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Frieze Seoul & Kiaf SEOUL from the frontline: bright yet complex future ahead

Valentina Buzzi

Oct 05, 2023


Cardi Gallery (B07) at Frieze Seoul 2023
Courtesy of Lets Studio and Frieze
Photo: Lets Studio


Now that the dust has well and truly settled in Seoul, while looking forward to Frieze London next week, we take a moment to reflect on the second joint edition of Frieze Seoul & Kiaf SEOUL, with our minds cleared from the immediate post-fair fuzziness. Along with two previously-published articles by eazel on different perspectives from the public and art professionals respectively, this comprehensive report aims to offer a critical look at the two fairs, enriched by insiders’ voices from the frontline of the fairs, leaving a couple of open questions to take home for next year. In a dazzling display of artistic fervor, the two fairs collectively drew over 70,000 attendees at Frieze Seoul and 80,000 visitors at Kiaf SEOUL, reaffirming Seoul's potential as a major Asian art hub, while also spotlighting key issues that merit attention in the South Korean capital's unfolding art narrative.


The post-fair assessments revealed a positive outcome, with Frieze Seoul witnessing multiple art sales scaling into the six and even seven-figure realm. Leading international art superpowers such as Thaddaeus Ropac (multiple cities) celebrated the sale of a Georg Baselitz piece for a substantial $1.2 million, while Sprüth Magers (multiple cities) achieved a significant transaction with a work by Rosemarie Trockel for $1.3 million. Notably, Cardi Gallery (Milan and London) sold an important work of Italian master Mimmo Paladino for $350,000, following a growing interest in Italian postwar and contemporary art. Joe La Placa, senior director of Cardi Gallery, commented: “Last year was our first year in Korea, and I was frankly overwhelmed by the response. We strategically chose our presentation based on last year's sales, which worked out very well. Korean collectors are very sophisticated, they know the market very well, and they are a pleasure to work with”. 



Camilla Engström
Yxlan, 2023
Oil on canvas
182.8 x 304.8 cm (71.96 x 120 in.)
© Camilla Engström, courtesy of Carl Kostyál, London, Stockholm, and, Milan



Conversely, Kiaf SEOUL predominantly showcased sales within the range of $2,000 to $45,000, with Carl Kostyál's (London, Stockholm, and Milan) booth achieving a sold-out status of the group of American artists presented, including Scout Zabinski, Tony Toscani, and Jeremy Lawson, among others, with a price-range within $10,000 and $35,000. Higher sales were achieved by local powerhouse Kukje Gallery (Seoul), which dedicated an entire booth to blue-chip artist Ugo Rondinone, with sales between $50,000 and $188,000. Many positive sales for Korean artists, mostly represented by local galleries. Among them, SEOJUNG ART (Seoul and Busan) sold a series of works by Hong Soun, with sales between $12,000 and $25,000, whose work, interestingly, was also presented at Frieze Seoul by mega-gallery Lehmann Maupin (multiple cities), marking the first presentation of the artist and leading to wonder if there will be more to follow.  


Distinctions between the two fairs, already perceived in last year’s inaugural joint edition, remained apparent, marked by disparities in quality, quantity, and international participation. During the VIP days, Frieze Seoul observed a surge in both local and international visitors, some of whom expressed scant interest in exploring Kiaf SEOUL. The situation shifted during the public days when swarms of tourists and art enthusiasts descended upon both fairs, forming queues around the gallery booths, often to catch a glimpse of sought-after blue-chip artists. 


This phenomenon, akin to the previous year's George Condo spectacle at Hauser & Wirth (multiple cities), centered this year around a monumental Jeff Koons brought by Robilant+Voena (multiple cities), in Frieze Masters. Notably, the presence of celebrities during the VIP day sparked the curiosity of many, motivating their visit to the fair, a peculiarity of Seoul's unique pop culture and fandom scene. A major piece by Korean master Lee Bae from the Brushstroke (2019 -) series, presented by Busan-based Johyun Gallery, became the center of social-media-driven attention, after BTS leader RM posed in front of the painting alongside Frieze Masters’ director, Nathan Clements-Gillespie, and the gallery staff. The phenomenon epitomizes the curiously strong relationship between the idol industry and the art landscape in Korea, which appears to be exponentially intensifying each year.



