Posted:Dec 27, 2023

Multiple Alternatives: Mapping Contemporary Art Scenes in Asiaー Interview with Jiwon Yu

The first article in a series of interviews with Tomoya Iwata, director of The 5th Floor. Featuring Jiwon Yu, a curator at Leeum Museum and a member of the Yellow Pen Club, this article sheds light on the alternative art scene of Seoul.

Jiwon Yu

The alternative practice seeks to create an ecosystem different from museums and institutions. Although they can be defined as such, what they do varies based on the environment and the functioning of the institutional system that the alternative counters. Tomoya Iwata, director of the alternative space The 5th Floor, is hosting a series of interviews with emerging curators working in alternative art scenes in various parts of Asia, aiming to shed light on practices within local contexts and explore new cutting-edge landscapes.

The first interview features Jiwon Yu, a curator at Leeum Museum and a member of the Yellow Pen Club, an art writers’ collective that runs its own space in Seoul, South Korea. In dialogue with a curator who crosses the boundary between institutions and alternatives, this interview explores the current situation of the alternative art scene in Seoul while tracing its history since the 2000s.

Yellow Pen Club and YPC SPACE: organizing collective learning programs and exhibitions

——Let’s start with the Yellow Pen Club (YPC). Can you tell me how and by whom it was established?

Jiwon: Junghyun Kwon, Areum Lee, and I are members of Yellow Pen Club (YPC). We met in 2015 while studying in the master’s program at Seoul National University. We were interested in the Seoul art scene and started by going out to see the shows. We also had a weekly gathering to share our writings, which we decided to publish after a year.

In the mid-2010s, many independent spaces or collectives in Seoul only had a small space and social media presence but were well interconnected. We started uploading our texts online, and people started responding to our ideas. Since then, we have often been invited to do programs and collaborative projects such as writing seminars and lectures. However, we realized we wanted to have our own space for such activities and opened YPC SPACE in 2022.

Yellow Pen Club (Junghyun Kwon, Jiwon Yu, Areum Lee)

——Have any of you studied or trained to become a curator?

Jiwon: No, we haven’t. I studied contemporary French aesthetics in graduate school, and my master’s thesis was on the Derridean notion of performativity. I was more of a writer than a curator then - I was interested in writing “around” art and experimenting with my text. Junghyun and Areum belonged to a different subdivision, which was more focused on art and society. We all had specific interests in our academic research, and they were all very different.

——I noticed that YPC works with younger artists under 30 or even in their early 20s. What are the criteria for selecting artists, and how do you rotate the role of curation?

Jiwon: To provide some background, YPC is not a curatorial collective but started as a group of writers - we are all curators now but did not identify as such when we started. We wanted our space powered by programs, lectures, seminars, and workshops. That is the core of what we do as a group; we grow from learning with and from each other. We wanted to put collective learning as the engine of whatever we do.

——How do you organize programs at YPC SPACE?

Jiwon: The entire space is divided into two: one for workshops and the other for exhibitions. Ideally, we would have programs where we read and learn, invite guests to share new ideas, and be inspired. We would lead the seminars but not necessarily “teach.”

——Has any program been integrated or developed into the exhibition?

Jiwon: A few shows came out of seminars, and three exhibitions were developed from the programs through the years, including Journal du dehors (2022).

We work more with younger artists because we also belong to the younger generation. We relate to them because we see the world similarly and want to grow with those artists. The other reason is that we also want our space to be open to younger artists. Regarding the selection process, we receive many proposals as there are few spaces for emerging artists in Seoul. We don’t have an open call at the moment, but we do consider proposals we receive. We tend to value and focus on a collaborative spirit when we decide to take on the proposal.

Installation view of “Journal de dehors” 2022 YPC SPACE Curated by Junghyun Kwon

——When you say “collaboration,” do you mean collaboration between YPC and the artists or something else?

