Cheonggyecheon Museum


One Sunday afternoon in Seoul, I was suddenly seized with the sudden desire to visit the Cheonggyecheon Museum, a museum dedicated to the development around Cheonggyecheon. I had been told that it had been a controversial river project in Seoul.

In the 1960s, the slum-surrounded Cheonggyecheon River had been completely covered over and built over to form a highway, this highway falling into disrepair after a few decades, and then a turnaround decision in 2005 to remove the decaying highway. With half an hour to spare before closing time (they do not allow people in half an hour before closing time), I rushed over on a very slow bus to Cheonggyecheon. Somehow, I made it exactly five minutes before the cut-off time, giving me a good half-hour at this small museum.


Model of the Cheonggyecheon Area


Collage of Cheonggyecheon


The highway was removed in pieces



It was restored fairly recently, starting from the launch of the Cheonggyecheong Restoration Project on July 1 2003 with the dismantling of the Cheonggye Elevated Highway. And it was completed in October 2005. Coming at the cost of over 386 billion won and rising, it was said to have received much public criticism because of the staggering costs and lack of ecological/historical authenticity, but they went through with the project with the official reasons being as follows:

“The rebirth of Seoul as a human, environmentally friendly city”
“The Recreation of Seoul as a 600-Year capital of New Cultural Spaces”
“Removal of obsolete Structure for Safety of Citizens”
“Balanced Development through revitalization of neglected neighborhoods”


I find it interesting to see what official statements are released to explain such a peculiar project to bring back a river that was basically no longer flowing and no longer in existence. Although it is debatable whether historical authenticity must be still retained in such a project where history is not a continuous line, I feel at least they made an attempt to put it back exactly where it used to be.



Very similar to the Singapore River, it was a heavily used river that had been neglected and heavily polluted at the time when they decided to build a highway over it. They didn’t really care about the historic value of the river at the time (it was used as drainage in the Joseon dynasty with texts written about it) and had covered it up because it was the fastest way to deal with a trash-filled river.



The highway itself was a symbol of Seoul’s success in industrialization and modernization in the 1960s when it was built to cover up the trash and waste from the slums. It involved engineering feats and huge amounts of resources to build the highway back in the day.


But by the time they had decided to restore the river, it had run dry and water had to be pumped back into it. 680 kilotons of construction debris had to be removed from the site (notably all the metals were fully recycled, and 95& of waste concrete and ASCON materials were also recycled) There was also contention on how certain bridges should be restored and how historical sites should be “recreated”.

Nevertheless the project went through and despite disagreements during the early process, it can certainly be said that the project was completely well-intentioned and has had a very good outcome. The green areas are an attractive, quiet place for people to rest in the middle of the city, and the resculpted bubbling brooks are now home to animals and fishes and plants. When I walked along it, many people were taking walks along the Cheonggyecheon or even having a nap or picnic by the river.





Can you imagine Singapore turning around and saying “Wait! We made a mistake in urbanizing all these areas so heavily and we’re going to put a green belt back exactly where it once was!” I have a feeling they do not have this same understanding of of how geographical locations are also important.

I was reading about how the Koreans also have the same school of thought about fengshui which is known as “pungsu” over there. One of the main ways of maintaining good fengshui is through “hyol” (blood) which means: to bury your ancestors in a place with advantageous energies. The other most common method is obviously to build your own house in a place with good pungsu as well.

The very feature that had given Seoul its good pungsu was the Cheonggyecheon, because it is a small stream that runs from the mountains into the huge Han River. It was this feature that attracted monks to advise the early Joseon rulers that this was the perfect site for the capital. And thus Seoul had also grown around the Cheonggyecheon, which lies in the middle of it. Of course, as cities develop, some things are bound to be lost and forgotten, which is what happened to Cheonggyecheon until it was identified to be by the then-mayor of Seoul to be restored in 2003.

While not completely unproblematic itself (as its detractors will argue that it is being used as an extravagant symbolic action to show off Korea’s efforts in urban redevelopment) the Cheonggyecheon is about breathing life back into a part of Seoul that has always been here and has history and stories in the area. They didn’t just abandon it and try to build the lovely green stuff back into a brand new spot. They went back and tried to make it better.

In Singapore, there is a willingness to destroy the old cemeteries and nature reserves at Bukit Brown without a second thought, coupled with an almost contradictory interest in creating new “green” areas or “gardens”. I wondered why they would meddle with the graves of so many our ancestors. Did the city planners view every last shred of Singapore’s history as being completely disposable?

To be fair, it is good that Singapore has an interest in gardens. Compared to Seoul, Singapore is actually very green, but if one looks closer, then this greenery is also nothing more than an artificial construct.

