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Public art rubs Seoul the wrong way

Critics of an urban improvement effort in the South Korean capital that requires developers to provide public art say the law generated too many works that many find objectionable. It has been changed.

June 27, 2011|By Jung-yoon Choi, Los Angeles Times
  • Frank Stella's "Amabel" stands in front of a South Korean steel company building in Seoul.
Frank Stella's "Amabel" stands in front of a South Korean… (Matt Douma, For The Times )

Reporting from Seoul — Perched outside the Posco steel company office, the jarring 30-foot-tall object looks like the remains of a plane crash — all crushed steel and gnarled parts — because that's what it is.

Creator Frank Stella built what he considered a modern work of art and named it "Amabel," in honor of an artist friend's daughter who died in a plane accident. But many passersby for years have considered it to be something else: an eyesore.

The work is one of the more avant-garde sculptures in Seoul and the symbol of an art controversy in South Korea.

For 16 years, a national law has required builders of large commercial projects to commission an adjoining piece of art — including engravings, calligraphy works or sculptures — whose cost would equal 1% of the overall cost of the project. The public art promotion act produced 10,684 public art works between 1995 and 2008,— at a cost of more than $546 million.

But critics of the urban improvement effort objected, some saying the law had created a monster that over the years generated too much art that many find objectionable. There's the huge straw man that sits, feet dangling, on the ledge of a downtown building; the copper piece that is supposed to look like a group of people but which many say looks like a dirty ashtray; and a mammoth gorilla wearing a backpack scaling a building.

Many architects were displeased too, seeing the requirement as a burden forced upon them.

"Since the funding came out of the building owner's pocket, they would often try to save as much money as possible," said Hong Kyoung-han, chief editor of Public Art magazine.

Amid the public backlash, Arts Council Korea last fall hosted an international conference to examine both domestic and international public art policies. "Current public art pieces haven't been serving the public," the national council said in a statement. "In fact, the understanding of public art is lost because of this."

This spring, South Korean lawmakers decided to end the controversy the policy had started. Meeting with artists and builders, legislators revised the law. Under the new guidelines, builders have a choice: They can commission a piece of art as before or they can donate the money to the government, which many assume will do a better job of choosing artists and works.

But the question remains: What does Seoul do with all the less than popular public art that dominates its cityscape?

"Unless citizens actively petition for the removal of any bad art that's already installed, they'll have to live with it," said Yang Hyun-mi, a professor of culture and arts administration at Sangmyung University.

People again point to "Amabel" as a case in point. First installed in 1996 at a cost of $1.4 million, Stella's work was subtitled "Flowering Structure." The piece, the artist said, symbolized the endurance of steel and the role it has played in human endeavors.

Several years ago, however, officials responding to critics chose to plant trees to try to hide the sculpture after deciding the $400,000 cost to move it to Korea's Museum of Modern Art was too expensive.

"It's sad, almost embarrassing that we have to hide it with trees because the public doesn't understand and appreciate it," art critic Kim Joon-ki said in a recent video series on public art.

Taxi driver Han Ho-seong said he sees "Amabel" every day and that it has grown on him.

"I think it has become a symbol of this district now," he said. "It wouldn't feel the same without it."

Choi is a news assistant in The Times' Seoul bureau.

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