In recent years, the South Korean capital has transformed into a global art hub, home to powerful collecting families, world-class museums and a thriving international gallery scene. It’s no wonder Frieze chose the city to host its first Asian art fair, launching later this week (September 2-5).
Despite its growing cultural cachet, Seoul has so far remained off the fairground route. So we enlisted three local art world insiders – publicist and author Fiona Bae, gallery vice president Kukje Bo-young Song and interior designer Teo Yang – to help us craft an essential guide to the city now.
See + Do: Some of Seoul’s top contemporary art institutions are equally notable for their architecture. Songeun Art Space opened last year in the fashionable district of Cheongdam-dong, showcasing works by emerging Korean artists in a triangular concrete and wood building designed by Herzog & de Meuron – the Swiss architects’ first project in Korea .
Across the Hangang River, in Dongdaemun Commercial District, you will find Dongdaemun Design Square, a futuristic cultural hub designed by Zaha Hadid. The massive, spaceship-like structure houses everything from exhibition spaces to the design museum, art and fashion shows, musical performances, and more.
Another highlight in the north of the city, on a hill in the cosmopolitan district of Hannam-dong, is Samsung’s Leeum Art Museum. The foundation enlisted architects Mario Botta, Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel to design three unique buildings for its impressive collection of historic Korean artwork as well as international modern and contemporary artwork.
Meanwhile, Hyundai Card has just unveiled a space nearby, where its credit cardholders and their guests can simultaneously experience art and music. The Hyundai Map Art Library opened earlier this month in the company’s Vinyl & Plastic music store, with a collection of more than 6,000 art books, including rare editions – “a meticulously curated selection”, according to Song.
Across the street is Rhythm, recently expanded with a 1,500 square foot exhibition space on the ground floor, as well as an outdoor courtyard (a tea room is coming soon). It arrived five years ago amid an influx of international galleries such as Lehmann Maupinwhich has just moved to a new, larger space nearby, and Perrotin, which now also has two locations in the city, having unveiled the last one in August in the luxurious Dosan Park.
Perrotin’s original gallery is located in the old and new district of Samcheong-dong. Its namesake artery is the heart of the Jongno-gu district, where the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art rubs shoulders with a number of renowned Korean galleries.
Among them, Kukje presents works by contemporary artists near (see Lee Seung-Jio’s geometric abstract paintings exhibited from September 1 to October 30, 2022) and far (Roni Horn, Anish Kapoor). And Hakgojae connects art from the past and present, as well as from the East and the West, in a space partly modeled on the hanok (traditional Korean houses).
Indeed, Seoul’s art scene encompasses much more than contemporary art. Also in Jongno-gu, near the 14th-century Gyeongbokgung Palace and historic Jogyesa Temple, a former girls’ high school recently reopened as the country’s first museum dedicated to Korean crafts: Seoul Handicraft Museum. Yang loves the museum for its vast archive of traditional and modern techniques.
The designer also recommended booking only Korea Furniture Museum in Seongbuk-dong, a residential area in the north of the city. With 10 hanok Showcasing more than 2,500 pieces of wooden furniture dating back to the late Joseon Dynasty, it is, according to Yang, “a must-visit if you want to experience the traditional side of Korea.”
Song would agree: “For the scale and quality of the collection, this gem has remained one of the least visited museums in Seoul,” she said. “It provides a beautiful scenery where you will really feel in Korea.”
Finally, don’t miss the National Museum of Korea. As the country’s largest museum, displaying over 12,000 works of art and artifacts in the central Yongsan district, it’s no secret, though Bae and Song both recommended stopping by its quiet contemplation room. Here you’ll find two shimmering bodhisattva statues in a dimly lit space designed by Korean architect Choi Wook of local firm One O One.
“While this presents a stark departure from the blockbuster works by top-notch artists you’ll encounter in Frieze, it certainly offers a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city,” Song said. Bae added, “It’s sublime.”
Eat + Drink: If you want an artistic dining experience, the Restaurant at Kukje Gallery serves seasonal Italian and French-Japanese dishes in a space designed by Teo Yang Studio, while displaying works from the gallery’s roster of artists (including a Haegue Yang installation suspended from the ceiling). But to appreciate the local cuisine, you’ll need to venture beyond Seoul’s art spaces.
For a comforting introduction to Korean cuisine, Yang recommended Seoul Park, which serves dishes inspired by recipes passed down from generation to generation by owner Pak Mogua’s family. Note: it is close to the Leeum museum.
For a contemporary take on Korean fine dining, try the two Michelin stars Mosu, in Yongsan. Song called his menu “one of a kind” as he boldly experiments with local ingredients such as acorn noodles, large amberjack, Korean beef and kelp – “all concocted with a contemporary twist that alludes to western dishes such as abalone tacos and sprouts,” she said. “The icing on the cake is the wine selection, paired in the most unexpected way.”
In Korea, you have to try Korean Fried Chicken. Bae likes Chicken Hyōdo, a retro restaurant with locations in Gangnam, Gwanghwamun and Hannam from chefs Mingoo Kang (of Seoul’s two Michelin-starred Mingles) and Shin Chang-ho (of Joo Ok’s two-Michelin-starred Mingles) that takes the dish well- like. “Don’t forget to order the spicy sea snails with noodles,” she advised. “They complement the chicken and are excellent. anju [food to have with alcohol].”
As a publicist who works with high-profile clients in the worlds of art and design, Bae, who is about to publish Make Break Remix: The Rise of K-Style with Thames & Hudson in September—also knows where to go for cocktails. Zest, an upscale bar in the upscale neighborhood of Cheongdam, is “the culmination of all things Korean,” she said. Ranked 48 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2022 list, Zest blends its own gin with local ingredients such as Jeju orange, using the fruit skins with the goal of zero waste.
She also suggested Seomgwang, a speakeasy that serves creative cocktails and small plates to a hip fashion and design crowd. It is located in Euljiro, an industrial district which has recently attracted young galleries such as N/A and Euljiro OF. “It has many cool bars to explore,” Bae said.
Stay: Song, Yang and Bae all suggested staying south of the river in Gangnam, the bustling area where most of the city’s top hotels are located. It’s a short drive to COEX, where Frieze will take place.
With its elegant suites featuring marble bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling windows, not to mention its locally inspired Eatanic Garden restaurant, the recently opened Josun Palace, a Luxury Collection hotelis where Song would book if she didn’t live in Seoul.
Yang, meanwhile, loves the scenic views from Signiel Seoul, which has 235 elegant rooms and two Michelin-starred restaurants occupying floors 76 to 101 of the 123-story Lotte World Tower, the capital’s tallest building.
For those seeking peace and quiet, Bae recommended privacy Owall Hotel. With marble-clad exteriors and minimalist interiors designed by the late Korean artist and architect Paik Sun Kim, comprising 32 hanokresembling rooms and an internal gallery, it offers a zen-like experience amidst all the buzz.
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive breaking news, revealing interviews and incisive reviews that move the conversation forward.