Summer of Seoul | Winter of Pyeongchang. Contemporary Art at the Korean Olympics

Dr Beatriz Garcia
Cultural Mega Events
6 min readJul 19, 2022

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A reflection on Korea’s contemporary art scene and its Olympic expression, from Seoul 1988 to Pyeongchang 2018: fun, high quality and ahead of global trends.

I am listening to a programme titled ‘Summer of Seoul: Why the South Korean capital is a new art world hub’ . It does not surprise me at all to hear that Seoul is becoming a ‘new art world hub’. I have been visiting Seoul and exploring South Korea over the last fifteen years and the vibrancy of their arts and creative scene has never stopped surprising me.

“East meets West”…

My interest in Seoul and South Korea dates back to the mid 1990s, when I began working on my PhD, dissecting the cultural dimensions of the Olympic Games. I started my study by exploring the legacy of Barcelona as host of a Games edition, 1992, with large cultural ambitions. The Barcelona Cultural Olympiad was launched in 1988, to coincide with the completion of the Seoul Olympic Games — and it involved important cultural exchanges with the Korean hosts. The latter took the form of a major international symposium, hosted by Seoul in 1988, with scholars from around the world debating the notion ‘East Meets West’. The book of proceedings became a seminal piece of work for me and shaped my understanding of the cultural significance of an Olympic hosting process for the decades to come. As clearly articulated throughout the symposium, the Olympic Games take place at a specific time in a specific place, and such context is essential to the value of the Games hosting process and its legacy.

One of the official posters for Seoul 1988, featuring abstract art.

“The Seoul 1988 Olympics opened up Korea to the international gaze and to globalisation”

In Korea, the 1988 Olympic cultural programme was taken seriously and it involved classic artistic expressions as well as ambitious intellectual discussion. Important advancements were made to share complex eastern notions that we were not sufficiently familiar with in the west, be it within scholarly circles or in mainstream discourse. From a Korean perspective, the Olympics opened up the country to the international gaze and to globalisation: it was not until 1989 that South Koreans could travel freely around the world, showcasing their culture and being exposed to global art and cultural trends. What followed was a decade, the 1990s, of astonishing developments for the contemporary Korean arts world. This includes the first ever Korean contribution to the Venice Biennale in 1993, followed by the establishment of the the Gwangju Biennale in 1995.

Nam June Paik (TV Garden). The artist became internationally recognised and was instrumental in establishing the first international biennale in Korea — Gwangju Biennale.

By 2018: the Korean Wave (‘hallyu’) had taken the world by storm…

Fast forward to 2018, at the time of the Pyeonchang Winter Olympics and we have a sophisticated creative industries milieu throughout South Korea. By this time, discourses on culture, the arts and creativity had advanced at extraordinary speed, in line — as well as ahead of — the rest of the world. The Korean Wave (Hallyu) had taken the world by storm, including major advancements in cinema, fashion, popular music, food and the visual arts; this was reflected in the confident development of cultural policy and cultural strategy frameworks throughout the country.

Going back to the Pyeongchang Games, the points above should help us appreciate the quality of the Olympic cultural programme being delivered. Far from ‘going through the motions’ and limiting the cultural programme to the offer of standard entertainment to assist with crowd management and VIP functions, South Korea presented an ambitious Cultural Olympiad, making extensive use of official Olympic sites (from Olympic parks to the official Media Village). The programme also involved the leading culture and creative stakeholders to take over public spaces and the most established cultural institutions in the Olympic city and region.

‘Blooming Winter’, a large scale media show with projections over the mountains surrounding Pyeongchang, part of the Cultural Olympiad.

Olympic stakeholders tend to ignore arts programmes and the arts world often mistrusts the Games. This creates a vicious circle that unjustly forces Cultural Olympiads into oblivion, regardless of their merits.

