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Contemporary Korean Photography at Museum of Fine Art, Houston

Tour Bus by Sungsoo KOO, 2005

Tour Bus by Sungsoo KOO, 2005

Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
October 3, 2009 – January 3, 2010

This October, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), presents Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography, the most comprehensive exhibition of contemporary Korean photography to ever be shown in the United States. Organized by Anne Wilkes Tucker, The Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the MFAH, and Karen Sinsheimer, Curator of Photography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Chaotic Harmony features large scale photographs by 40 Korean artists, many of who have never before exhibited in international museum exhibitions and whose work will be on view in the United States for the first time in this show. At the MFAH, the works will be on display in the Audrey Jones Beck Building’s Cameron Foundation Gallery, as well as the Lower Beck Corridor, from October 18, 2009 through January 3, 2010, presenting a fascinating window onto the vital and constantly evolving country, Korea.

“As South Korea has exploded onto the international trade scene, South Korean artists have also emerged onto the global stage, which the recent high auction prices for Korean artwork attest to. Despite this fact, Korean art is still rarely presented in the United States, and the specific field of Korean photography is even less explored here,” said MFAH director Peter C. Marzio. “Following the MFAH’s tradition of presenting pioneering photography exhibitions, we are pleased to exhibit this brilliant survey of contemporary South Korean photography, which can be seen in the enhanced context of Your Bright Future and the museum’s Arts of Korea gallery.”

“Operating under a relatively new democracy in South Korea, artists experienced a burst of creative energy and freedom of expression in recent decades, and an entirely fresh perspective of modern-day Korea is presented in this show,” added curator Anne W. Tucker. “The photographers in Chaotic Harmony observe the country’s notable growth in terms of industry and urbanization and convey the resultant issues as well as reflect on the country’s ancient culture and religions.”

Within the exhibition, two distinct generations of Korean artists are represented: those born in the mid-1950s and1960s, during a succession of military dictatorships when the country was still largely agrarian, and those born in the 1970s, predominantly in urban areas and who came into maturity in the new democratic era which began in 1987. With two exceptions, one work by each artist is included. Through recent works by both generations of photographers, Chaotic Harmony explores Korea through five thematic sections: land and sea; urbanization and globalization; family, friends, and memory; identity: cultural and personal; and anxiety.

Land and Sea

Most of the work represented in the “Land and Sea” section of the exhibition was created by the first generation of Korean artists who traveled abroad for their graduate educations and brought their new ideas back to dramatically effect photographic styles in Korea. Nevertheless, many of them remained tied to Korean landscapes and traditions while embracing new aesthetic ideas. The extraordinarily beautiful land and seascapes in this section celebrate Korea’s surrounding oceans and the forests that cover large sections of its mountainous terrain. In addition, these photographers often explore religious practices that are primarily tied to nature. BAE Bien-u’s Kyung ju (1985) from the series Sonamu (which translates to “sacred pine grove”), documents mist-shrouded pine trees surrounding Gyeongiu, the ancient city of the Shilla kingdom (A.D. 668–935). KIM Young-sung’s untitled photograph (2005) from the Dolman series, shows a man standing atop one of Korea’s 50,000 dolmans (or ancient tombs). Over 60 percent of the world’s 80,000 dolmans are located in Korea. Gap-Chul Lee has documented shamanism (as well as Buddhism) in Korea for decades, but most specifically in his series Conflict and Reaction (1990–2001).

Urbanization and Globalization

An ancient civilization, South Korea has recently transformed into one of the world’s major global economies. Three-fourths of the population is categorized as urban, with half living in the country’s six major cities. Seoul is the world’s fourth largest metropolitan area. This section of the exhibition responds to the shift of the population from rural to city living, and the entrance of Korea on to the world stage. Young-Joon CHO’s Usual & Circle—Seoul Namdaemun, Rho Gwang-hyo (2005) is a diptych: the image on the left presents an urban area teeming with stores, advertisements, people, and traffic, while the image on the right isolates a woman who we would not have otherwise noticed in the larger view of the city. Her expression of emotional distress is consistent with all the isolated figures in the series. Ahn Sekwon documented Seoul’s rapid physical changes by photographing one particular neighborhood of the Weolgok-dong section of Seoul in 2005, 2006, and 2007 as the old homes are destroyed to make room for new high rises. The resulting triptych dramatically conveys the destruction of the modest-scale homes to make way for the towering scale of a modern city.

Family, Friends, and Memory

“Family, Friends, and Memory” reflects the tensions in shifting societal values and practices as Korea continues its rapid growth. Traditionally, families followed Confucian norms: the father was the respected head of household and made decisions for his wife and children, financially supporting the family and arranging schooling and marriages. Social values have changed with increasing awareness of Western cultures through travel and the importation of Western products and media. Also with dramatic urban growth, came shifts from homes to crowded high rises, the entrance of women into the workforce, and other changes. Sunmin LEE’s photograph, Lee, Sunja’s House #1—Ancestral Rites (2004), portrays traditional values playing out in a modern setting: the men and boys of a family conduct traditional rituals in one room while the women watch from the doorway. Sanggil KIM’s off-line_Burberry internet community (2005) depicts a modern phenomenon: people who met over the internet, united by a common passion, in this case, that of wearing Burberry Check (registered as a trademark of the Burberry brand) and enjoying an “off-line” get-together.

