Ancient trees cast a shadow over the quiet streets of Samcheong-dong on my recent visit. Here, the calls of street hawkers and the honks of car horns fade to a dull hum. The city’s throngs of tourists thin to a trickle. Tiny, unnamed alleyways snake off in all directions. And yet it was here in historic Seoul’s 14th-century Samcheong-dong district, home of the city’s 600-year-old Gyeongbokgung palace, that I found the nation’s finest contemporary galleries.
Chalk it up to a cycle that happens in countries around the world. The old city eventually becomes passé, and with it the weathered buildings that line its streets. Rents plummet and no one wants to live there…until starving artists begin to move in and transform the blasé into the hip.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Korea’s fine arts, including its delicate, pale-green celadon pottery, have been popular among art collectors since pre-historic times.
- No other district in Seoul offers a higher concentration of contemporary art galleries and shops.
- After viewing terrific contemporary art you can stroll Samcheong-dong’s lovely, tree-lined historic district.
- Good for art lovers with a willingness to get off the beaten path and explore.
So it was in the neighborhoods surrounding Gyeongbokgung. Translated as the “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven,” the fortress was built in the heart of 14th-century Seoul when it was just a village. Green-tiled rooflines swoop gently upward like wings. Their geometric rooftop designs of green, orange and royal blue peek above gray palace walls, once straight and tidy, now crooked thanks to the influence of old tree roots and clinging vines.
But just outside the palace’s eastern wall I found a different kind of artistic tradition flourishing. This area is now home to the city’s largest concentration of studios and galleries.
Melding Old and New
Gallery Hyundai displays delicate, contemporary celadon pottery with cup handles and teapot spouts jutting out at asymmetrical angles, pieces reminiscent of an 8,000-year-old Korean craft that was traditionally expressed only in tidy symmetrical shapes. Wall paintings splashed with Andy Warhol-style pop art reminded me of another Korean tradition, that of rice paper scrolls once adorned exclusively with wispy watercolors.
“It is impossible not to feel the presence of Gyeongbokgung Palace traditions,” Sunjong Kim, a professor at Seoul’s Korean National University of Arts, told me. She appreciates the influence of ancient Korea in modern galleries but finds the artworks of the here and now admirable in their own right.
Gallery Hak Go Jae also displays works with a modern twist on the old. In a recent exhibition, artist Suk Chul-joo displayed traditional Korean ink landscapes not on traditional paper scrolls, but on porcelain jars and canvas.
These sleek, often spare galleries bustle with young Koreans as well as curious tourists. “People who come to visit the palace notice these galleries and drop by,” says Sunjong Kim. “The area is full of historic buildings and old pathways. People see the contemporary and the historic at the same time.”
Hak Go Jae and Gallery Hyundai garner much of Korea’s critical acclaim, as do Kukje and Artsonje galleries. And their creative energy has spread into the neighborhood’s restaurant kitchens.
In fact, gallery-based dining has become a trend in Seoul. Kukje Gallery houses “The Restaurant” as well as a café and wine bar. Oversized windows encouraged me to people-watch over my green tea latte and sweet potato mousse. And Dugahun 640, inside Gallery Hyundai, features European wines and a menu that melds Asian and Western flavors in dishes such as Korean-style barbecue beef —plated, not grilled tableside in the traditional way—with a side of mashed potatoes.
Strolling Old Pathways
I left the trendy Samcheong-dong neighborhood to enter Insadong, a street known for Korean arts since the 14th-century palace was built. Elegant galleries gave way eventually to artistic knock-offs and art collectors yielded to fierce bargain-hunters. Sunjong Kim’s advice? Make like a local and get off Main Street.
“Many of the best galleries aren’t visible from the major thoroughfares,” says Kim. “There are hidden places in pathways which we call golmok-gil. This is where art lovers must go.”
These hidden spaces often bore names impossibly difficult for me to remember: Bukchonhanok-gil, Ujonggungno, Namdaemunno. It’s a vocabulary likely to get a non-Korean lost in centuries-old cul-de-sacs, surrounded by tiny houses and shops, on lanes wide enough only for a bicycle.
But Seoul is a city where getting lost will get you far. In fact, it was in a narrow alleyway off Sagan-dong Street that I stumbled upon Yu Ctil Sam and his gallery called Cium. A ceramist for nearly 30 years, Sam shapes his pieces with the sleek lines and occasional asymmetry that draw the attention of contemporary art-lovers like me. But he continues to use traditional pale green celadon made from a secret, rural stash of clay.
The pieces most commonly on display? Delicate bowls and cups perfect for traditional Korean kimchi and tea.
South Korea’s official tourism website is a great resource for travel information to Seoul. Favorite galleries in Samcheong-dong include Gallery Hyundai, Gallery Hak Go Jae, Artsonje and Kukje Gallery. Check out the menus at gallery-based restaurants The Restaurant in Kukje Gallery and Dugahun 640 inside Gallery Hyundai.