Kim Chang-il's Arario Museum Opens in Seoul

The Arario Museum. All images courtesy of Arario Museum

Seoul's Arario Gallery is already known around the globe as one of Korea's most successful commercial galleries. Earlier this month, it has reached a new benchmark, transforming a former office building in Seoul into the Arario Museum in Space. The new museum will create an innovative arts space for introducing both Korean and International contemporary artists to the Korean art world and public. While offering a rotation of contemporary exhibitions, the museum will be backed by the permanent collection assembled over the course of 35-years by Arario Gallery's chairman, Kim Chang-il (aka CI Kim). The museum's inaugural exhibition, entitled Really?, kicked off the opening ceremonies on September 1st, with an eclectic contemporary display of over 200 pieces from the permanent collection including artists such as Barbara Kruger, Dongwook Lee, Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman and Kohei Nawa. The private museum will bring the masterful curatorial eye of Kim to Seoul, securing an important anchor for contemporary art in South Korea.

Kim Chang-il is not only a well-known gallerist, but is also one of Asia's biggest art collectors, ranking as a top art collector six times in ARTnews, as well as being an artist himself. Now, with the Arario Museum, he adds museum founder to the list.  The opening of his new museum has taken over the Changdeok Palace complex, an important cultural hub that was once the home of the Space Architectural Firm. Kim bought the historical building, which was designed by Space founder Kim Swoo-geun, when it failed to sell at auction. The building was already valued as an important architectural gem in Seoul, which inspired Kim to use it as a place to give back to the cultural community and share his passion for art. The ivy covered brick building is now the museum's main exhibition space, joined by a glassed-in five story restaurant complex, and a third smaller building that is now the ticket center and visitor lobby. The success of the commercial Arario Gallery has been on the up, with branches opening in Cheonan, Korea and Beijing, China, after their flagship in Seoul, but the museum complex will be for education and exhibition only.

The Museum at night.

Along with commercial dealing, Kim has consistently collected contemporary art, creating the well-rounded collection he is now sharing with the public realm.  The collection began with an interest in contemporary and modern Korean artists, but a visit to MOCA in Los Angeles in 1981 inspired the collector to expand his collection to include international artists. His current 3,700 piece collection includes work from Korean contemporaries as well as YBAs, members of the Leipzig school, young artists from China, India and Southeast Asia, as well as respected big-name artists from the West.

Installation of Kim Chang-il's work in the Arario Museum.

The museum's first exhibition, Really?, was curated by Kim himself, and acts as a highlights reel of the collection. The exhibition introduces the audience to the important collector's personal preferences and impeccable taste, without honing in on art of a specific region, medium or genre.  Over 200 pieces by 43 artists are on display together.  Working with the original aesthetics of the building, which features nooks and crannies rather than large open spaces, Really? allots one space per artist, giving viewers the ability to view each work on its own.

Kohei Nawa, PixCell-Double Deer #7, 2013.

The exhibition itself takes viewers on a dazzling art adventure, touching on the works of recognizable and well-loved international artists. Japanese artist Kohei Nawa's PixCell-Double Deer #7 acts as the show's anchor piece, appearing on press and media as the exhibition's show image. The glittering piece portrays a dichotomy of natural and fabricated beauty. The sculptural work portrays a taxidermy deer, the slender elegance of its horns protruding ornately, but instead of fur, the animal is covered in over-the-top crystals of varying sizes. Bordering on gaudy, the piece registers first as glitz, before the viewer realizes there is an actual deer beneath the encrusted layer of faux-jewels.

Geraldine Javier, Weavers of Time, 2013.

Geraldine Javier's beautiful installation, Weavers of Time, translates the Greek mythological story of the three Fates into a layered, multi-media piece that combines painting and sculpture. Two large, multi-colored figures with animal heads sit on a stack of branches while weaving, as a third smaller one sits on one of their shoulders. The group is set before a large painting of the same branches they sit upon, with leaves strewn about on the floor. The figures, who are goddesses, fuse human forms, trees and animals, providing a modern allegorical scene that references the days when humans believed their fates lied in the hands of deities.


Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Endless War/You Will Live Forever), 2006.

Keith Haring, Untitled (Breakers), 1987.

Viewers may not recognize the piece by Barbara Kruger at first, called Untitled (Endless War/You Will Live Forever), due to its absence of her signature red and white text emblazoned across the picture plane. Instead, the text within the piece is more subtle, appearing on two wooden stirrers that are each propped in medical beakers carrying two conflicting messages: "Endless War" and "You Will Live Forever." The sculpture Untitled (Breakers) by Keith Haring perfectly captures the late artist's ability to suggest movement with simple lines and bold color, elegantly depicting either one or two figures, break-dancing.  How you see it is up to you.


Dongwook Lee, Good Boy, 2012.

Installation of Cindy Sherman Photographs.

The exhibition also includes two of Kim's own artists from the Arario Gallery stable, Dongwook Lee and Hyung Koo Kang. Lee is a young Korean artist, known for creating sculptures with human forms that look as if they possess the tactile softness of human flesh, Lee's Good Boy features a man with a noose around his neck, encircled by a fleet of puppies, which at any jerk are bound to strangle him. The piece echoes Lee's penchant for exploring the fragility of life. Kang, an established contemporary Korean artist,  makes impeccable hyper-realistic self-portraits, and portraits of recognizable cultural figures. His portrait of Andy Warhol features his signature take on the gaze -- by painting his subjects with intense eyes that seem to look through the viewer. Warhol in Astonishment surpasses his traditional photorealistic paintings by using a technique of scratching detail lines into the aluminum support with a drill, creating textured detail that adds an intense depth that paint alone cannot. Really? is rounded out with a collection of early black and white photographs by Cindy Sherman that is stacked in a grid.


Hyung Koo Kang, Warhol in Astonishment, 2010.

As a whole, the exhibition represents a who's who of contemporary art -- according to Kim Chang-il of course. The museum is expected to create a new contemporary art center in central Seoul, continuously introducing a wide variety of domestic and overseas art works that harbor historical, social, and cultural values.  Although the museum has not announced any future exhibitions, Kim has announced Arario plans to expand with several more museums on the southern island of Jeju, which are expected to open later this year.