INTERVIEW: Youngjoo Lee, Curator of Arko Art Center, Arts Council Korea talks to ArtworldNow

By Tiffany Chae

Youngjoo Lee gives us the backstory on curating Byungboc LEE: Act III, Chapter 3, the exhibition of scenographer-turned-artist Byungboc Lee and also draws parallelisms between public and private art institutions in South Korea.

Byungboc Lee's atelier (detail)

Can you please introduce Arko Art Center, Arts Council Korea to our readers?
Arko Art Center first opened its doors in Daehang-no, Seoul in 1979. The building, designed by Soogeun Kim, one of Korea’s most important architects is constructed using Kim’s trademark red bricks and together with Arko Art Theater nearby, stands as a cultural icon of Daehang-no, Seoul’s theatre mecca. The art centre has a comparatively long history amongst Korean art institutions but its character has changed from time to time under the different directorships. Since last year, the museum has begun intensifying its strategy to focus on exploring “convergence art”.

Can you elaborate on the notion of “convergence art” and explain your approach to curating the new exhibition using this concept?
Convergence art is still in the process of being established but since the visual arts are not independent from other art genres, it is basically an expanded view of the visual arts. Byungbok LEE: Act III, Chapter 3 is an example of how we approach the notion of convergence art; we wanted to pick certain aspects of stage art in Lee’s plays and examine how we can see them as works within the visual arts.

Is the convergence art concept linked to the Arts Council or is it a trend in the Korean art scene?
It is both. Arko Art Center is located in Daehang-no, Seoul’s theatre mecca so in this regards, I think the museum’s strategy is persuasive. We have also run Architect School, the children’s architectural practice inititaive in collaboration with Junglim Architecture, Korea’s prestigious architect company for many years and this can be also seen as our focus on “convergence art”.

Please tell us about your choice of working in a public art institution.
Museums and galleries are clearly different in terms of staff. The role of curators is exaggerated in South Korea; many galleries tend to call their staff curators instead of gallerists. Many private art museums here are also very conservative and pay their staff less than their public counterparts. I was lucky to join Arko as it is very competitive to become a curator in a public art institution. I have had experience working in a commercial gallery and an alternative art space but since 2003, I settled down in a public art institution. I also find that I am not that confident selling artworks but very happy to curate exhibitions.

Do you have more freedom curating in a public art institution than in the private sector?
There are pros and cons. In South Korea, public art institutions are better funded so curators have better chances to make the exhibition as they like. I have more responsibilities curating exhibitions under my name but at the same time, I can also be very busy when administrative tasks come along. Curators working in private art institutions are responsible for less administration and the direction of the show’s curation is often influenced by the institution’s directors. Fewer funds in the private art institution also make it hard for the curator to be in complete control of curation.

Byungboc Lee talks abut the exhibition
Courtesy of Arko Art Center

The choice of the artist for Byungboc LEE: Act III, Chapter 3 is interesting because Lee has been recognised as a founder of the Jayu Theater. Can you introduce her to us and what was your reasoning behind this particular choice of artist?
The exhibition’s subtitle is 2013 Arko Korean Representative Artist Exhibition and its tenor is to rediscover important artists who although significantly contributed to the development of Korean art history, the public is not fully appreciative of their art historical value. It was our main strategy to examine artists outside the area of visual arts – we conducted extensive research on other genres such as design, film and drama and finally selected Lee.

Was it the first time Arko selected an artist from outside the art world?
We have presented exhibitions of cartoonist Wooyoung Ko and architect Soogeun Kim in the past, but since the initial show in 1997 of the Arko Korean Representative Artist Exhibition series, never such artist had been included. Thus, it can be seen as a new venture in Korea to bring works of a scenographer - combining both the art world and the theatre world in a contemporary art museum context.

On what grounds do you bring Byungboc Lee’s stage art of the theatre world into the visual arts and what properties of “convergence art” are revealed in this exhibition?
I see a commonality between stage art and fine art. It is ultimately about re-interpreting the artist’s vision but in a bit different way; stage artist presents the artist’s idea on the stage. We normally encounter a stage in a theatre. But the viewers need to accept the gallery 2 and its installation as another stage realised in the gallery space. A drama consists of its story, and this time Lee’s story becomes another drama for this exhibition. I think there is a convergence aspect in bringing the artist’s life and art into the gallery space and therefore gallery itself becomes a stage. 