Jiwon: It could be either way: we hope artists value the collaboration with YPC and among themselves. We organized two shows based on the artists’ proposals - they were part of a group and wanted to do something together, which was interesting.

And when it comes to rotation, since we are three individuals with different interests and desires, we try to delegate as fairly as possible. When we do shows where all three of us are involved, we state it as “Yellow Pen Club.” Apart from that, we have the same number of exhibitions, so every time we get proposals or ideas, we share them and think about how to distribute our time and space.

“SeMA Blue 2016: Seoul Babel” Courtesy of Seoul Museum of Art

Alternative spaces in Seoul: from Dae-an Gong-gan to Shin-saeng Gong-gan and beyond

——Let’s move on to the alternative art scene in Korea, specifically in Seoul. Starting with the establishment of the Alternative Space LOOP (*1) in 1999, a group of alternative spaces called “Dae-an Gong-gan (*2)” emerged and developed into another movement called “Shin-saeng Gong-gan (*3),” which was led by the next generation of artists since the early 2010s. It peaked at the “GOODS (*4)” in 2015 and slowed down after the “SEOUL BABEL (*5)” exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art in 2016. The period when you established YPC coincided with those movements, although you did not start as a space but as a platform/collective. How do you position YPC/YPC SPACE in this context? Or do you distance yourself from this strain?

Jiwon: When we met in 2015,  the Shin-saeng Gong-gan was already defined as a phenomenon. But we were only witnesses, not active members of the movement. Nevertheless, the role of the audience was important, as it was based on sporadic connections. We visited the GOODS together in 2015, although we had no idea it would be a defining moment. We found it energetic and welcoming even though we had no acquaintances.

To be precise, we were not part of the generation that led the Sin-saeng Gong-gan. Most were born in the 80s, making them a few years older than us. In addition, the Dae-an Gong-gan movement had started more than a decade before, so although there were a handful of spaces left, we didn’t have any first-hand experience with them. In this way, we understand Dae-an Gong-gan as being somewhat colored by the views of the Sin-saeng Gong-gan generation.

“GOODS 2015” Source:

——What is the difference between those two movements?

Jiwon: There’s probably some research you could look into if you want to know more from a historical perspective; all I can share are bits and pieces of my experience and biased opinions. The Dae-an Gong-gan had a mission and was dedicated to promoting it, whereas the Shin-saeng Gong-gan’s distinctive nature comes from not having a “goal” or “purpose.” Nobody from Shin-saeng Gong-gan spoke of a mission; they were just “there.” They wanted to make a difference but didn’t want to announce it. The kind of commitment was also very different. Shin-saeng Gong-gan wasn’t particularly committed to carrying on - survival wasn’t the goal.

——What is the specific difference in terms of their motivations?

Jiwon: Shin-saeng Gong-gan was more organically structured with more practical approaches. The leading generation, born in the 1980s, experienced the economic crisis when they graduated from university around 2007-2008. Their perspectives differed drastically from their predecessors; the art market was not what it used to be, the job market was shrinking, and the general quality of life was declining. They needed to do something, create, and show work to get ahead, but there were no opportunities to get on the map. Or perhaps some felt that the map had disappeared - the conventional route to success was no longer viable. To overcome this situation, they opened studio spaces and turned them into makeshift galleries. It didn’t have to be big or fancy. If you could present your work to a small group of people, get feedback, and take pictures for the portfolio, that was more than enough.

In this sense, Shin-saeng Gong-gan was not necessarily or consciously “against” something and thus differs from Dae-an Gong-gan, which was mainly politically charged and purpose-driven. As witnesses to the Shin-saeng Gong-gan movement, YPC owes a lot to the spirit of the times. We were just three friends writing about what was happening with a simple website and Twitter account - we had no idea who was reading our writings, but people were responding to them somehow. Shin-saeng Gong-gan used social media as a promotional tactic and as a contact point, and we have become what we are by joining this network. We were part of a community without a common denominator.