Identity: Cultural and Personal

Between 1910 to 1945, Japan annexed Korea and systematically attempted to eradicate Korean culture and identity, for example, by banning Korean literature and language from schools. Only six years after World War II, Korea was devastated by the Korean War. This section of Chaotic Harmony investigates what it means to be Korean today after this disruptive history. Some artists, such as Bohnchang KOO, seek to reclaim past cultural history, by photographing treasured and uniquely Korean items such as Celadon—the main type of ceramic produced in ancient Korea and generally exalted as Korea’s most significant artistic legacy. Jungjin Lee in term photographs native crafts from Korean folk culture. Exploring more personal aspects of identity is Yeondoo JUNG’s Bewitched #2, a diptych juxtaposing images of the same teenager, mopping the floor of a Baskin Robbins in her day job and exploring the Artic regions in her dream job; and Hyo Jin IN’s Violet # 01 from the High School Lovers series (2007), which portrays an openly lesbian couple.


The “Anxiety” section of Chaotic Harmony investigates the constant tension provoked by strained relations and the potential of a violent outbreak between North and South Korea. Jung LEE’s Bordering North Korea, #2 (2005), from her 2005-2008 series of the same title, offers a view of North Korea seen from China and them superimposes over it an accompanying text chosen from the set phrases that North Koreans are allowed to say to the few foreigners who gain access to the country, such as “Our country is the paradise of the people,”. She wants the viewer to experience both the beauty of the land and the palpable repression evident in the political slogans. Seung Woo Back references the subliminal fear of an attack from North Korea by staging “invasions” of toy soldiers that march across a family’s yard and up their wall to the kitchen window ledge, presumably unbeknownst to the person whose silhouette is visible though the window.


An illustrated catalogue of the same title accompanies Chaotic Harmony, co-published by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, The catalogue presents one of the first overviews of the artists, subjects, and themes in contemporary Korean photography, with scholarly essays by Tucker and Sinsheimer; a chronology of post-World War II developments by noted photographer and curator Bohnchang Koo; an exhibition checklist; and brief biographies of the artists, compiled by MFAH photography curatorial assistant Natalie Zelt. The catalogue is available in the MFAH retail shop, 713-639-7360.

Organizer and Sponsorship

Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography is co-organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Photography at the MFAH

The photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), was founded in 1976 with a donation from Target Stores and with the appointment of Anne Wilkes Tucker as Curator of Photography. Since 1976, the museum has acquired more than 23,000 photographs made on all seven continents, including over 4,000 photographs of the Manfred Heiting Collection (acquired in 2002 and 2004) that span the history of photography. The greatest strengths of the photography collection are twentieth-century American works, images made in Europe between the world wars, and contemporary Latin American and Japanese photography. Interpreting photography broadly, artist books, stereoscopic slides, photo collages, and a wide range of photographic artifacts are also included in the collection. For her work at the MFAH, Tucker has received numerous awards and international recognition, including “Best Curator” title in an issue of TIME magazine devoted to “America’s Best” (September 17, 2001 issue), and distinction as one of “The 100 Most Important People in Photography” by American Photo Magazine (2005, Number 30).

MFAH Collections

Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is the largest art museum in America south of Chicago, west of Washington, D.C., and east of Los Angeles. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers more than 57,000 works and embraces the art of antiquity to the present. Featured are the finest artistic examples of the major civilizations of Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Italian Renaissance paintings, French Impressionist works, photographs, American and European decorative arts, African and Pre-Columbian gold, American art, and European and American paintings and sculpture from post-1945 are particularly strong holdings. Recent additions to the collections include Rembrandt van Rijn’s Portrait of a Young Woman (1633), the Heiting Collection of Photography, a major suite of Gerhard Richter paintings, an array of important works by Jasper Johns, a rare, second-century Hellenistic bronze Head of Poseidon/Antigonos Doson, major canvases by 19th-century painters Gustave Courbet and J.M.W. Turner, distinguished work by the leading 20th- and 21st-century Latin American artists, and The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art.

MFAH Hours and Admission

Hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.–7 p.m.; and Sunday, 12:15–7 p.m. The museum is closed on Monday, except for holidays. Admission to this exhibition is included with general admission to the museum. General admission is $7 for adults and $3.50 for children 6-18, students, and senior adults (65+); admission is free for children 5 and under. Admission is free on Thursday, courtesy of Shell Oil Company Foundation. Admission is free on Saturday and Sunday for children 18 and under with a Houston Public Library Power Card or any other library card.

Tour Bus by Sungsoo KOO, 2005

Tour Bus by Sungsoo KOO, 2005

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