During the 1960s, a group of young artists working in South Korea emerged from a dark time. The Korean War had taken place less than a decade earlier, and the resulting unrest paved the way for a military coup in 1961 that brought dictator Park Chung Hee to power. Two years later, Park became president. By 1972, the state was monitoring speech and the media with a sweeping policy aimed at keeping the dictatorship intact.
These artists were making a living in a young republic fraught with tension between North Korea and Japan, the country’s former colonizer.
Reckoning with widespread upheaval, the artists set out to challenge the conservative status quo. They gravitated to video, performance, and installation. Some of these works have gone long unseen because they have been lost, despite efforts to conserve them; others have only recently gained an audience in the West amid a new interest in Korean art and its edgier periods.
A new exhibition devoted to these avant-garde South Koreans, “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s,” just opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York following a run at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul. Its 80 works attest to the tumult the artists faced and the ways their practices mirrored it, and it will appear next at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
“Their lives were responding to this period of exceptional change,” said Kyung An, an associate curator at the Guggenheim who organized the show’s current iteration. “They were their art.”
ARTnews spoke to Kyung to learn more about the show.