To be willing to destroy the original sites of nature in Singapore, and to build the new Gardens by the Bay on a completely new, reclaimed site which is of no significant emotional or historic value, strikes me as a schizophrenic decision in urban planning, when we could be preserving and building on what we already have, like how the Koreans have rehabilitated and brought life back to the historic Cheonggyecheon.

It also reminds me of the difference between how Singaporean and Koreans handle enbloc sales. In the popular Gangnam area, apartment block residents band together to have their blocks demolished so as to build a newer and more highly valued apartment block in the exact same location – with the caveat that they can move back into the same place later (and capitalize off their investments in that very same land). Compare this to the popular Singaporean scheme of conducting enbloc sales where people sell off their houses and its land permanently to the whimsies of another land developer, without maintaining any further interest in the area. The private condos in Singapore are often demolished only to make way for another condo, causing many residents to move from older estates and to be scattered like the wind.

Maybe Singapore needs to learn from the Koreans and their system of building on the places that they already have.




A Presentation of Ethnographic Fragments (Aliwal Street, 25 August 2012)

Lee Wen addressing the crowd
The Collection and Exchange of Ethnographic Fragments travelled to Aliwal Street the other day, under the invitation of the Independent Archive & Resource Centre. This is an independent archive of materials and documentations of visual arts, performance arts, and other events, and some may also remember this archive previously being at the Singapore Art Museum. It has found its new (temporary) home at Lee Wen’s new place, where we had a kind of “soft launch” or private event to introduce it to people.

About the Independent Archive: “The independent Archive and Resource Centre (working name), is intended to be developed as a professional archive of visual art practices and other cultural manifestations in Singapore. The focus of the archive, especially at its initial stage, is art practices that benefit from archival support — such as visual art practices that are ephemeral, time-based, event and/or specific or that may not be conserved in conventional institutional environments or practices.

A project proposed by Lee Wen, June Yap, Kai Lam, Jason Lee, Hafiz Nasir, Koh Nguang How with the assistance and collaborations of various artists, cultural workers and friends. Many serious minded colleagues of repute and note, younger ones of intense enthusiasm and courageous energies, famed and unknown spirits of inspired momentary wisdom, even dissenting doubters of authentic integrity have contributed to our destined desire in setting up the independent archive and resource centre.

We who prefer to appreciate art in the essences of meaning, values, ethics, aesthetics, whether unilaterally or multilaterally propagated beyond our subscription to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, calls for an independent archive for reflection, review and research what we have done, what we do today.”

We aim to serve: The maintenance of an archive and resource centre open to the public an access to these materials.

The project is research-driven, to facilitate access to significant art materials (documentation, objects, images, correspondence, etc) and the production of critical discourse that interprets and creates forms of mediation of the archived materials.

The archive is to be open to the public. However its key audience are students, institutions, researchers, curators, artists and academics for further academic, artistic and historical production, that in turn will also be archived, thus expanding the knowledge-base on performance practice and history in Singapore and the region.

The development of the archive and resource centre requires the building of a sound foundation in archival practice. The infrastructure of such an archive and resource centre — and in this, its key value — lies in building an environment and set of practices where these artworks can be reliably and securely archived. Such an infrastructure includes: archival venue with climate-controlled storage, technical facilities for the transfer, backup and editing, indexing, cataloguing and referencing, as well as the development of public access frameworks and channels.

Under the backdrop of this great archive (of which I have found great use for, to watch video documentations of ephemera and performances), the fragments were here for a show and tell.




I gave a talk on the Singapore Psychogeographical Society and its various independent archives.


This was followed by a conversation with the rocks (ie: Lee Wen investigating the sounds the rocks would make with a guitar). And following that, it was an evening of improvisations and jams with Jordan Rais, Reef, Kai Lam, Rahman, Dennis, and many others who had come down that night.











Many thanks to Lee Wen for his amazing archive and for hosting this, and Mike for helping to organise all this and helping with the logistics of all the rock moving! If anyone is interested in getting involved with the Independent Archive & Resource Centre, they are always looking for people, so please get in touch with them.

For more images, see the [Flickr Set]

[ ] (Seoul Art Space_Mullae, 16 August 2012)

Me and Heewoo had a work-in-progress exhibition (entitled “[ ]”) at Seoul Art Space_Mullae on 16 August. We made three different works: (1) The Pyeongcube (2) A Life-sized Comparison between the Typical Apartment Layouts in Seoul and SIngapore (3) What people think their houses look like on the inside?

The very existence of a “default”, “common”, or “typical” size and layout of apartments/flats in both South Korea and Singapore shows that there has been an attempt to quantify and define how much private space people should be allocated. But how much space do we need for living? How much space do we want to live in? What is the shape of our spaces? How do we want to shape our living spaces?

