As the city of Seoul morphs into a center for cultural and more recently global political discuss, I find it important to explore the city, but not with the objectivity of the business world with an eye to investing in the growing financial capital, or that of a historian, focused on the political nuances. Rather it is through the subjective eyes of its artists, 59 artists who have documented every aspect, dimension, people, landmark and not so popular areas of the city in the 60 days exhibition tagged Landscapes of Seoul.
Curated by the Sejong Museum of Art, and exhibited at its humongous winding exhibition halls, Landscapes of Seoul is the third and last of the Three Years of Korean Contemporary Art series showcasing works of artists who explore traditional Korean landscape painting to present diverse perspectives of the city.
To appreciate the work done by the artists, we have to understand the traditional Korean landscape painting. Influenced largely by Chinese art, in the sixteenth century, Koryo Era (918 – 1392), Korean art relied heavily on Buddhism principles, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century, during the Choseon Era, that Korean art came into its own, and stood out from Chinese art. It was at this time that Korean artists began to base their landscape art on actual appearance, real landscape, and also began to incorporate scenes from daily life as seen by artists. While artists experimented with a mix of western techniques as chiaroscuro, Landscapes of Seoul, mixes traditional and western media and techniques to create dynamic contemporary views of Seoul.
With works as Kim Haksu’s Complete Map of Hanyang an ink on silk; Pak Nosoo and Yun Seyeoul bird’s eye view of Seoul decades apart, the viewer is able to see the entire city of Seoul, with the Han River dividing the southern part of the city from its lesser glass towered north.
We also see artists documentation of the city’s growth as in Choi Dukhyu’s Landscape of Seoul and Landscape of Heukseok-dong by Lee Madong. Viewers are given a peek into the significance of the Han River and its impact on the city’s economy and culture. The viewers get to see the activities of Koreans in the summer as in Kim Eok’s coloured woodcut Hanji Han River/Seongsan Bridge/Hannam-dong that depicts cyclists along the Han River, and the experience Korean winter in Byeon Kwansik’s lonely but cosy Snowy Landscape of Donam-dong.
Shin Hakchul explored the contemporary Korea’s political, cultural and entertainment assimilation history as impacted by the western world and globalization in the Gapsoonyee and Gapdolyee (draft), while Kim Su-Yooung’s ChongKundang indicate present day scenery of high rise apartment building springing up within the city in order to accommodate its over 10m population as the city continues to expand owing to rural-urban migration and the concentration of global financial institution and technological industry. Others explore the familiar street scenes of multicoloured Hangeul graphics tacked malls that reminds non-Korean tourists of Asian communities abroad.
However, my favourite pieces of the entire exhibition of over 200 works were: The Land We Live In by Choi Hochul. The illustrative feel of Hochul’s painting and his ability to project a universal perspective common to every city, that is, of the lower class which often always separated from the upper class by something as simple road but metaphorically wide enough to create a divide between peoples of a society is clearly represented. But Hochul’s painting also denotes hope, and an aspiration for the younger generation of that lower class, that as the city bleeds into the villages, the marked difference of all classes of society blurs enabling them to live the dream the glass towered city presents. I appreciate the mastery and technique of Hochul’s application of mixed media fabric.
Also exploring a universality theme is Hwang Seontae’s Night Road. With tempered glass, LED lighting and sandblast, the artist creates for the viewer the fleeting intimacy of walking a familiar yet unfamiliar street, that is simultaneously typically Korean yet universal in the modernity of the buildings design. Ham Myungsu’s surrealistic City Scape, a swirling of neon yellow, green, and sedate dark colours, gives life, and the illusion of movement to the city’s night scene. The irregularly curved glass towers, apartments and houses illuminated within, serves as a backdrop to the busy road where the artist concentrated nuanced shades of yellow is the main focus. Further memorable is Cui Xianji’s Flower Cloud, a delightful sensory burst of yellow, red and earth colours set on cloud blue background with wriggly lines in electric blue, white and black. And finally, Cho Poongryu’s Sanggye-dong Scene From Mt. Bulam, whose night scene of the city surrounded by blue mountain and yellow moon, is reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe’s ground-breaking landscapes.
But, outside of the exhibitions works, there are other aspects of it equally as interesting. It is the true camaraderie experienced between the viewer and the translator of different cultural backgrounds, as they discover a shared love for arts, and trade perspectives on the works. It is also in the power of the perspectives and personalities created by the artistes with their various media, that nudge the viewer to seek further knowledge of the subject.
Assuredly, viewers of the exhibition will never leave the same. They leave a bit more knowledgeable about Seoul than they had been before, and with an appreciation of the city’s role in Korea’s history and the developments that has taken place in the city since its establishment.
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