Cylinder (F06) at Frieze Seoul 2023, Focus Asia
Courtesy of Cylinder, Seoul



In terms of curation and quality, Frieze Seoul presented a well-rounded selection that seamlessly integrated local, regional, and international participation. Frieze Masters featured some gems, such as a show-stopping Willem de Kooning presented by Skarstedt Gallery (New York, London, Paris), rumored to be the fair's highest-priced masterpiece, and two museum-worthy Giorgio de Chirico, presented by both Cardi Gallery (Milan, London) and Tornabuoni Art (multiple cities). Another captivating booth was presented by the New York-based Tina Kim Gallery, which received the Stand Prize, with a selection of Dansaekhwa masters alongside rising star Mire Lee, whose solo show Black Sun was recently on view at the New Museum. The Focus Asia section, which was inaugurated last year, this time included very interesting presentations spotlighting promising talents from the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions, such as Korean artist Sinae Yoo’s solo booth at Cylinder (Seoul), the other recipient of the booth prize, and Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas at Lawrie Shabibi (Dubai).


Despite the presence of renowned mid-size to major international galleries such as Duarte Sequeira (Braga and Seoul), Galleria Continua (multiple cities), Kornfeld Galerie (Berlin), and Carl Kostyál (London, Stockholm, and Milan), Kiaf SEOUL leaned more toward regional and local representation. It was evident that Kiaf SEOUL lagged in quality compared to its Frieze counterpart, an aspect very much discussed among insiders within the fair days, yet rarely mentioned by media. On the positive side, the fair continued the effort to highlight emerging galleries in Kiaf Plus, which this year saw 30 participating galleries and offered some beautifully curated booths, notably Swivel Gallery (New York) presenting three ceramic works of Brooklyn-based artist Krista Louise Smith in conversation with the light sculptures of Korean artist Kajin Kim, and IAH (Seoul), presenting a compelling dialogue between figurative and abstraction, through the works of Noah El Hachem, Cécile Lempert, and Ingee Chung. 


However, the disparity between Kiaf SEOUL and Frieze Seoul raised questions about the future of the local fair and the overall benefit for the Korea Galleries Association to collaborate with Frieze. This aspect left a bittersweet taste for many insiders of Seoul’s art scene, nostalgic for some wonderful editions of Kiaf SEOUL, such as the fair's last solo ride in 2021. As a takeover for further reflection, we wonder how Kiaf could reinvent itself to regain some of its old shine, while we remain hopeful for next year’s edition. 


Duarte Sequeira, founder of the homonymous gallery, voiced concerns, saying, "As more collectors seemed to have been drawn to Frieze over Kiaf, we saw less foreign collectors from Asia than we expected. However, the market for emerging artists remains relatively active, allowing us to connect with potential collectors for our upcoming exhibitions, which is meaningful for us as newcomers to the Asian art scene." Notably, Korean collectors, who appear to have shifted their focus from blue-chip and highly commercial works to more experimental ones, elicited positive feedback from industry insiders. Whitestone Gallery (multiple cities), which recently established a branch in Seoul's Yongsan-gu, confirmed this trend, stating, "The Korean art market is undergoing a rejuvenation and expansion. There's a growing appetite for exploration and an increased willingness among collectors to embrace new artists and artistic styles." 