For preparatory work, we collected a survey in both Singapore and Seoul of people and what they thought their flats looked like on the inside. We visited traditional korean houses, modern apartments, and showflats to get a feel of apartments in Seoul. As the space in the gallery was very large, we decided to maximise the use of the space by making a life-sized outline drawing of what would be a typical 3-room flat in singapore, next to a typical 24-pyeong flat in Seoul.

We also looked at the “pyeong”, a unit of area used in Korea to measure the size of houses. Most people can describe houses in terms of pyeong, but many do not know what one pyeong looks like, as one is more accustomed to speaking of it in terms of pyeongs in multiples (eg: 24 pyeong house). A pyeong is anecdotally said to be the size of an average man with his arms and legs stretched out, so we made a “pyeongcube” in which people could stand inside and be photographed/documented standing inside. We created a wall of polaroids of visitors and their size in relation to the one pyeong square on the wall.

Setting Up






Opening Night & Artist Talk






The Work














Many thanks must go to Seoul Art Space_Mullae for having us living and working there for the 3 weeks in Seoul, especially Suyeon and Miri for their assistance during the project; thanks to Substation and Khai (who came down to join us for a few days), thanks to Huyun (for doing the video documentation), our capable technicians (and their remarkable speed and impressively professional work), Murim (for all his help around the Mullae area), and all the friends who came down to see it (Kat, Kieran, Bin, Nico, Jerry, Yangjah, Jeongjoo, and so so many others; I’m sorry I can’t spell all your names)! AND of course, thank you Heewoo for the great time working together!

For more images: [See the Full Flickr set of images]

Cheonggyecheon Electronics Market


When we were in Seoul, we made a trip to the Cheonggyecheon electronics market, a maze-like network of small streets and shops selling LEDs, electronics and other supplies such as outdoors carpeting, fire extinguishers, aluminum profiles, etc. That day, I was looking for a bit of EL wire (electro-luminscence wire), and we went around with the simple goal of to finding out the estimated price of LEDs and EL wires.






The place is like Sim Lim Tower but spread out over many little small winding streets. In the end I discovered that EL wire is not common in Seoul, but certainly many types of LED strips and boards can be bought and customized here. We received a quote of around 60000 won for a 5m LED strip and an additional 30000 for the inverter. If you can bargain in korean (which we fail totally at doing) you might get a better rate than this.

But if one is in Seoul and looking for parts, this is probably the best market I’ve seen there. Looking online for more information, I also found that someone had made a great map of the market here on dangerousprototypes.

Pyeongchang-dong: Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Gana Art Center

Last weekend I made a trip to visit two galleries in Pyeongchang-dong (평창동) which is on the northern side of Seoul, nestled on the side of Bukhansan (북한산 / 北漢山). I was drawn by a listing for an exhibition on “Vertical Village” which seemed close to my interests, so off we went on this slightly drizzly Sunday afternoon. The area, as we discovered, was amazingly beautiful; largely residental and only low-rise buildings amidst vast mountains and nature. We went to see Total Art Gallery and the large Gana Art Gallery, and which are both in walking distance from each other and are rather beautifully built…

Total Museum of Contemporary Art


First we went to Total Museum of Contemporary Art. It was housed in a huge and oddly shaped building with incredibly odd stairs and other features. It was very empty at the time we went there, but we figured it was because it was a Sunday and the weather was poor. The view of the mountains behind was amazing.



There is something to be said about the setting of this exhibition. It reminded me extremely strongly of Second Life because of the amazingly traditional setting with nature and mountains… and then! Bright geometric blocks strewn all around in the midst of the mountains, on beautiful wooden tiles and clear glass windows and modern western architectures. In the background there is the peaceful sound of crickets (as opposed to the harsh, urban cicada sounds) and the sound of water drops gently tinkling as they fall and hit the ground in this quiet, somewhat posh part of Seoul.

Second Life for me is also filled with picture perfect nature, and then suddenly, someone gets a little lazy and throws some bright coloured cubes in a pile somewhere for no reason. And then some time later you fly right past that sight, and its totally empty but all you can hear is the soundtrack of nature all around you.


9 Television screens showing similar urban architecture in different asian cities.


Block Land


The Desire of Living

How do you want to live? This was the central question that was asked of the interviewees in this great documentary. Various young families speak of their troubles in trying to find a flat in Taipei. The exhibition was originally first held in Taipei.




Vertical Village

The proposition behind this project is simple – why not return to the form of the urban village by having individual house units being added on to the structure rather than building everything all at once as a block? To recreate the urban village through even more mixed use and architectures which allow for individual expression through the dwelling that you build to live in.