——What are your thoughts on the “SEOUL BABEL” (2016)?

Jiwon: When SEOUL BABEL opened at the Seoul Museum of Art in 2016, we had more ideas about Shin-saeng Gong-gan. Many critics said artists participated because they wanted to be “institutionalized.” But that’s a very simplified way of looking at what happened. Artists, of course, could have desired success, but this generation was trying to redefine “success.” During my visit, I found a few initiatives that decidedly used - or perhaps abused - SEOUL BABEL, deliberately playing parasite. Some groups used the museum space as an office because having their own was difficult. Looking back, many describe SEOUL BABEL as the death of Shin-saeng Gong-gan since it was already dying, but the institution only caught up with it by calling it something “new.”

“SeMA Blue 2016: Seoul Babel” Courtesy of Seoul Museum of Art

——Are there still links between you and the previous generations?

Jiwon: Many artists we have shown in our space belong to the Shin-saeng Gong-gan generation. We got to know them when we visited their spaces. It started as an audience/artist relationship but became more of a partnership and friendship as we started our careers as critics/curators. The idea of connecting people without a clear mission is influenced by the Shin-saeng Gong-gan generation. However, we are now in a different era because the institutions and the commercial sector have grown significantly compared to ten years ago. Back then, artists felt there was nothing to do. They wanted to create, but neither museums nor commercial galleries accommodated them. They had all this energy but nowhere to go, which led them to make something of what they had. However, there are plenty of opportunities nowadays, and commercial galleries are all over Seoul and Frieze Seoul, so we don’t have the same shared deprivation. Perhaps now it’s a matter of making careful choices and knowing when to say no.

——What is the current state of Seoul’s arts scene?

Jiwon: Interestingly, the new spaces opening in Seoul don’t share the spirit of Shin-saeng Gong-gan. Perhaps this is because they weren’t part of the phenomenon when it happened, so they are reacting to the “now.” We face a hybrid situation in which many art spaces operate as independent spaces - applying for national and municipal grants and being largely considered “non-profit” - while simultaneously running a space-for-hire business and taking commissions from artists renting their space to show their work.

Thus, YPC SPACE considers it important to navigate what it means to be “independent.” There is no single answer to this question, but ironically, it feels like the Dae-an Gong-gan movement has come full circle. There was no market or opportunities for the Shin-saeng Gong-gan generation, so refusal or some disengagement was not an option, let alone a conviction or strategy. But now, there are so many opportunities to “go commercial” or occasions that may look like an opportunity but are, in fact, a trap. We have to be careful of our choices.

——You mentioned that many commercial spaces are emerging in Seoul. How do you define “commercial,” and what kind of spaces are being run by the younger generation, especially the alternative ones? Do you think that Frieze Seoul has influenced the situation?

Jiwon: The line between “commercial” and “non-commercial” is getting blurry, and what qualifies a “commercial” initiative is much more complex. There are plenty of non-commercial spaces in Seoul, but we live in a different climate: Shin-saeng Gong-gan spaces recognized that they were part of the same phenomenon, but the current art spaces do not operate in a spirit of solidarity and care. We go in different directions and consist of different people with diverse desires. I can’t speak for other spaces, but many sell artworks and the space itself. The rental costs for art spaces have also increased drastically in the last five or six years. Some spaces don’t get involved curatorially or critically with the shows but simply rent out their spaces and promote events on social media - there is no engagement beyond that. Indeed, these spaces do not make much profit, but they play an essential role in the ecosystem by providing a place for young artists to show their work. However, I can’t help but wonder if this business model benefits from the disguise of “alternative.”

“GOODS 2015” Source:

——Can you expand on this a little bit?

Jiwon: Since GOODS in 2015, artists have started experimenting with the “market” format, which is partly about designing an experience where makers and audiences collide in new ways. A few years later, corporations began to launch similar market-style events, recognizing that ‘young art’ was marketable - good news, perhaps, demonstrating how dynamic Seoul’s art scene can be. However, the artists who ventured into the model in the first place never reaped the benefits.

