A review of the Paul Klee exhibit in Seoul, May, 2006.
By Sheila O'Brien
It isn't easy being cultured Canadians in the bland, "only a naive native could love" kind of society that South Korea hosts. We quickly found that the music scene is abysmal, the food is strictly Asian, and there is an average of about one art gallery per city in this dreary country. On weekends we sit trapped in our numbered cage, perched high in the architecturally challenged apartment block, leafing through the only English (and sadly mostly business oriented) newspaper that this nation has to offer. You might imagine our surprise when, one fateful Saturday morning, we opened it up to find an interesting ad tucked between the Stock Index and the Report on Investment: A Paul Klee exhibition was coming to Seoul.
Paul Klee, Paul Klee, Paul Klee. Saying his name three times in my head didn't revive any art school learnings other than that he was the one who painted the famous "Twittering Machine" and that he was, of course, employed at the Bauhaus. He wasn't high on my list of "Artists to See," but he was an artist after all, and apparently, in Korea, beggars can't be choosers. I conferred with my mate and we decided that we would take our next long weekend in Seoul and make an occasion of it.
When "Klee Day" finally came, we woke up in our hotel room and noticed by the grey hue on the walls that the day had dawned a little dreary. And when we finally looked out the window, we found that dreary was an understatement. A monsoon calibre rain was assaulting the city and a typhoon gale wind was blowing umbrellas back and knocking the caps from the heads of concierges.
Over breakfast, we debated if we would still make the hour long trip over the Han River and into the nether regions of Seoul, and decided by the second cup of coffee that we would, indeed, accomplish the task that we had journeyed there for. The birds depicted in "The Twittering Machine" had come to life and they were chirping my name.
So we boarded the shuttle bus that sputtered and chugged through the slick streets and hummed over the bridge to our hotel's other location in the area of Seoul that we had hitherto feared to tread. When we disembarked from that mode of transportation we hopped into a taxi, not without a lot of map pointing and translation difficulties, and were whisked past deserted mini malls and apartment cubes to the Park where the 1988 Seoul Olympics were held. Once there, we faced many more language barriers, a lack of signs, and a walk of faith through two feet deep flood waters before we finally found the gallery we were looking for: a low slung wooden cube reposed in the centre of many outlandish post-modern sculptures. And as soon we
were convinced that we'd found a shelter from the storm, we were turned away at the door by a stick-like woman who pointed off in a vague direction chanting "tickets." We had to buy them another 30 meters away.
After the journey we had made we wished for the exhibit to be the visual equivalent to a hot shower, a warm towel and a good cup of coffee, but unfortunately it amounted to nothing more than a kick while we were down. Firstly, we were rather upset by the scantiness of the collection. There were only about thirty pieces which barely represented a moment of the man's work, and it seemed that most of them were preliminary sketches and afterthoughts. One room was focused on the artist's "discovery" of colour, or at least that's what the accompanying synopsis said, but the pictures seemed to disprove the history, showing a discovery of only a few shades of blue and gaudy red. One room focused on Klee's use of line, but, from my perspective at least, it looked as though a toddler had been let loose to deface pieces of paper with a pencil. There were landscapes, portraits, and still lives drawn in a single pen line style that showed not even a glimpse of innovation. Perhaps the only positive aspect of the Klee exhibit was seeing the various mediums that he was adept at, including Gouache on Canvas, and Oil on Cardboard. Unfortunately, the "poor man's" canvases seemed only to add to the idea that these were not a sampling of Klee's best works.
My opinions may seem crass and unfounded, but I must admit, it was very difficult to form any real opinions at the time, what with the constant distractions of squeaking shoes, and cell phones, and intermittent flashes from digital cameras committed in full view of the "No Flash Photography" sign. And, as a final insult, by the time we'd come to the end of our circuit we realized that "The Twittering Machine" was obviously not a part of this exhibit.
Looking back upon the travesty, I realize that my now negative impression of the artist Paul Klee really has nothing to do with his talent, but rather, with whoever decided to throw together some of the artist's unknown odds and ends and cocktail napkin scribbles and call it an exhibit. But, really, what should I have expected from a gallery barely surviving on the donations of stragglers who visit the skeletal remains of the 1988 Olympics?
It seems to me that the whole trip to see Klee was a metaphor for the general state of culture in Korea. Yeah, you can find "real" art here, but you'll have to go through hell to see it, and once you do, it probably won't live up to your expectations.