Shifts in Time

The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989 is an exhibition that focuses on the vibrant and complex world of South Korean art since the late 1980s. During this period, South Korea underwent significant political and societal changes, transitioning from a military dictatorship to a legitimate democracy and opening itself to international engagement.

The exhibition showcases the work of 28 Korean artists, all born between 1960 and 1986, who explore various themes, including conformity, displacement, gender and sexuality, coexistence, and dissonance, offering viewers a deeper understanding of South Korea, its history, and its culture.

One such work, Do Ho SUH’s, “Seoul Home/Seoul Home/ Kanazawa Home/Beijing Home/Pohang Home/ Gwangju Home/Philadelphia Home,” is a significant piece characterised by its unique concept and materials. Created using pale green translucent silk organza, a fabric traditionally used to make hanbok, which are traditional Korean garments crafted with time-honoured sewing techniques. Suh’s idea behind this artwork is to convey the concept that a Korean house should embody the essence of Korean dress, connecting the themes of home and culture. The artwork evokes strong feelings of nostalgia and a longing to return home, emphasizing the idea that the past and its memories cannot be fully recaptured. Do Ho Suh created this “portable home” as a means of coping with his feelings of loss and nostalgia after leaving South Korea. It serves as a source of comfort and a reminder of home wherever he goes, highlighting the concept that home can be everywhere and nowhere, emphasizing its infinite portability and transportability.

Anish Kapoor

In the Portrait of the King Series, 2007-8, Donghyun SON portrays Michael Jackson (the “King of Pop”) using painting techniques historically reserved for rulers of the Joseon dynasty. Son expands the traditional role of portraiture to reverentially depict a contemporary pop icon in a way that reflects the zeitgeist of the late 20th century US, blending the past with an ever-changing present that is further complicated by Jackson’s divisive legacy.

In What you see is the unseen/Chandeliers for Five Cities, Kyungah HAM underscores the ongoing tension between North and South Korea by attempting direct communication across the DMZ. Through covert back channels, Ham’s contacts smuggled the plans for her impressive, oversized embroideries into North Korea to be hand-stitched by highly skilled artisans there. The precariously hung chandeliers both reflect the Korean Peninsula’s historic instability and represent the foreign powers responsible for its division, which Ham and her collaborators take great risks to attempt to overcome.

The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989, presenting and introducing new voices that have experienced this pivotal place and time in history firsthand is on view until February 11, 2024 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anish Kapoor

Words by Fabzirio Mifsud Soler


What you see is the unseen / Chandeliers for Five Cities (detail), 2015, by Kyungah Ham (b. 1966), collection of the artists, photo by Kim Hyunsoo

Disappearing Lights of Weolgok-dong I, 2006, AHN Sekwon (b. 1968), Digital C-print, collection of the artist

From the series Left face, 2006–present, Heinkuhn OH (b. 1963), archival pigment print, collection of the artist

Portrait of the King, 2007–8 (detail), Donghyun SON (b. 1980), Ink and colors on paper mounted over wood panel, collection of the artist

Seoul Home_Seoul Home_Kanazawa Home_Beijing Home_Pohang Home_Gwangju Home_Philadelphia Home, 2012–present, Do Ho SUH (b. 1962), Private Collection. View Two

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