On the other hand, there are plenty of public funds. Each year, there are more and more grants for art spaces, artists, writers, and so on. As the space-for-hire business grew, organizers began to charge much more than the regular rental fee - sometimes a fourth of the received grant, which is supposed to cover production, logistics, installation, promotion, and other fees. As I have said, this model is not bad - I can even say it is necessary. But I’m afraid that it’s being expanded without considering the impact. What kind of relationship and network are we building if a space charges artists 30% or more of their entire budget just for rent? In this case, the artists are no longer collaborators but clients entitled to demand a certain “service” from the “curators” who run and occupy these spaces. Many “shows” are supported by multiple grants and powered by sales events, but we don’t see much discourse or discussion around it.

I should also mention that this cycle is empowered by the unique grant system in Korea, where every year, government-affiliated organizations distribute large sums of resources to various art projects - towards production, exhibitions, art spaces, publications, programs, community-building, experimental works, etc. We don’t know who will receive the grant, but we are sure that somebody will get it and that they will eventually be able to pay the rent or any service fees that may be charged. However, although Korea - or Seoul, to be more precise - seems like a paradise with a constant flow of resources, the whole system is precarious, to say the least. With changes in political power, policies shift very quickly. When a new mayor steps in, the direction of the foundation may change, ultimately affecting the city’s arts ecosystem. Nearly a decade ago, there was a “blacklist” operated by the former government that targeted a number of artists for reasons ranging from political activism to frivolous actions or online comments. You can imagine what happens when an administration sees art as a means to an end, or worse, as useless or disturbing to society.

“SeMA Blue 2016: Seoul Babel” Courtesy of Seoul Museum of Art

The meaning of “alternative” today

——The question of what is alternative is important because while these spaces might be categorized as such, what they are actually doing is commercial. People tend to think of alternative spaces as distant from institutions, but within the current situation of the blurred difference between alternative and commercial, what are they trying to counter?

Jiwon: The definition has become more complex, and it is becoming more difficult to define what is and is not “alternative.” If we consider it anti-institutional, YPC is not innocent because I’m an institutional curator, and YPC has received grants from the government this year. I believe that alternative spaces met their demise in the historical sense because of this dilemma. When you say you are alternative, it means you are against something, but it has never been that simple. If your identity as an art space is grounded in opposition, it becomes tricky to navigate your way when the relationship is no longer binary. The idea of the “alternative” is constantly changing; therefore, we’re careful not to call ourselves an alternative space: it’s just a “space,” and we’ll figure out the rest.

——Unlike the 2000s alternative spaces in Tokyo, which were very radical against the institutions, I feel that the current spaces are not trying to be against anything but simply doing what they want. In that sense, there is no shared spirit among them, but it is possible to describe the current scene in Tokyo as “multiple alternatives.”

Jiwon: The idea of multiple alternatives is interesting because in Korea, when you say “alternative,” there’s an immediate connection to the historical idea of Dae-an Gong-gan, and it sounds like you’re referring to something at that particular time in history. Today, we wouldn’t call a space “alternative” unless it qualifies as such.

How can institutions learn from artists?

——I wonder how you archive YPC’s practices and past activities. One of the reasons why it’s challenging to research alternative spaces or scenes is that they tend not to have a budget for archives, which leads to a lack of references. Another reason is the language barrier. YPC only has information in Korean, making it difficult for someone from abroad to access it.

Jiwon: The question of history and language is very interesting. When it comes to history, from a researcher’s point of view, if there is data, it exists, but if there isn’t, it doesn’t exist. On the other hand, language is directly related to accessibility, visibility, and historicity. Korean is the only language we use on the YPC website, and as the spectrum of our audience and collaborators grew, we realized that we could reach more people if we were bilingual. But it takes a lot of effort - translation is expensive! Perhaps using or not using English determines whether we are “local” or “international.” But do we need to have an “international presence”? We haven’t come to terms with the desire to be relevant and thus historicized yet. Maybe one day.