I should like to add that a few days later we went to see Total Recall (the new 2012 version that was a loose adaptation from the Philip K Dick story “We can remember it for you wholesale”) and there was also a vertical village featured inside it. I come to recall that the visual reference is also from Bladerunner. There is something about that configuration that smacks of some future utopia/dystopia reality. I wonder, is this why the Kowloon Walled City fascinates me?


Villagemaker Demo on computers inside


The beautiful hills of Pyeongchang-dong

Gana Arts Center


Although I dont have many pictures from Gana as no photography was allowed inside, it is worth a mention because their selection of Korean fine art is utterly impeccable with great care to detail.

[ ] Work-in-Progress on urban high-rise spaces

Screen shot 2012-08-15 at AM 09
Screen shot 2012-08-15 at AM 09

Opening reception
16 August 2012 (Thursday), 7pm
Seoul Art Space Mullae

Exhibition runs from
16-18 August 2012

The cities of Singapore and Seoul share one striking visual similarity – they are both filled with high-rise apartments. A majority of the urban population in both cities live in high-rise apartments which, in each respective city, tend to be constructed in “fixed” or “default” sizes and layouts.

Flat size is used as an indicator of social status in both cities, and property is commonly seen as stable investment. Many have aspirations to upgrade to a larger space – in the form of a larger high-rise apartment.

The very existence of a “default”, “common”, or “typical” size and layout of apartments/flats in both Seoul and Singapore shows that there has been an attempt to quantify and define how much private space people should be allocated. But how much space do we need for living? How much space do we want to live in? What is the shape of our spaces? How do we want to shape our living spaces?

[ ] is a work-in-progress exhibition of works exploring the urban high-rise space.

서울과 싱가폴의 도시에는 두드러지게 눈에 띄는 공통점이 하나 있다. 두 도시 모두 고층아파트가 빽빽하게 들어서 있다는 점이다. 이들의 대다수의 도시 인구는 고층 아파트에 살고 있고, 이들 도시 아파트의 대부분은 각각의 공통된, 또는 거의 정해놓은 듯한 “디폴트” 넓이와 구조로 되어있다.

두 도시 모두 아파트의 크기가 사회적 지위의 지표로 쓰이기도하며, 아파트를 안정된 투자수단으로 여긴다. 많은 이들이 더 큰 면적으로, 더 큰 아파트로의 이사를 열망한다.

한국과 싱가폴에 “보편적인”, 또는 “전형적인”, “디폴트” 넓이와 구조의 아파트가 존재한다는 것은 개인에게 주어지는 면적을 정량화하려는 시도를 보여준다. 그러나 우리가 필요로 하는 주거공간은 어느 정도 크기인가? 우리는 어떤 크기의 공간에 살고싶어하는가? 우리가 사는 공간은 어떤 모양을 하고있는가? 우리는 주거공간을 어떤 형태로 만들고 싶어하는가?

[ ]는 도시의 고층아파트를 탐구하는 진행과정을 보여주는 전시이다.

Directions to Seoul Art Space_Mullae

Address: 30 Mullae-dong 1ga, Yeongdeunpo-gu, Seoul
Nearest Road Name (for taxi) : 서울특별시 영등포구 문래동1가 30
Precise Address (for taxi): 서울특별시 영등포구 경인로88길 5-4 (문래동1가)

It is a short walk from Exit No 3 or 6, Yeongdeungpo Station (Line 1, Blue) or Exit 7 from Mullae Station (Line 2, Green). See map on top of this page.

Seoul Apartments – A Visit to a Model House

High-rise housing in Seoul is often referred to as 아파트 (a-pa-teu) or apartment, borrowing the more american word “apartment” which has its equivalent in the british english as “flat”.

The etymology of the word “flat” and “apartment” (as according to

apartment means “private rooms for the use of one person within a house,” from Fr. appartement (16c.), from It. appartimento, lit. “a separated place,” from appartere “to separate,” from a “to”.

flat comes from from Scot. flat “floor or story of a house,” from Oxford English dictionary. flet “a dwelling, floor, ground,” from the same source as the adjective “flat”.

To be honest I usually say “flat”, and, naturally one thing I seized upon in the past was the reference to the “flatness” of high-rise “flats”, owing to the fact that most apartment/flats only have one level unlike actual houses (See: Flattening of Space: on Seoul, 2009).

An additional consideration to be added to that article should be that although Korea’s population also predominantly lives in flats like Singapore, the slight difference between Korea and Singapore is that we do not typically have basements or basement flats. Our flats do not usually go all the way to the ground floor. Most times our public housing block flats have a void deck on the ground floor (common area), which gives us the sense and appearance of our flats being slightly propped up from the ground (rather than touching the ground).

