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Asian and Korean Art Investment Debbie Han

Debbie Han as an Investment in 2018


Debbie Han

If China in the last five years has been the contemporary art scene's strongest new presence, Korea is certain to be next. And with Sovereign Asian Art Prize and Britweek accolades under her belt and a summer Saatchi exhibition, Debbie Han is likely to be at its centre.

A sculptor and photographer, Miss Han is part of a new generation of Korean artists gaining a global following. Collector Carlos Saatchi and his gallery, having played a pivotal role in the discovery of Young British Artists Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, recently reviewed the portfolios of over 2,000 Korean artists.

The resulting 'Korean Eye' exhibition, from 25 July to 23 September, introduces Miss Han and 33 other contemporary Korean artists to the world through 100 pieces of their work.

Though Korea's art scene has been vibrant for the last 25 years, real international interest has only just begun. The 1988 Olympic Games brought a transformation in Korea, with an opening of its politics and cultural and social life.

Five years later, the Whitney Biennial exhibition visited the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, in the Seoul national capital area. With overseas travel limited to a tiny segment of the country, publics and artists could for the first time engage directly with global contemporary art at its most contemporaneous.

Soon after, an international biennale was established in Gwangju, and a permanent Korean Pavilion joined the Venice Biennale. In the late 1990s, Korea's wealth as a newly industrialising nation and the new openness of its politics fostered private museums, founded by the Daewoo Group and Samsung Cultural Foundation, alongside non-commercial artistic spaces for emerging artists to explore experimental works, such as the Alternative Space Loop and Project Space Sarubia.

Though new in their international critical recognition, Korea's artists after two vibrant decades have reached maturity in the sheer strength of their form and content, and contribution to international contemporary art.

Reflecting this new international interest, Saatchi's engagement this summer follows on the success of large-scale exhibitions of Korean contemporary art in 2009 and 2010 in Seoul, London, New York, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi. Support from Saatchi, Standard Chartered bank, and the UK-based Parallel Media Group has yielded showcasings called 'Moon Generation', 'Fantastic Ordinary', and 'Energy and Matter', and a book on Korean contemporary art, under the umbrella title of 'Korean Eye'.

Saatchi's gallery has never before given itself over to artworks outside its own collection.

Within this generation of artists, Debbie Han's ceramics – inhabiting as dual nationals an ancient tradition and contemporary form – hauntingly explore dualities between East and West, past and present, and human and ideal beauties. Porcelain is the senior artform in the Korean tradition, and her 'Battle of Conception' takes 32 busts of Venus—the icon of beauty—on to a chess board, bearing faces of different ethnicities, worked in the rare and technically difficult ceramic medium of White Porcelain.

As the world's centre of economic gravity shifts ineluctably to the Asia Pacific, Miss Han's bi-cultural background in both Korea and the United States positions her to comment on possibilities of this change from both sides. Her photographic series 'Graces' combines the bodies of Asian women with the heads of classical Hellenic sculptures, with great technical skill then rendering each figure to a marble-like smoothness. Each 'Grace' is engaged in a daily act, abstracted against a formal dark background. Evocative of the coming together of Asia and Europe, the classical pasts of each jarring against their increasingly shared modernity, they nonetheless achieve a tranquil beauty, resting their ultimate interpretation in the eye of the interpreter.

There is a sense of urgency, too, to Miss Han's treatments of the relationships of perception and reality, in a world where growing together does not necessarily dictate a harmonious result. Her 'Battle of Conception' evokes gender wars and modern games of thrones within its chess game. It is understanding the fashioning of our own awareness that permits us to dwell in harmony. To embody the difficulty of this project, she chose to toil in an ancient Asian ceramic called Celadon, requiring her to take three years before successfully firing a set of ten. And the nods at Greek antiquity are apt: the per sona of Greek drama, which yields our word for the person, is a mask which both constrains communication, and makes it possible.

Debbie Han is a powerful artist, both in her themes and her skills of execution. She embodies, perhaps as much as any of her cohort, the the vibrancy and energy of the rising Korean voice in resolving the tensions between the modern, the contemporary, and tradition. And with the other artists coming to London in this Olympic summer, her work reminds us that 'tradition', 'modernity', and 'globalisation' look quite different in Seoul than in London or New York.

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