Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art


747-18, Hannam-dong,

South Korea,

The new Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, up on Mount Namsan and overlooking the seedy Itaewon district, has been spearheading Seoul’s reputation as an arts destination. Funded by the family that controls the Samsung conglomerate, the vast Leeum museum campus consists of a fortress-like homage to terra-cotta designed by Mario Botta, a stainless-steel box by Jean Nouvel, and a slender, light-filled structure by Rem Koolhaas. The museum’s traditional offerings include masterworks in celadon, like a water dropper shaped like a peach, eerily beautiful in its functionality. Willows, cranes, and peonies hover ghostly over some of the designs, while several examples of 15th-century work nearly flirt with abstraction. The exhibit is quiet and the lighting low; the objects glow within the darkness—unmistakably, they are this nation’s treasures. On the modern side, the Leeum’s collection ranges from Rothko to Damien Hirst, but most interesting are Korean artworks such as Ik-Joong Kang’s I Have to Learn English, a bittersweet series of tiles painted with random comments picked up while riding the New York subway. Then there’s Lee Bul’s Cyborg W6, a futuristic female body missing many parts, ready for assembly or further disassembly—a brilliant nod to technology, femininity, and perhaps the dystopian manga comics that have made such a dent in the young Asian psyche.