ART / A date with a living exhibit: So you've been given pounds 25,000 to go to Korea and buy a few mementoes for Victoria and Albert. Where do you start?

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The Independent Culture
Korea is usually squeezed between Japan and China in Western museums. It might get its own display-case or two - but always in a little corner of some other Far Eastern gallery, blurring both cultural and national borders. More than a century since some of its 600 Korean treasures were acquired, the Victoria and Albert Museum is about to put Korea on the map: it opens its first gallery devoted entirely to Korean art tomorrow. Ceramics, metalwork and lacquer, whose simplicity of form and line reflect a sympathy for natural materials, will set Korea apart from its neighbours.

The gallery has been made possible with pounds 430,000 from Samsung, the Korean conglomerate. Their funding- package provided for a curator, Beth McKillop, who was appointed last January. The V&A also gave her some spending-money - pounds 25,000 - to plug gaps in the collection. Armed with this cash, and a Korean interpreter, she made three trips to Korea to buy art for the collection. This is a reconstructed version of her diary:

14-29 JUNE 1991

FRIDAY This is my first time in Korea. Seoul is my base. I've decided that this visit will be a purely exploratory one. It would be foolish to rush out and buy, buy, buy. I need to feel the place and get to know the country as much as the museums - of which I have a list of 40 to get round. They've got a museum for every conceivable object: there's a Museum of Cosmetics and Cosmetic-holders, a Museum of Folklore, a Museum of Embroidery . . . Most are either private or university collections.

SATURDAY Wandered round Seoul - a concrete jungle, a bustling modern city. Traffic jams everywhere. I'll have to allow hours to get anywhere.

Although I'm just window-shopping this time, I've got a shopping-list. I want to concentrate particularly on textiles and lacquer-work. I feel like Aubrey Le Blond, an Edwardian gentleman collector whose purchases make up about a third of the V&A's collection. Like him, I'm primarily looking for beauty and artistry. But when I see something I want, I must ask myself: Does it match the collection and tell us something new about Korean culture? Does it enlighten and delight? Will people in the 21st century see what I've bought and thank me? It's so difficult to judge.

TUESDAY Visited dealers. You can't export anything over 100 years old: I'm very conscious that I have to work within the correct legal framework. That way, there won't be problems with Customs and Excise. Wandered along the Insadong, a narrow street full of antique shops. Each one is so jam-packed with antiquities you have to squeeze through them. Saw an old lacquer-box with a pounds 2,000-price tag: a similar example sold at a London auction house for four times that.

FRIDAY Met a 'Living Cultural Asset', one of the craftsmen appointed by the Korean Ministry of Culture. The government is very supportive of traditional arts and, like the Japanese, values artists as 'cultural assets' or 'national treasures'. Two or three of the most talented people in any particular field are selected to pass on their skills and expertise to the next generation. There are Cultural Assets for everything from theatrical rituals for good fishing-catches to exponents of mother-of-pearl inlay.

They're numbered Cultural Asset No 1, 2, 3 . . . up to about 95. They get some payment, but it's the honour that counts. Once appointed, it's for life. I met 'Cultural Asset' No 48, a Buddhist monk called the Venerable Lee Man-Bong, who lives in a temple complex in the suburbs of Seoul. He's over 80. Absolutely charming, with spiritual presence. He delighted in showing me the process involved in his specialism, 'tanch'ong' paintings, brightly-coloured floral and abstract patterns that make up architectural ornaments on temples. He told me it takes 10 years to learn the technique, outlining and colouring designs. I'll buy a painting from him on my next trip.

MONDAY Took a long and bumpy bus-ride to the provinces, visiting museums, temples and historic sites, absorbing the wooded, often rugged landscape and hilly vistas. There are shimmering paddy fields everywhere. Cranes were flying overhead - just like on Korean ceramics. I thought of the crane on the V&A's delicate stoneware vase of the Koryo dynasty.

Stayed the night in a Yogwan, a traditional inn where you sleep on the floor or on a roll of cotton.

TUESDAY Discovered that Yogwans are not really the place to stay: they're meant for romantic assignations.

Visited the Popjusa temple, in Songni National Park in central Korea. I knew that some temples in Korea are very wealthy, but had not realised how wealthy. We met one monk who had a swish, space-mobile car with phone and hi-fi. His living- quarters looked austere - until he opened one of the cupboards: inside, a sophisticated TV and music-centre. Koreans don't find this extraordinary.

15-28 NOVEMBER 1991

FRIDAY Back to Seoul. It really is the noisiest city I've ever been in. The non-stop traffic sounds are bound to keep me awake. This time I'm carrying pounds 15,000 of travellers' cheques in my bag. What a responsibility.

SATURDAY Returned to the dealers I'd met on my first visit. I'm not very good at bargaining, but I feel sure I paid a very competitive price for that ornament box with floral inlay which I saw last trip.

MONDAY Saw an exhibition of paper-covered crafts in the Korean version of the Crafts Council. Wonderful brightly coloured objects, made for Korea's large middle-class with disposable incomes. I bought a sewing box and letter-rack. Korean paper, made of Mulberry bark, is long-fibered and strong. According to an old Korean saying, 'Paper lies 1,000 years, but silk for only 500.'

WEDNESDAY The Venerable Vanbong again. Bought a beautiful screen panel, a vibrant floral design.

THURSDAY Bought five pieces by contemporary potters. In style, they are following techniques and patterns from centuries past. But they also use modern international techniques and chemically-based materials, not just the natural materials of their predecessors. They have gas or electric kilns, rather than wood-burning ones. There has been a definite break between the older schools of pottery, which died out at the end of the 19th century, and those who revived the tradition in the 1960s and 1970s.

23 MAY to 4 JUNE 1992

SATURDAY This time I have pounds 10,000 to spend. I'm just topping up the collection. The catalogue is more or less finished.

Bought more textiles by contemporary makers. They'll be displayed in the textile gallery, where the audience is more specialist and informed.

I'm particularly proud of the ceramics I've bought: a bottle decorated with a thatched house by Min Yong-gi (born 1947), which has a rustic and unaffected attractiveness. Also, a stoneware vase by Sin Sang-ho (born 1936). I like its colour and shape, which alludes to ceramics made 700 years earlier. It's neither self-conscious nor precious. Just beautiful.

When I get back, I'll finish working out the display. Of the 600 works in the collection, I'll display 200. I got almost everything on my shopping-list. Only some contemporary lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl proved difficult. Next time . . .

Samsung Gallery of Korean Art: V&A, S Kensington, SW7. From 2 Dec

Beth McKillop was talking to Dalya Alberge

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