US.”
The mention of Hong Kong is divisive in Seoul, which is keen not to be seen in competition with the Asian city-state. But the comparison is inevitable. For years, Art Basel Hong Kong was the major fair in Asia, run by Frieze’s rival. The fair has suffered, though, during both the pandemic and the civil unrest in the city-state, as China moves to bring the territory closer under its laws. Its event last May was still hybrid and many gallerists and collectors have ceased visiting.
Lee, Frieze’s director, bristles against the idea that Seoul’s rise comes at Hong Kong’s loss.
“Asia is a huge place and Seoul is vastly different from Hong Kong, so I don’t think it’s a case that if one benefits it’s to the detriment of the other,” he says. “There is scope for multiple cities to be destinations in their own right.”
However, for the moment, the demise of Art Basel Hong Kong has left a void that Frieze Seoul can productively fill.
Frieze Seoul itself is larger than the Los Angeles and New York outings. The galleries are spread across three sections of a main fair, including a Frieze Masters section for work from antiquity through to the 20th century, and a Focus Asia section for galleries younger than 12 years.
As is typical of Frieze, the works skew towards global art. While the Korean art scene has major international stars, both historical and contemporary, such as Lee Bul, Do Ho Suh and Lee Ufan, the artists in the fair are the cross-section of big names across the world, such as Gagosian’s group show including Albert Oehlen, Richard Serra, Ed Ruscha and Takashi Murakami.
Mariane Ibrahim, from Chicago, is presenting younger artists such as Amoako Boafo, Yukimasa Ida and Peter Uka. And Stephen Friedman in London has a female-only presentation, with artists such as Mamma Andersson, Leilah Babirye and Hulda Guzman.
Museums and galleries across town are also hosting major shows and parties to welcome the influx of visitors. In a choice that reflects long-standing ties between South Korea and California, Emmanuel Perrotin's gallery is showing the San Francisco artist Barry McGee. Even local galleries skew more established: Haam’s gallery show is by Swiss mega-artist Urs Fischer.
Frieze Seoul is also being held in partnership with Kiaf, the Korean International Art Fair, which was established in 2002 — one ticket gains entry to both fairs, which have signed a five-year agreement together. Building on Frieze's ability to draw in a top tier of galleries and collectors internationally, Frieze Seoul is ultimately seeking to replicate its Frieze Week London on Korean soil.
“The wind is certainly blowing in this direction,” says Haam. “Artists are wanting to show and the appetite is there. The whole artwork will be there — journalists will be there, collectors will be there, institutions will be there. We’ll have access to a much bigger audience than we ever had before. Things that never happened here are now happening.”
Frieze Seoul runs from Friday to next Monday at Coex in the Gangnam district of the city, alongside Kiaf Seoul, operated by the Galleries Association of Korea