——What about the dynamic between institutional and alternative scenes? Do you incorporate a perspective from working in an alternative context into the museum setting or vice versa?

Jiwon: Generally, I respect professionals with experience and relevant skills. At least in the Korean context, institutional curators are given little freedom to do what they want and very often are not recognized for the creative input they provide to the overall program of the institution. For me, working in an institutional setting means supporting artists and their production; by understanding how artists work and doing my job right, I help them focus on what they should be doing. Since I have had and still have an independent career, I am open to communicating and learning from artists. This affects me a lot when I think about what it means to be a good curator in an institutional context. At this career stage, doing my job properly makes the art system bearable for art workers.

Installation view of “Boma Pak: Ritual of Matter” 2023 Leeum Museum of Art Curated by Jiwon Yu

But of course, I do try to voice my ideas. One example is the Boma Pak: Ritual of Matter project, which I curated at the Leeum Museum of Art. Pak is one of the most important younger-generation Korean artists, but she hasn’t had much opportunity to present her work in an institutional setting, given the medium’s fragility and her pursuit of vulnerability and ephemerality. But that is precisely why she should have a presence in the institution - her practice questions what the institution is, what it does, and how it is experienced from the perspective of a young artist. My intention wasn’t so much to “introduce” or “institutionalize” her practice. Instead, I thought that institutions could learn from artists like her. Her flexible thinking and out-of-the-box approach challenged the museum and made it do something unfamiliar. In return, the artist has learned what it meant to show her work to and communicate with the “general public.” My experience in different environments helped me facilitate and support this kind of unexpected exchange.

—It sounds like a good exchange between two different scenes.

Jiwon: The curatorial process doesn’t end with the conception of an idea. It’s also about execution with precision, negotiation, and politics. There’s a line of professionalism that I pursue as an institutional curator. However, the process may vary depending on where you are - when I “curate” at YPC SPACE, the process may require different skills and frameworks.

Curating at YPC SPACE may not involve much “work” in terms of scale compared to what I do in institutions, as we are doing smaller shows with a humble budget. However, the shows at YPC SPACE are sometimes the outcome of conversations that started years before. YPC SPACE is where things grow and develop, so the curatorial aspect varies each time depending on the context and conditions. Sometimes, the artist takes the lead, and I mostly listen and assist; other times, I am very clear about my curatorial vision.

There are also times when Junghyun, Areum, and I co-curate, and the case-by-case approach applies here as well. Sometimes, we take the layered strategy, where one starts something, and then it will be finished by another, which was the case with our first show. We had a general idea of what each of us wanted to do, but it wasn’t until we finished our individual parts that the show’s final look emerged. We each had the freedom to do what we wanted, but we still adapted to each other’s actions as we overlaid.

YPC SPACE's program space

——I have one last question for you. What are YPC’s plans for the future?

Jiwon: We are working on ideas for next year. We usually have a different exhibition every month, along with a range of programs. This December, we are planning an exhibition based on exchanges with collectives from different cities. We’ve reached out to collectives with different infrastructural and cultural backgrounds and engaged in conversations around notions of alternative, institution, independent initiative, and mutual learning. We hope that by introducing them at YPC SPACE, the collectives will also get to know each other.