Another difference between Singapore and Korean flats is that in Korea they use the “pyeong” unit of measurement to describe house sizes. Flats come in typical sizes such as 20 pyeong and do not usually come in oddball sizes or designs although they may be built by very different private developers. According to wikipedia, “anecdotally, the unit (pyeong) was derived from the amount of space an average sized man would take up lying on the floor with his arms and legs spread out.” This would be about 3.3058 m2 (squareroot of 3.3058 would be 1.81819, so that would be a rather big man actually)

Model House / Showflat Visit

We went to see a “model house” or “showflat” at a property developer’s temporary building the other day. It had fully furnished showflats on show, and surprisingly (considering that we might not look like the house-buying clientele), they were very nice to let us in and to give us a tour of the spaces. The flats in question were part a private high-rise housing development that was labeled as “Raemian” (which is technically a brand of Samsung C&T Corporation for apartment buildings) that will be in the Sinchon area. The building has not yet been built yet.


Map showing location of new flats to be built


Model House


Epic Aerial Poster


Entrance to the Model House (no pictures were allowed inside)


Scale model of House interior


Model Apartments


This great picture shows another set of model flats with phrases such as “going fast” and “sold out” stuck on them! The koreans are sure very expressive with their signs! There were many many many signs everywhere, which I was told were saying things like “its good time to buy bigger flats for the price of big flats are falling faster than the price of smaller flats” and other exhortations for people to get bigger flats. Because of the neat and graphic nature of hangeul, and the lack of capitals or lowercase formats of letters, if you print a korean sign large enough, it already looks SHOUTY!!! to me. I suppose that’s what I like about Korean. Without having to do anything, IT ALREADY LOOKS LIKE AN EXCITING LANGUAGE!!!!

More pictures of the trip to the model house can be seen here on flickr.

Mullae-dong Industrial Accident Show


I was fortunate to find out about this gig yesterday and to my surprise it was slated for today and in my area (Mullae!). This gig, 산업 재해 Industrial Accident Show in Mullae-dong 문래, was advertised with an unusual ticket deal: “This show offers a special discount for anyone missing fingers, with entry priced at 1000 won per finger.” Although in the end they did not charge at the door, I asked around and found out that the theme was probably chosen because Mullae-dong is the centre of industrial accidents, so much that surgeons who specialize in reattaching fingers have moved to the area because they happen most commonly in Mullae where the metalworks are. (OUCH!)


As I walked up the stairs to Lowrise, two americans pushed past me with beer cans in hand, muttering loudly, “this is fucking shite!” It sounded promising already, and a completely listenable grinding machinery sound was emanating from within. Since I have no photos of the first act, I will describe it to you instead. I believe it was “Sato Yukie and Tyler Brown”.

Sato Yukie and Tyler Brown

Inside the dark and chaotic venue (which despite appearances, was curiously clean and sweet smelling, at least in the beginning), there was an asian man (Sato Yukie) with big hair and a big fox’s tail pinned to his back. He was playing his guitar with a giant metal spoon and two metal chopsticks which he jammed hard into his strings. He was hitting his guitar dramatically with the giant metal spoon. In the corner, he had another bandmate (Tyler Brown) intensely playing the guitar while facing the monitor, his bandmate almost unnoticeable as most eyes were fixed on the spectacle of man-playing-guitar-with-metal-utensils. The sound was like WEEEEOOOOOAAARGGGGGGGEEERRRGGGHHHHHHH. I could not hear the individual notes he was playing with the utensils, as it was simply one big WEEERROOOOOAAARRGGGHHHHHHHRRKKKKKRKRKKKKHH noise from start to finish. Nevertheless the man rocked hard and seemed to follow some sort of internal tempo as he played and rocked back and forth with his hair (and tail) swinging wildly. To finish off, he ran into the crowd wildly, grabbing people and using them as objects to hit his guitar to produce more noise. The crowd scattered instantly. One of them was an caucasian man who was wielding a beer can and another with a large mineral water bottle nearby. The performance culminated with the musician grabbing hold of the containers of liquids and the venue exploding with a rain of water and beer over the horrified crowd. As a performance, I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially since it seemed to be a very “metal” crowd which seemed somewhat perplexed by the noise performance.

Now this is what I call an industrial accident.

Brothers of the Hole


The second band was by all means more “conventional” in the lineup of metal bands. I believe it was “Brothers of the Hole”. Their drummer was leaving the band soon so it was some sort of “last gig” for them. They were a punk/metal-type band that played what appeared to me to be a rather tight set. Some descriptions have written them as being “Vervcore”. I am not sure what is Vervcore, but after listening I still do not know what is Vervcore. While listening to them, I suddenly noticed that most of the crowd was caucasian around me. I wonder how much the english teachers in korea have affected music in korea, by bringing american or european music influences over.

