Last year may have been the year that Asia began to reopen as pandemic era border restrictions expired, but 2023 was when the region’s art scene here seemed to return fully to life. The Art SG fair in Singapore finally debuted in January, and Art Basel Hong Kong roared back in March with its first quarantine-free edition since 2019—2019! People were on the move again, at a rapid pace.
As a journalist based in Seoul, much of my year-end top ten, which follows below, comes from South Korea, but I am grateful to have finally been able to bounce around the region a fair amount this year with ease.
The best art I saw was on a visit to Kyoto this summer, when, coincidentally, the millennium-old Gion Matsuri festival was taking place with full pageantry, after scaled-back versions during the pandemic. Towering floats—fantasias of ornate architecture, some adorned with sumptuous tapestries—crawled through the streets, pulled by relentless teams of volunteers. It was captivating. However, as an annual event, that glorious affair is not eligible for this list, which is reserved solely for temporary exhibitions that were on view in 2023.
Before revealing my top ten, I have to note a few remarkable shows that did not make the list: feminist artist’s Yun Suk Nam’s captivating portraits of women who fought for Korean independence (plus more than 1,000 painted sculptures of dogs) at the Daegu Art Museum in South Korea; the essential “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s–1970s” at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul (and at the Guggenheim for a couple more weeks!); a revelatory survey of painter Guei-Hong Won (1923–1980), a chronicler of postwar daily life in Seoul, at the Sungkok Museum in Seoul; the excellent Yooyun Yang’s presentation of her latest cinematic, mysterious paintings at Primary Practice; Wang Tuo’s time-bending video treatises on Chinese history and censorship at Blindspot in Hong Kong; Rirkrit Tiravanija’s piquantly odd umbrella-repair shop and robots at David Zwirner in Hong Kong; the MMCA’s richly rewarding retrospective for the beloved painter Chang Ucchin (1917–1990) at its Deoksugung branch in Seoul; and Do Ho Suh’s invigorating, interactive installation at the Seoul Museum of Art’s Buk-Seoul location, which invited children to take brightly colored clay and keep adding, and adding, and adding to it.
Without further ado, my top ten:
Parts of the 2022 Singapore Biennial
Titled “Natasha,” for reasons that remain unclear, the 2022 Singapore Biennial (it ran into March 2023, so let’s count it) felt scattershot and willfully obscure at points, but its organizers—June Yap, Nida Ghouse, Ala Younis, and Binna Choialso—also delivered some strokes of genius.
There was a mini survey of the veteran Korean bricoleur-painter Joo Jae-Hwan, an array of beguiling digital paintings that Samia Halaby composed in the 1980s on a Commodore Amiga 1000, and a room-filling installation by Daniel Lie of turmeric-dyed fabrics, soil, chrysanthemums and more that smelled fertile, deathly, a little evil: artists taking risks, refusing conventions.
Haegue Yang at Kukje Gallery, Seoul
Early this year, I tried to visit the home in nearby Incheon where Haegue Yang presented her storied 2006 show “Sadong 30,” Sadly, it is now a ruin. But this outing in a renovated hanok read like something of a spiritual sequel, plumbing the furtive energies that can inhabit homes. (Its fitting title: “Latent Dwelling.”) Electric candles and sunlight provided dim illumination, and the herbal fragrance of Chinese medicine lingered. A bevy of Yang trademarks were on hand, like paper cuttings and bulbous sculptures adorned with bells or fake straw, appearing even more anthropomorphic than normal in this intimate setting.
Santiago Bose at Silverlens, Manila
The Filipino artist Santiago Bose, who died in 2002, at 53, was so expansively inventive that if you ignored the wall labels in this career-spanning show—“Spirited Traces,” curated by Patrick Flores, a National Gallery Singapore deputy director—you might have thought that you were looking at the efforts of a small coterie of venturesome artists who were obsessed with collage, alert to politics, and eager to experiment. There were humble reliquary-like pieces, a vivid streetscape set in Baguio, composed of more than two dozen photos, and an unusual little painting that’s stuck with me, Student with Molotov Cocktail (1971).