*1── Alternative Space LOOP is regarded as Seoul’s first alternative space, established in 1999.
*2── Following a constitutional amendment in June 1987, Kim Young-sam was inaugurated as president in 1992, which led to South Korea’s transition from years of military dictatorship to democratization. Against the backdrop of the political developments of the 1990s, there has been a growing demand for new forms and expressions in South Korean art. In this context, a group of alternative spaces known as Dae-an Gong-gan emerged, aiming to pursue experimental expressions to counter institutional art. They are referred to as the “first generation of alternative spaces.” Although they claimed to be anti-institutional, they were funded by the government or corporations. (in Japanese); (in Korean)
*3── Shin-saeng Gong-gan refers to the “second (or 2.5) generation of alternative spaces” that emerged around 2010, following Dae-an Gong-gan in Seoul. The spaces were mainly run by artists born in the early 1980s, also known as the “generation of low expectations,” without the financial support available to the previous generation. This was an attempt by young artists to create opportunities, in contrast to the existing situation where art couldn’t be pursued without support from the government or corporations. With limited self-funding, the spaces were often located in less central areas of Seoul with lower rents and, with the rise of smartphones, easier access for visitors. (in Japanese); (in Korean)
*4── GOODS is an exhibition/art fair held at Sejong Center in October 2015, featuring Shin-saeng Gong-gan and surrounding artists. Approximately 80 artists participated in the event, which attracted over 6,000 visitors over five days and generated a total revenue of 130 million Korean Won. According to the statement, GOODS aimed to create a unique format for artworks and to establish alternative distribution channels that differed from existing systems. Under the label of “goods,” the exhibition displayed and sold creations that did not fit into the former category of “works of art.” A critical awareness of the limited opportunities available to young artists within the prevailing structure of the contemporary art industry drove the initiative behind the event. On the other hand, it also faced the challenge of operating as a one-off event seen as unsustainable in the long term. (in Korean); (in Korean)
*5── SEOUL BABEL exhibition was held in 2016 at the Seoul Museum of Art and introduced Shin-saeng Gong-gan and surrounding artists. The exhibition featured 70 artists and 15 artists/curators, highlighting their experiments and collaborations in physical spaces and online. On the other hand, the inclusion of the already fading activities within the institutional framework of the museum was interpreted as a definitive sign of the ‘death’ of the Shin-saeng Gong-gan movement.; (in Korean); (in Korean)

Jiwon Yu

Jiwon Yu is a curator, writer, and translator based in Seoul. She was the assistant curator for the 11th Seoul Mediacity Biennale (2019-2021). Currently, she is a curator at the Leeum Museum of Art, organizing long-term research and survey exhibitions and introducing the new generation of Korean artists. She is also a member of the art writers' collective Yellow Pen Club (2016-) and co-director of its program/exhibition space, YPC SPACE.


Yellow Pen Club

Established in 2016, Yellow Pen Club (YPC) is a collective of art writers Chongchong (Junghyun Kwon), Bbyabbya Kim (Jiwon Yu), and Look (Areum Lee). YPC uploaded mostly (but not limited to) exhibition reviews on their website. Based on the online presence, YPC organized writing workshops, published art books, and contributed to various monographs. In 2022, YPC opened YPC SPACE, a program space and gallery. 

Yellow Pen Club Official Website Yellow Pen Club Instagram

Tomoya Iwata

Tomoya Iwata

Tomoya Iwata (b. 1995, Aichi) completed his MA from the Graduate School of Global Arts, Tokyo University of the Arts. His research focuses on the history of curation and curators, as well as exploring the possibility/impossibility of understanding others beyond human beings through exhibition practices. Through on-site research, Iwata frequents alternative spaces in various cities, mainly in Asia, to further understand the dynamics between institutional and alternative art scenes in their individual context. Currently the representative director of the curatorial space, The 5th Floor. Major exhibitions include: “ANNUAL BRAKE” (The 5th Floor, Tokyo, 2022/2023), “Things named [things]” (solo exhibition by Anais-karernin; The 5th Floor, Tokyo, 2023), “la chambre cocon” (Cité internationale des arts, Paris, 2023), “between / of” (The 5th Floor, Tokyo, 2022). Participated in a Curator in Residence program at Cité internationale des arts, Paris in 2023. Invited to the “Ideas Forum” in Taipei Dangdai 2023 as a guest speaker. (Photo by Linda Bujoli)