The Seoul of today, said Doryun Chong, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is far different from the one he left in 1992, the year South Korea elected its first civilian leader after three decades of military rule. Instead of student protesters and riot police, the city center now brims with museums, galleries and restaurants. And its transformation is still under way, said Mr. Chong, particularly where art and architecture are concerned: "All of those 'what do you preserve, and what do you not?' questions," as he put it.
Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Chong about how to see art in Seoul and understand the history behind it.
Q. Where do you go to see modern and contemporary art in Seoul?
A. The past decade Artsonje Center and the Leeum, Museum of Art have given spaces for a new generation of Korean artists like Lee Bul and Haegue Yang to show. Because they were becoming so internationally active and sophisticated, the museums had to keep up. Artists took the lead in many ways.
The Leeum (below) started as the personal collection of Lee Byung Chull, Samsung's founder. During colonial times, much of Korean heritage was taken by the Japanese, and he thought of it as his mission to build a collection of traditional Korean art. With the new generation inheriting the leadership, the collection grew to include modern and contemporary Korean art and important masterpieces by Western artists like Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Damien Hirst.
Q. How do you find out about exhibitions in Seoul?
A. ArtInfo is quite useful, and ArtForum's art guide is excellent. You can search by the region, country, city, and it lists all of these exhibits and galleries.
Q. Where do you find most of these galleries?
A. Bukchon, an area known for having traditional houses, with pagoda-style slate roofs, which is quite rare in Seoul because much of that has been destroyed. It's right around Gyeongbokgung Palace. Quite lovely area. Many important gallerists like Kukje and Hyundai moved near there.
Q. The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, is opening a new branch in that area in November. What do you think of the space?
A. I did a hard-hat tour of the seven main galleries in October, and the scale is impressive. The national museum is outside Seoul and doesn't get as many visitors as it should. For a branch to be situated there, smack in the middle of the tourist area, next to the palace, is fantastic. But I was a little ambivalent at first. The museum's site was the headquarters of the Defense Security Command, where, under the military dictatorship, student activists and political prisoners were brought in to be tortured and interrogated. This is a building with a lot of history and ghosts.
The structure itself is a rare surviving example of early Korean modernist architecture. So I began to wonder what the other options were -- turn it into a monument or some kind of memorial -- but that's not the most interesting way to think about historical and architectural heritage. In the end, I thought the site becoming part of the national museum was not a bad idea.
Q. Do you usually advocate for preservation?
A. Not necessarily. In the '90s, there was all of this discussion over the Japanese Governor General Building, this beautiful, stone Beaux-Arts-style building. Preservationists believed it should be kept because even the colonial remnants are part of our history. But there was all this -- some will call it theory; some, historical truth -- that the Japanese built this building to block the qi from the mountains. Living outside of the country, I was quite cautious of the nationalist sentiment, how it affects our reading of history. But once the building was demolished, I saw how the whole vista opened up. This is what I love about Seoul: it's a very big, very vibrant city, and yet everywhere you turn you see mountains.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.