'DMZ Exhibition: Checkpoint' in Paju, South Korea
The so-called Civilian Control Zone around the DMZ is sad, lonely, and strange—so charged that, when I heard a group show was coming there, I was skeptical that it could work. But Sunjung Kim, of the reliably excellent Art Sonje Center, delivered a nuanced exhibition, haunted by history. Suh Yongsun’s paintings of militarized landscapes and politicians hung in the gymnasium of an abandoned U.S. base, while at an observatory overlooking North Korea, the collective ikkibawiKrrr offered a mural with the outlines of plants that exist in the sealed-off zone. The mood was mournful, with shimmering hints of clear-eyed hope.
Eun Nim Ro at the Gana Art Center, Seoul
The rough-hewn animals that Eun Nim Ro (1946–2022) painted are so intensely lifelike that you expect them to start walking, slithering, or flying down from the pictures that they call home. If that happened, you would want to spend time with them, but identifying what they are exactly would be another matter entirely. They are charismatic but elusive, vaguely mythical. Their eyes gaze deep into you. Titled “Meine Flügel sind meine Last” (“My Wings Are My Burden”), this memorial show for Ro—a nurse-turned-artist who was based in Germany—whet the appetite for a grand retrospective: a wild menagerie.
Seok Ho Kang at the Seoul Museum of Art
Before his 2021 death, at 50, the gimlet-eyed painter Seok Ho Kang had more than a dozen solo shows in South Korea and one outside of it. Let us hope more international exhibitions come soon (New York’s Tina Kim just did one) because, as this taut survey underscored, he was razor-sharp about of-the-moment issues, like how images circulate, and identity is constructed. His best are close-ups of clothed bodies—a crotch in blue jeans, a chest draped in pearls. Like the pictures of Domenico Gnoli and Nolan Simon, Kang’s images are deadpan and a touch fetishistic, both visually and intellectually voluptuous.
The 14th Gwangju Biennale, South Korea
This is a time of biennial saturation, of biennial exhaustion. How do you make a show that actually matters? Sook-Kyung Lee, the director of the Whitworth museum in Manchester, England, had a bevy of convincing answers at her Gwangju Biennale. Tapping 79 artists, “Soft Water Hard Stone” was steeped in art history but attuned to the contemporary, crowd-pleasing but still, at times, tough. It was judiciously curated, addressing memory and community, with standout works from the Korean living legend Lee Seung-Taek, the wily kinetic sculptor Yuko Mohri, and Arthur Jafa, whose elegiac video tribute to Greg Tate stole the show.
Kim Whanki at the Hoam Museum of Art, Yongin, South Korea
This feast of a show at Samsung’s beautifully renovated Hoam museum, “A Dot, a Sky,” offered a thrilling look at the too-short career of one of South Korea’s—one of the 20th century’s—greatest painters, Kim Whanki (1913–1974). His early figurative works are concise, tender, and lucid, a world of twilit landscapes and quiet interiors that hold radiant moon jars and fresh-cut flowers. And once he hit on abstraction in the 1960s, he was unstoppable: His late “Universe” paintings are bewitching, swirling worlds of pure color (blues, most famously), built from tight, rhythmic marks. Every museum should have one.
'Myth Makers—Spectrosynthesis III' at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong
This is what it’s all about. Why become a curator if you cannot write histories, or spotlight obscured ones? Inti Guerrero and Chantal Wong put together a treasure trove of queer art made by more than 60 figures in Asia and its diaspora from roughly the 1950s to the present. Sharing space were giants like Danh Vo and Martin Wong, superb younger figures like Jes Fan and the duo Amy Lien & Enzo Camacho, and some historical names that were new to me, like the astonishing Mayalan painter Patrick Ng Kah Onn (1932–1989). This was a show that should inspire a thousand more.
Kim Beom at the Leeum Museum of Art, Seoul
Kim Beom is one of the very few artists I can think of who has made work that is legitimately laugh-out-loud funny. His masterpiece is Yellow Scream (2012), a video with a Bob Ross–like figure (an actor) demonstrating how to embed emotions into abstractions, screaming in myriad ways as he paints. The Seoul-born Beom, 60, has also made wry, scrappy, ingenious, poignant paintings (a brick wall of stitched canvas pieces, for one), sculptures, and more, all present in this winning retrospective. Like good jokes, they upend power dynamics (political, artistic, institutional, and otherwise) with efficiency. Have a look.