Days before the sophomore edition of the Frieze Seoul kicked off on Wednesday, September 6, the international art crowd had already descended into the South Korean capital for pre-fair visits to a seemingly endless list of art openings and parties, where they rubbed shoulders with K-pop and K-drama celebrities.
“I’m already exhausted,” was a line frequently heard on the eve of the VIP day of Frieze Seoul and the stalwart Korea International Art Fair (Kiaf). The next morning, that fatigue seems to have dissipated as art crowds were seen lining up for both fairs, which take place on separate floors at Coex in the city’s Gangnam district (both run from September 6 through 9).
Despite a global market correction experienced since the beginning of the year, dealers sounded pleased with the turnout and some reported solid sales. Others felt it was a bit slow, but the overall atmosphere was vibrant. “Maybe some people feel that Seoul could be the next Hong Kong, so they come, do their homework, and prepare for the next year,” one Asian art world insider told Artnet News.
The Evolution of Seoul
It is clear that part of the appeal of the fair is the city beyond it: patrons from the Bass in Miami and Aspen Art Museum were spotted visiting artist studios, institutions, private collections, as well as both of the fairs on Wednesday’s VIP day.
Oh Se-hoon, the mayor of Seoul, said the city has been upping its game to create a conducive environment for arts and culture. “Frieze and Kiaf art fairs are not government-initiated art events,” Oh told Artnet News at Frieze Seoul via an interpreter. “What we do as a city government is to create the environment so that citizens and visitors coming to the fairs can move around conveniently.”
The city listened to feedback from last year, including complaints about difficulty visitors had getting around the city. Oh noted that city officials have tried to offer more taxis (Uber also works this year). Google Maps shows more information, and drivers seem more comfortable with communicating with non-Korean speakers via translation apps. But some newcomers still find the city hard to navigate.
In the spacious aisles of Frieze Seoul, booths were filled with visitors from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Europe, and the U.S. “It definitely feels bigger and more international this year,” art advisor and collector Lawrence Van Hagen told Artnet News ahead of the fairs’ opening. But whether Seoul can be Hong Kong’s equal in Asia will depend on whether the market can be geared towards the wider region. “It needs to open up to the entire Asia,” he noted.
The positive feedback from the debut of Frieze Seoul in 2022 encouraged new galleries to sign up for this year’s show, which grew from 110 exhibitors to 121 this year. Jessica Silverman from San Francisco, was among the newcomers. The gallery brought a curated solo booth of American ceramicist and painter Woody De Othello, who was presenting work in Asia for the first time; the artist was seen surrounded by enthusiastic Asian and western visitors on the opening day.
Hours after the opening, the gallery sold four sculptures, each priced between $75,000 and $92,000, as well as a 2023 canvas work titled for $65,000. Buying clients, the gallery said, included those based in South Korea and Taiwan.
“We always wanted to do a fair in Asia,” said founder and owner Jessica Silverman. “Originally we planned to do Art Basel Hong Kong, but the pandemic hit. And so, we try Frieze Seoul.” The gallery cited an interest in South Korea’s museum and institutional landscape as a motive. Silverman noted how engaged the audience is. “They ask intelligent questions,” she said.
Capsule Shanghai is also taking part for the first time, in the fair’s Focus on Asia section. “We want to open new doors for my artists. The institutions are also very engaging,” said Capsule Shanghai’s gallery’s director Enrico Polato. The gallery presented a solo booth of luminous canvases by Mevlana Lipp, a 1989-born German artist; by afternoon, it has already sold nearly half the booth priced between $8,000 and $23,000 to Asian collectors.
Locals were among the first-timers as well: Seoul-based Cylinder, a young gallery that opened two years ago, is presenting Korean artist Sinae Yoo’s paintings and sculptures, priced between $10,000 and $83,000. The gallery pre-sold two paintings.
Sales at the Top
Some dealers reported that sales were slower than last year’s fair, which is not surprising given that the Korean art market saw a substantial decline in the first half of 2023, showing itself to be more volatile than the global art market as a whole. But, on the whole, it did not seem to have too many adverse effects on the opening day.
Thaddaeus Ropac, which just announced its representation of Korean artist Heemin Chung on Wednesday, September 6, sold works by the artist to a Korean institution. The gallery also sold a work by Lee Bul ($190,000) to a Japanese collector, a work by Sylvie Fleury (€60.000) to an American collector, as well as a canvas work by Daniel Richter (€375,000) to a Chinese collector.
“It’s really gathering momentum and we’ve definitely seen more collectors traveling from across Asia to the fair this year, as well as there’s being development in Korean attendance. It’s been very fast paced today, we’ve certainly made more sales just a few hours into the fair this year than we did last year. It’s really a testament to the amazing art scene in Korea,” the gallerist said in a statement.
Despite clashing with the Armory Show in New York this week, dealer Tina Kim, a member of the fair’s selection committee of Frieze Seoul, did not think that there was any direct competition. For one thing: the fair consists of about 30 percent Asian galleries participating, and Frieze Seoul and the Armory have different audiences, she said (perhaps Frieze already knew this when it acquired the Armory Show earlier this summer).
“This means for western visitors, it is an opportunity to see galleries they would not otherwise have a chance to,” Kim commented. She noted that galleries are getting to know the regional market a bit better, and what works and what doesn’t. “There are strong works selected for the Asian market,” she noted of the offering at the fair. “They are inviting their artists to engage with the program and meet the audience,” she added.
Despite fears of fallout effects of the downturn, dealers dared to bring pricy works , many of which seemed to be concentrated in the Frieze Masters section. Skarstedt presented a 1985 Willem de Kooning work on canvas priced in the region of $10 million; Gray Gallery opted for works by Alex Katz, Joan Mitchell, and Andy Warhol, priced between $1 million and $5 million. A $3.5 million Jeff Koons sculpture, (2013) is on view alongside a $2.2 million Renoir painting at Robilant + Voena.
By the end of opening day, Pace sold a 1954 Alexander Calder sculpture, which reportedly had an asking price of $2 million, as well as a 2023 painting by Yoshitomo Nara, whose ceramics and drawings are featured in a solo show at the gallery’s Seoul space. The gallery also sold works by Lee Kun-Yong, Joel Shapiro, and Robert Nava, ranged between $150,000 and $250,000. Stephen Friedman sold paintings by Yooyun Yang ($15,000) and Sarah Ball (£85,000).
Paris-based Jocelyn Wolff and Berlin-based Meyer Riegger collaborated on a shared booth, with a solo presentation of Miriam Cahn standing in the middle of an expansive booth featuring other artists. Thomas Riegger told Artnet News that the two galleries hoped to join forces to promote Cahn’s art given that museum clients in Asia have shown strong interests in the Swiss artist’s work. Works on show included paintings and drawings priced between $10,000 and $200,000, and the galleries sold around five works to private collections in South Korea on VIP day.
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