As it is often the case, the International Olympic Committee — the umbrella international organisation that owns the Olympic Games — and the main Olympic stakeholders — be it athletes, sport delegations, sponsors or accredited media — were not kept abreast of what this cultural Olympiad involved. As such, in common with previous Olympic editions, by 2022, there is a lack of knowledge within Olympic circles about what Pyeonchang delivered from a cultural and artistic point of view — and a lack of appreciation about why it was of such value and unusually high standards for a Winter Games.

Furthermore, within the arts world, knowledge about the value of this exercise is also limited, as there is a tendency to distrust — or ignore — the Olympic Games as a platform for artistic expression, specially from a contemporary and avantgarde point of view. This creates a vicious circle that unjustly forces Cultural Olympiads into oblivion, regardless of their merits.

Frustratingly, Pyeongchang did not follow on the Seoul experience and did not host a major symposium to capture and dissect the cultural value of their second Olympic moment in 30 years. This means that there is still a need to tell the story of what was delivered in 2018 from a creative and contemporary culture perspective.

One of the paintings at the exhibition ‘Dictionary of Evil’, presented as part of the Cultural Olympiad. The exhibition was a high quality art provocation, offering a counterpoint to the Olympic celebration of ‘the best of humanity’ by presenting artworks depicting precisely the opposite.

Pyeonchang offered high quality Olympic art expressions — showing Korea’s capacity to deliver ‘global culture’ and ‘world-class’ events outside the western-dominated norm

In the meantime, Seoul is taking over international arts world headlines and the credibility of its arts offer continues to increase — most recently from a ‘market’ point of view, beyond curatorial, academic, policy and strategic considerations. I feel fortunate to have witnessed what such a degree of arts world savviness could mean in the context of a task as thankless as the delivery of a Cultural Olympiad, where organisers must face the scepticism of both sporting and arts worlds…

I consider the Pyeonchang edition a referent of high quality and avantgarde Olympic art expressions — as well as an example of confidence outside of the western-dominated norm when it comes to ‘global culture’ or ‘world-class’ event delivery. Contrasting with the Tokyo 2020 Games, where the Cultural Olympiad incorporated exquisite but almost impossible to translate cultural expressions, Pyeongchang played with many layers of meaning simultaneously and offered a programme that was as easy to enjoy as a local ‘in-the-know’ as it was for a potentially clueless foreigner.

I offer below a summary of my art and culture highlights at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. They embody a great combination of quality, humour, fun, eccentricity, thoughtfulness, critique, heritage, innovation, taste and obvious attention to detail.

The Cultural Olympiad… as presented by the Olympic Organising Committee for Games ticket holders

Nam Jun Paik artwork at dedicated museum within the Olympic park — first time a high profile modern art exhibition is included within an Olympic park. The space was often used for jazz and classical music concerts
Traditional Korean culture display at the main Olympic Plaza

Beyond official Olympic venues | the Culture 2018 circuit, open to all

The highly visible Cultural Olympiad bus, free to all residents and visitors, with an extensive circuit of arts and culture stops — it became a popular attraction. It was the first time a Cultural Olympiad got its own dedicated bus.
As noted earlier, the flagship Cultural Olympiad ‘Dictionary of Evil’ touched on the dark side of humanity.
Fire Festa was a major installation of temporary artworks by the beach. All of the artworks would end up burning in a grand finale, all part of the Cultural Olympiad programme.
The Cultural Olympiad also included a free K-Pop concert, bringing in the stars of this global music phenomenom.

The journalists experience | Offerings at the official media village and dedicated media centres

For the first time at an Olympic Games, the accredited Olympic Media Village included a large cultural programme. A library was available to journalists, offering both classic and contemporary Korean literary works translated into a wide diversity of languages. These books were available for the journalists to take away at the end of the Games.
Journalists at the official Media Village were invited to cultural events on a daily basis. This is an image from a traditional Korean printing exhibition and workshop.

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Dr Beatriz Garcia
Cultural Mega Events

Personal observations & research experiments, unfiltered | Cities, Major Events, Culture | https://www.linktr.ee/DrBeatrizGarcia