At this point I had to go to see another theatre performance in Mullae so I walked back to Seoul Art Space_Mullae… Which actually turned out to be even more amazing and spectacular actually. But that will be for another post…

Seoul Museum of History – “City Model Image Hall”, “From Joseon to Global City Seoul”

We visited the Seoul Museum of History the other day. It is located next to the Gyeonghuigung Palace and opposite the Heungguk Life Insurance building (replete with the “Hammering man” sculpture). The big Gyeongbokgun Palace and Deoksugung Palace (덬수쿵) are also in walking distance from this point.

Jongno-gu 종로구

The museum is in an area known as Jongno-gu. You might see this cute little bell logo all around the district because jongno means bell street; it is also where the Joseon dynasty established its capital city. (I must say it is funny but it is more like “jong lo gu” actually, oh but the vagaries of hangeul!)

The Seoul Museum of History is not to be confused with the National Museum of Korea, which houses National Korean artifacts. The Seoul Museum of History is to be differentiated from that as being a museum about the history and culture of the city of Seoul itself. As such, it contains the City Model Image Hall.


The model was built to be illuminated from within, with over 200000 LED bulbs, lights, and projectors to illuminate specific regions depending on what building or feature you selected on the multimedia kiosks. Unfortunately, at the point I was there, the kiosks were constantly hogged by sugar-laden children who were smacking their sticky faces on the screen randomly with wild abandon, it being summer holidays and hot outside and all. The city model is scalled to 1/1500 which is very viewable and apparently shows 605.25 sq km of Seoul to visitors, who can walk over parts of the model on a transparent glass bridge over the model.


For me one of the useful landmarks is Yeouido (여의도) as it is the closest geographical feature on the Hangang from where I am at Mullae. Yeoui island is incidentally the main business and investment banking district in Seoul (aka Wall Street/Stock Exchange equivalent in Korea), and I walked to Yeouido the other day from Mullae. Notably, reading more about Yeouido, it appears it is an island that is commonly used in the media to refer to the size of other cities – “it is the size of ten Yeouidos!” Anyway, this is Yeouido in the model.

Zone 1 & 2: “Joseon and Daehan”

The first two zones in this history museum talk broadly about the Seoul’s early history in the form of the capital Hanyang, its fortress fortifications, and various everyday life in Seoul including models and various cultural artifacts.



Map of Three Military Forces & Control Boundaries in Seoul


Map of Bukhansanseong Fortress


Book on Bukhansanseong Fortress (북한산성 / fortress of the mountains north of the Han)
While googling for the word Bukhansanseong, I discovered that it is known as a Registered Cultural Asset (Tangible). So the question then follows, is there a list of intangible assets then?

Lo and behold, there is a list known as the “‪Important Intangible Cultural Properties of Korea‬” (Jungyo Muhyeong Munhwajae / 중요무형문화재). Items include dances, songs, cloth weaving techniques, games, crafts, and other rites.

List of current officials
Korean history has no lack of documentation, something that we seem to see in all the museums we go to. Each moment in time is accompanied by prodigious amounts of text and it is indeed a very literate society with copious studies and books. The example above shows the sticker tabs of paper stuck onto a book. It has been mentioned that Korean maps also use tabs and stickers to add additional information to a map.

Hat room


Diorama. Those streets sure are wide!


Western books reflecting on life in early Seoul.


Gracefully dressed man from Seoul.


Children standing on top of Dongdaemun


More images of Seoul

Zone 3: Modernisation of Seoul

This portion is illustrated by many dioramas depicting life under the Japanese Occupation, and residual effect of japanese and western influences on the capital city and lifestyles in Seoul.

Railway Station


“Pyeonghwa Cafe”


“Hangyang Billiard Hall”


Oriental Medicine Dealer
Department Stores: There is much to be said of the japanese influence and western influence over Korea. In the 1920s there were japanese merchants who began opening department stores in Gyeongdong with big shop windows showing the goods that catered to different social classes in Seoul. The stores with their shop windows were a showcase of modernity as well as the symbol of urban consumerism itself. Other investors from Korea also opened stores along Jongno.

Dabang/Cafes: Coffee represented the taste of modernity in Korea. Writers and other patrons would go to the dabang (tearoom) to get access to coffee, tobacco, beer, and the telephone. The first cafes were also opened in Bukchon (also in the Jongno area)

Literature/Writing: The population was very literate and Korean literature flourished with numerous publishers in the area, although social criticism was banned. Insights on the life of people could be found in the comics in newspapers which lampooned the ups and downs of the fashions of urban citizens.


