Asia’s first-ever exhibition of steampunk art and design opens in Seoul, South Korea this week and Southampton artist and lighting designer Art Donovan is playing a key role in the event.
A longtime steampunk artist and curator of the world’s first major exhibition of the genre at the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University, Donovan was tapped as supervisor and co-curator of this new show, Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism, which opens Saturday, March 8 at the Artcenter IDA, Seoul’s Hangaram Art Museum.
After an 18-hour flight, he arrived in South Korea on March 5 and began the hard work of setting up for opening weekend. “You should see this place,” the local artist and steampunk aficionado beamed in a message Thursday, noting that the Artcenter spared no expense to present their vision of the Victorian Era inspired, techno-industrial art and design movement. “The museum show is huge,” Donovan observed, shortly after his arrival, adding gleefully, “What a town!”
The ambitious exhibition—for which he wrote nearly all the descriptions and catalogue materials—features an entire gallery dedicated to Donovan’s steampunk lighting creations and sketches, as well as rooms with pieces by other steampunk-influenced artists from France, the Netherlands, China, Greece, Italy, Japan, Australia and the United States. The works on display include painting, sculpture, graphic design, fashion, motorized vehicles, jewelry and digital art.
“I was packing for seven straight days,” Donovan said, explaining that he sent the museum every piece of steampunk-inspired work in his home and studio before heading there with his wife Leslie this week. Adding to the challenge, he had to rewire all of his illuminated works for 220 voltage, to be compatible with Korean electricity. “I’m really jealous of the people with paintings and jewelry,” Donovan joked.
Honored to be such an integral part of this landmark exhibition, Donovan said the show’s organizers have been nothing but enthusiastic about steampunk. “They had never even seen anything like that,” he said. “They are so enthralled by culture.”
Donovan, who has published two books about steampunk (The Art of Steampunk and a Revised Second Edition), used his existing relationships to secure most of the artists for the show. And it was this previous connection with the artists, along with his own experiences as a steampunk luminary and author, that helped him scribe the catalogue and other supporting text. “Their entire academic description of the work is based on my expertise of the genre,” Donovan said, noting that he provided all the museum’s written material. He will also give the exhibition’s keynote address and four lectures on the history of steampunk art, its influences and practitioners during his stay.
Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism features a number of steampunk artists from both the landmark Oxford University show and Donovan’s books, including Sam Van Olffen, Tom Banwell, Kris Kuksi, recent Oscar winner Stephane Halleux and Jos De Vink among them, but Donovan said he’s the only one likely to attend the exhibition. Other artists include Yasuhito Udagawa (AKA Shovelhead), Kimberly Hart, Martin Horspool, Pulsar Project and James NG, to name a few.
While a host of artists are currently making work that fits the steampunk vision, Donovan stands out as the foremost cultural ambassador of the genre and its many facets, spanning visual art, design and much more. The Seoul effort marks Donovan’s third steampunk exhibition, following The World’s First Steampunk Exhibition at Bridgehampton’s Hamptons Antique Galleries in 2008 and, of course, the groundbreaking show at Oxford University in 2009–2010.
From a curatorial standpoint, he notes that steampunk art requires a visually different approach in its physical gallery display, which is why the Artcenter asked him to supervise. “They wanted to get at the heart of the genre and wanted to see who is curating that,” Donovan said, adding, “They wanted the Oxford curator.”
In South Korea, Donovan will be discussing steampunk and its roots in both the Victorian and science fiction aesthetics, but for this exhibition his approach was more physical than intellectual. “It’s about the visual impact more so than the historical reference,” Donovan said, describing the South Koreans’ interest in steampunk. However, he noted, “They love technology—their technology is a big part of it.” And steampunk is nothing if not a marriage between art and technology.
Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism opens at the Hangaram Art Museum at Artcenter IDA in Seoul, South Korea on Saturday, March 8 and runs through May 18, 2014. Visit artcenterida.com or donovandesign.com to learn more.