Una sera, 2001
Oil on canvas
100 x 150 cm (39.37 x 59.05 in.)
Courtesy of Mazzoleni, London and Turin



From Frieze Seoul, Esther Schipper (Berlin, Paris, Seoul) Seoul outpost director, Sunil Kim, highlighted the growing faith in South Korea's educated art scene, emphasizing sustainability, "At Esther Schipper, we take a more sustainable approach to our participation. We have continued to receive wonderful support, and we are working on exciting projects in Korea, featuring dedicated programs and exhibitions of our gallery artists." Esther Schipper's booth at Frieze Seoul featured a witty performance piece by Pierre Huyghe called Role Announcer (2016), where performers announced each visitor's full name loudly, soliciting surprise, shyness, and many laughs from the participating public. 


In terms of sales, numerous galleries, including Various Small Fires (Los Angeles, Dallas, Seoul), Skarstedt Gallery, and Mazzoleni Art (London and Turin), reported robust sales despite prevailing financial uncertainties. Esther Kim Vareth, owner of Various Small Fires, expressed her satisfaction, "We were very happy to participate in the second edition of Frieze Seoul. As an American gallery with a presence in Seoul, the fair offers a vital opportunity to nurture relationships with collectors, curators, and artists in Asia and globally. We experienced brisk sales, nearly selling out our booth on the first day, placing works by artists like Wendy Park, Kyungmi Shin, Mark Yang, Dew Kim, and Alex Foxton in prominent collections across Asia and North America." Jose Graci, director of Mazzoleni Art, echoed these sentiments, highlighting growth in both participation and commercial success: “From the point of view of the participation, we believe that this year’s edition has seen good growth compared to last year, and from the commercial point, we have begun to capitalize on our last year’s investment. Korean collectors have a strong attention to detail and appreciated our carefully curated booth with works of Nunzio, Salvo, and Agostino Bonalumi, among others”. 



Korean Dansaekhwa master Park Seo Bo with White Cube founder Jay Jopling
Courtesy of Lets Studio and Frieze
Photo: Lets Studio



On a wider scale, it is worth noting the city's diverse array of events and activities during the Art Week, both in conjunction with the fairs and as independent initiatives. Museums, galleries, collectors, fashion and luxury brands collaborated to curate exhibitions, cocktail receptions, independent fairs, disco nights, and activation events throughout the city. This strategic organization, supported by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, exemplified South Korea's ability to combine private and public initiatives to bolster tourism and business, animated by the same spirit that confirms Korea at the forefront of global cultural exportation. Overall, the Korean art market continues to impress with its global appeal, attracting major international galleries like White Cube (multiple cities) to open their branches in Seoul, while rumors of Gagosian's imminent arrival follow the appointment of Jiyoung Lee as their Seoul-based Head of Operations.


Furthermore, major auction house Sotheby’s just opened its Seoul branch in Hannam-dong. Despite the ongoing surge of international players, lingering questions persist concerning sustainability, especially when such mega-galleries contend the representation of many blue chip and major artists, Korean and non, with local powerhouses. Can South Korea, a relatively small yet wealthy nation, sustain this influx? To which we add: how will the symbiotic relationship between Kiaf SEOUL and Frieze Seoul evolve? And, to conclude, will the nature of this relationship further influence the balancing of the local market? 


Patrick Lee, director of Frieze Seoul, stated, "This week, we have witnessed tremendous support from the entire city, creating an electrifying atmosphere. Our partnership with Kiaf SEOUL amplifies our impact in the city, and our collaborative programming engaged 38 institutional figures, artists, and cultural luminaries, attracting 5000 visitors. We eagerly anticipate Frieze Seoul 2024!" – we hope that the future will align with the same excitement. 



Complementing the previous two entries of eazel's Different perspectives series, this article broadens the conversation surrounding the recent art fairs in Korea by gathering the voices of fair insiders at Frieze Seoul and Kiaf SEOUL 2023. It enriches the previously-launched discussions with members of the public and art professionals involved in non-commercial endeavors, adding the comments of major local and international galleries regarding their experience of the fairs and the future of Seoul's art scene. 


For a more comprehensive overview of the Different perspectives articles, read about how the public enjoys art fairs and how art professionals enjoy art fairs on eazel's Magazine section.