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Koo Bohnchang’s Voyages

Koo Bohnchang

구본창의 항해 전시 포스터

Seoul Museum of Art proudly presents Koo Bohnchang’s Voyages (December 14, 2023–March 10, 2024), a retrospective by an influential artist who represents contemporary art as well as Korean contemporary photography, Koo Bohnchang (b. 1953).

Koo has played a crucial role in the foundation and development of contemporary Korean photography since the 1980s to the present. Koo stirred a sensation in the Korean photography and art world with his new concept and form of “making photo” in works presented in The New Wave of Photography (Walker Hill Art Center, Seoul, May 18–June 17), an exhibition he organized as a curator and showed as one of the artists.

The idea of photography taking off from its traditional role of recording or documenting, to becoming an art form charged with subjective expressions that reflect attributes of various mediums like painting, sculpture and print, penetrates Koo’s entire oeuvre, and opened new territories in Korean contemporary photography.

Koo’s retrospective begins with the section Cabinet, which consists of works and materials that have rarely been shown to the public up to now, such as some of the objects the artist has collected since his childhood as a sensitive and introverted boy until the present, as well as photographs of such objects.

자화상, 1968, 젤라틴 실버 프린트, 12×8.5cm

The section also displays photographs including his very first Self-Portrait (1968) taken when the artist was in middle school, and his studies and copies of master paintings from his university years. Organized according to the chronologically changing themes of the works, the exhibition with sections The Journey of Adventure, One World, and Temple of Spirit, displays over 500 works and 600 resource materials from 43 series chosen out of a total of over 50 series of the artist’s works, from My Early Europe (1979–1985) which the artist produced as an overseas student abroad in 1979, to the recent Incognito series (1996–ongoing).

초기 유럽-흑백 010, 1984, 젤라틴 실버 프린트, 19×29cm

In the Beginning (1991–2004) and Goodbye Paradise (1993) left a lasting impression in the audience in the 2001 exhibition Koo Bohnchang (Samsung Rodin Gallery, Seoul, May 4 –June 24), and Vessel series (2004–ongoing) introduced in his 2006 exhibition Bohnchang Koo (Kukje Gallery, Seoul, July 7–30) drew both local and global attention on Joseon White Porcelain.

무제 01, 1989, 아카이벌 피그먼트 프린트, 35×35cm

However, such major series are only the tip of the iceberg of Koo’s deep, extensive oeuvre. This exhibition brings to the audience Koo’s works in a wide variety of materials and forms, from snapshots of urban landscapes, to variations of Koo himself as the subject, abstract representations of nature, and works that delicately capture the layers of time of old objects. Of special note, the exhibition features some of Koo’s series Untitled (1989), which is rendered in solarization technique that demonstrates the artist’s unique surrealistic sense of aesthetics, and had only been partly shown once in a group exhibition in 1989.

콘크리트 광화문 01, 2010, 아카이벌 피그먼트 프린트, 100×75cm

The exhibition also presents the Concrete Gwanghwamun series (2010) for the first time, centering on Gwanghwamun as a site of turbulent history, from the Imjin War, to the Japanese Colonial period, the Korean War, and the era of military dictatorship. With presentation of related materials and text faithful to the works, in addition to the works themselves, Koo’s retrospective attempts to truly and fully reveal the artist’s life-time of hard work and efforts deeply-ingrained in each of his refined photographs, and expose the true gem-like qualities of his work with the universal narratives they express.

시간의 그림 01, 1998, 젤라틴 실버 프린트, 73×101.5㎝

The exhibition also introduces a detailed and systematic chronological timeline shedding light on the artist’s early years, the types of art works produced by the era, the relationships between domestic and overseas influences and their impact on each other, and Koo’s accounts of organizing and showing in exhibitions. The timeline provides a detailed look into the relationship between Koo and Korean contemporary photography, and how the two affected each other to develop and expand internationally. This all became possible thanks to the artist’s passionate habit of collecting, preserving and cherishing works and materials from exhibitions he has organized or shown for a long time.

Now, forty-five years since Koo stroke up the courage to embark on a long voyage in search of his own path, his works are in the collections of leading art institutions in Korea and across the world, and his exhibitions are being held continuously. This is the dazzling outcome of Koo’s arduous but pleasant journey of searching for his work in omnidirectional ways around the world, and for persevering for years to come across his desired subjects.

익명자 71, 2019, 아카이벌 피그먼트 프린트, 25×19cm

Koo has made immense contributions to the globalization of Korean photography through exhibitions in the country and abroad as both artist and curator representing Korea. He made full efforts to promote the works of his contemporaries as well as artists of generations that came before and after him without any sense of elitism, and has expanded photography as a genre of contemporary art through experimental works that were always ahead of his time. Therefore, through this profoundly significant retrospective, I hope that Koo’s Voyages take us on a meditative journey to reflect on the meaning of our very own existence and life.

Seoul Museum of Art
61, Deoksugung-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
Seoul Museum of Art, Seosomun Main Branch