An invitation from OISTAT (International Organisation of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Techinicans)

The artist’s scenographic success at the Jayu Theater is well known outside the theatre world. What are Lee’s achievements in the history of Korean theatre?
Lee’s significant achievement is winning the costume award in PQ (Prague Quadrennial) in 1991. PQ is like the scenographers’ Olympics, happening every 4 years in Prague. When she won the prize in 1991, it was only two decades after the establishment of modern drama in South Korea and her drama company had already performed in major international cities since the early 1980s. Lee’s style was renowned for the deconstruction of Western elements of the original play and reconstructing it with traditional Korean plots, stage sets and costumes. For instance, Jayu Theater’s Hamlet includes traditional Korean wedding scenes and an exorcism. The actors’ stage costumes were made of hemp fabric and Korean traditional paper. Lee became a PQ jury member in 1992; her activities helped to establish Korean scenographic history. Major South Korean universities began establishing space design and performance design courses after her success abroad. 

You used the term “total artist” for Byungboc Lee in your article. What does it mean?
When Lee returned from Paris, she opened Café Theatre in Seoul in 1969. It was not simply about importing the French concept because she ran the space as a total cultural salon. Café Theatre staged dramas, pansori (*traditional Korean narrative songs), and public readings. Lee even supported many emerging playwrights by offering opportunities to put their works up in the Café Theatre. Such activity was fashionable in the Korean art world during the 1990s but Lee already did it long before in the theatre world. Her avant-garde ways and omni-directical action is the reason we have to see her as a total artist. Moreover, I see her unique strength when she talks. Like an actress, she knows exactly how to entertain people - her facial expressions and gestures show how well she knows the dramatic point of the conversation.

Byungboc Lee, Birds Flying Beyond the Sunset, Esquisse, 1992

In this regard, the archive of her activities as a representative of Café Theatre and scenographer of Jayu Theater contrasts with her new paper installation works of 2013. Is this your intention to show her quality of the “total artist”?
I wanted to see her life, her art, and her thinking in a more expanded view. Lee continued working when she did not play Jayu Theater’s dramas, so there are works never seen in public, such as The Death Angel and Three Gods Mother (1997) and The 108 Buddha (2007-2013). This is why I see her life after the dissolution of the drama company is Act III of her life period.

Byungboc Lee, props for Birds Flying Beyond the Sunset on display

As it is the first time we see Byungboc Lee’s work at a contemporary art space, how should we understand the exhibition within the context of contemporary art?
I personally hoped to inject a more contemporaneous aspect into this exhibition but although I am pleased with the exhibition, my vision was not fully realised because the artist was rather firm in selecting artworks for the show. However, I still wanted to put her art within the boundaries of “contemporary art” and that is why I organised the collaboration with young contemporary artists for this exhibition.

(*The curator commissioned the sound artist Jimmy Sert to create a music score to complement The 108 Buddha (2007-2013) and media art collective moojin_bro to make a video work Strange Character (2013) for this exhibition.)

Please tell us about upcoming exhibitions at Arko Art Center.
There is a collaborative group exhibition opening in the summer, and Arko Archive_Media Project will follow in autumn along with an exhibition about architecture and the city. An exchange exhibition with Germany is planned this winter. Arko Representative Artist Exhibition will continue in 2014 with a new artist under the consistent concept of “convergence art”.

Lastly, what do you strive for as a curator?
It has been a decade since I began my career as a curator in 2003. Each time you finish curating an exhibition, you would encounter the newly visualised space in front of you. Planning an art exhibition is hard work and has difficult moments. And when you face the result, are you exhilarated? It is unlikely so. Instead, you find things you want to change, and as time goes by, your perspective grows and you get to see more things about the previous exhibition that you did not realise at that time. None of my exhibitions have satisfied me 100 percent yet. I want to keep curating until I reach the point to make an exhibition that satisfies me 100 percent.

Youngjoo Lee currently works as a curator at Arko Art Center, Arts Council Korea based in Seoul and also conducts museum research. Her research focuses primarily on the relationship between museums and audiences. Lee was formerly the Curator for the Art Center and the Nam June Paik Art Center TFT at the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation from 2003 to 2007. She also participated in the Multimedia Guide Development Project at the British Museum in 2009 and the international conference ‘Museum 2011’ in Taipei, Taiwan. She obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Curatorial Studies and went on to complete a Master in Visual Culture Studies in Korea. She also received a Master in Art Museum & Gallery Studies from the University of Leicester in the UK. 

* All photographs taken by T.Chae unless otherwise indicated.