Zone 4: Global City Seoul

This part of the exhibition was mostly text and pictures explaining how Seoul managed to push for so much urban development from 1953 (after the cease-fire between south and north) and the “strong will to live, high educational aspirations, and a liberal lifestyle formed a strong foundation by which the people of Seoul overcame the ruination of war to kick start a brilliant period of growth that would occur in a remarkably short time”….

Road Construction to extend Samil-ro in 1967

“Yeouido is one of the most obvious testaments to the growth of Seoul following the nation’s liberation. Though an airport had been built during Japanese colonial rule, Yeouido was mostly composed of sand and mud until the mid 1960s. As earnest development was initiated in 1967, Bamseom, one of the peaks of the islet at the time, disappeared and 6.6 million m sq of sandy land was turned into an artificial islet with a size of 2.87 million m sq. A huge square in the heart of the islet, the national Assembly building and Sibeom Apartment Complexes, significantly altered the shape of the islet. Since 1976, when it became home to major broadcasting companies, the Korea Stock Exchange Building, business centers, and the headquarters of major companies, Yeouido has come to the fore as the “Manhattan of Seoul”


“In the 1970s, the focus in Seoul was squarely on economic growth while the political situation remained chaotic. Income levels continued to rise as the economy advance… but the number of urban poor also increased and the population in the capital area exploded. At the end of the 1960s, the Seoul Metropolitan Government had begun looking for a suitable location for development in order to ease the overcrowding. It decided on the area south of the Hangang (River Gangnam) which was at that time quiet countryside. The construction of the Seoul-Busan Expressway and the 3rd Hanganggyo Bridge added impetus to the Gangnam development effort and the government enacted various policies to promote development in Gangnam while curbing development north of the Hangang. As a result, the area south of the Hangang emerged as a new “land of opportunity” for many Seoul residents.”

Not sure if I like the final picture because it shows a shiny, successful urbanization project, or because its too perfectly straight and anonymous that it also somehow appears uncanny. That is perhaps one thing I find different about the flats in Korea. First, the blocks bear very little branding and all look very very similar. Sometimes the entire block looks perfect and pristine, with nary a window open or an item or potted plant hanging out (because they have internalized their balconies inside their houses) – to the extent that when I look at these blocks, I can scarcely believe that anyone lives in there because it looks so clean and uncluttered from the outside. But more on this in another post…

Seoul Museum of Art – “Hidden Track”, “Mapping the Realities”, “Move On Asia”

Seoul Museum of Art

The other day I went to the Seoul Museum of Art. But how the day began was actually with an abortive attempt to go to the “National Museum of Contemporary Art” in Gwacheon (which is considered outside of Seoul, nearest station being Seoul Grand Park on Line 4, the light blue line).


There was no available parking although we had arrived there considerably early, and after some dalliances around the area (for the museum is flanked by many children/family-oriented amusements such as Seoul Land, the zoo, and some other Nature Camping grounds, we went back to town to find the considerably more accessible Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA). The weather has been brutal in Seoul with some sort of heatwave going on (36+ degrees!) so the museums are extra crowded with visitors trying to dodge the heat by staying indoors.

I realized that I had visited the SeMA two years ago and taken the exact same route around Seoul’s City Hall (서울특별시청) area, and the performance of officials marching outside a then hitherto unknown palace was actually Deoksugung Palace (덕수쿵).

korean sculpture seems to be very flat IMG_8982

10 Nov 2009 -vs- 2 August 2012

Hidden Track

SeMA Gold 2012
19 June 2012 – 26 August 2012

The ground floor is host to a “Hidden Track” exhibition, to which one can obtain an English audio guide which was incredibly informative. Featuring a number of mid-career korean artists (in their 50s and 60s) and works, but without a specific theme for the works in the show, the curator’s text writes: “Hidden Track is an opportunity to peep into domestic mid-career artist’s “hidden desire”. For the artists, hidden tracks are unnamed desires intermittently existing between their primary styles that helped them gain reputation. This desire at times works as momentum for creation, plays the role of gaining breath, or a soundless link-pin for their main styles.”

The concept itself is lovely; and its starting point is asking older artists who have practiced for over 30 years, to contemplate on where they stand in the art world, how they got there (presumably by developing a distinctive style or practice), and where they could go next from there (through creating work that explores the form that they might be used to, and to create a “hidden track” between hit songs that allows one to extend on one’s practice while also allowing listeners/visitors the chance to find something new.

