Managed under the Seokpa Culture Institute, the site of the present-day Seoul Museum was built in the closing period of the Joseon Dynasty as a villa to house Regent Heungseon Daewongun, also known as Seokpajeong Byeoldang. Because the exhibition space and the historic villa are so closely integrated, the viewer can enjoy both venues in one visit, which means one admission fee is good for both.
“Here’s Ju Tae-seok, your favorite artist dear.” An old couple stops in front of Ju’s painting of Seokpajeong to admire its summer greenery. With all the walls painted black, the space appears a little too dark, but the Seoul Museum is known among Seoul museums and galleries for using one of the best spotlights. As the curator explains that the lights are designed to show the true colors of the paintings, I let out something like a gasp of acknowledgement. It’s not the fancy lights that surprise me, but the fact that the curator himself is taking the time to walk me through all the works in the exhibition. “Visitors to the museum are normally on the older side,” explains the curator. “They like seeing these kinds of landscapes by modern Korean painters.”
Walking past Ju’s painting of Seokpajeong reduced by abstraction, vivid orchards open the next exhibition, depicting the rural sceneries of Paju, Lee Dae-won’s hometown. In the farthest right corner of the exhibition, the melody of “Orchard Road” plays. It’s a traditional Korean children’s song and you can hear it just faintly. The scenery is all about seasonal change until I head up to the top floor to see “All (is) Vanity,” a group exhibition on contemporary art sculptures, both kinetic and stagnant. Although there aren’t any lingering curators in place to personally guide you through the exhibit, there are multiple wall and floor texts next to each of the artworks, hinting at the curatorial direction without being too obvious. Looking at Sam Jinks’s figural sculptures that look like something between a human being and a wax figurine, my mind is at ease. It’s an eerie but familiar experience—art museums often give me brain cramps from trying to figure out what the exhibitions are all about.