Some of the works there are as follows:


Kim Jiwon – Some Moment (1988)


Ahn Kyuchul – In Love
The two lamps facing each other represent a boy and girl in love


The artist’s desire to suck out the events on that copy of the newspaper and to then blow it away


32 boxes containing personal effects, representing the artist who had moved 32 times


Lego man floating in Lego Coffin


“Butterfly” dust work, where the dust is supposed to resemble the dust on a butterfly’s wings


Abstract Composition with black paint on white


(In background) Floating objects in plastic bags as sculptural work


Random items framed as artifacts


Items given nonsensical labels

I find myself drawn towards the installation or sculptural works and they certainly dominate this show. One of the works that seems pretty interesting yet peculiarly somewhat out of context is the “Star Club” at the end of the exhibition hall. From outside, one can hear loud music coming out from behind the red plush doors. When one enters, the music and light show goes on and on as if you are in a real club. All of a sudden it ends. The lights come on strong for a few seconds, and the audio guide tells me that it hopes to present that awkward moment when the club music dies down and you are suddenly in a club with all the lights on. Finally the lights go off and the glow-in-the-dark stars in the background form constellations in the background, to remind you that you are a small dot in the universe (also according to audio guide). While the intention is appreciated, and the dying down of the music and light is an interesting moment, I think the light show left one expectant for more – rather than “awkward” or feeling suddenly “abandoned” in the space – because one often goes into a gallery with the expectation of having to drift in and out of works and sometimes entering at the wrong timing.

I suppose what I mean is that its impossible to transpose a club into a gallery fully or adequately, but maybe someone should make a work about people going to see time-based or timed works at the wrong timing…?



Noh Sang Kyoon – Star Club


Mapping the Realities: Korean art in the 1970s-80s from the SeMA collection
Chapter 1: Modernist Art in the 1970s
Chapter 2: Minjung Art (People’s Art) in the 1980s
19 June 2012 to 19 August 2012


On the second floor of the SeMa there is part of SeMA’s permanent collection in an exhibition titled “Mapping the Realities”. It also extends to the third floor. This is a collections show by SeMA with works categorized under two broad periods and some smaller themes such as Alienation, Industrialisation, Capitalism, etc.

Chapter 1: Modernist Art of the 1970s:

The first part is of Modernist art from the 70s, with a selection of monochromatic concept paintings, pop art, art publications, documentation of performances or actions, and other experimental art forms.

Lee U Fan - Correspondence

Lee U Fan – Correspondence


Ha Chong Hyun – 02-36


Yuh Hyong Keun – Umber Blue 77481 (work on the left side)


Other more textural work


Publications and timeline (korean)



Lee Kun Yong – Process


Lee Seung Taeck – 무졔


Boy do the koreans love to take pictures. Of themselves. Of themselves in front of artwork. Of lights. Of museum equipment. Of themselves in galleries. Of their babies. Of everything. Even the children have their own phone cameras. As it is summer holidays and a heatwave all combined together, there are an unholy amount of children and families at the museums in Seoul, all taking pictures at the same time.

Chapter 2: Minjung Art (People’s Art) in the 1980s:

For me, as an english speaker and with very little english text to go by, it seemed as if there had been very little attempt to explain or map the connection of how we went from the playfulness and joie de vivre of the 70s to the sudden brutal, gruesome, flame-licked realism of the 80s. There is a perfectly good reason for this sudden flick of the switch, I am sure, and it must be related to politics and war in Korea at that period. But it seems as if they chose not to even attempt to show any continuity, or to elaborate and explain more on the change – and instead they simply broke it over two floors with the modern art below and the realist art above. Through the selection of images in the following 5 themes, the picture of Korean art is one that is strikingly realist, political/critical of politics and media, and completely ignoring and eschewing the abstract and modern art that was perceived to have come via western influences in the 80s. Note that it is capped off by a sudden return to traditional values at the end of the show, which was a little puzzling for me. I’m not entirely sure why this arrangement, but perhaps the Korean accompanying text/audioguide was more ample with its explanation than the English text…

In the exhibition:
Scene 1: Criticism and the Political Art
Scene 2: Industrialisation and the Issue of Labor
Scene 3: Consumer Society and Media
Scene 4: Capitalism and Human Alienation
Scene 5: Traditional Values and Mass Production





I am not so much a fan of social realism so I just skimmed through all this. So of note is not really the art but of a situation where a small child became fascinated with a kafkaesque sculpture of a man gazing through a door resembling his own shadow folded back on itself. The child wanted to touch the man on the other side but the parents and museum staff were there to prevent that from happening.


There was also more across a corridor, these are the media/consumerism related works.




Move on Asia

Finally at the top floor there is a small room where they are showing film works: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Phantoms of Nabua (a short film about lights and fire), Ho Tzu Nyen’s Cloud of Unknowing which have I have meaning to see and finally got to see in its entirety here, Song Dong’s sculptural “Eating Landscape” piece with fish heads and meat and a poem in the background (“eating for nothing, don’t eat also wasted”), and Yang Fudong’s puzzling “The Half Hitching Post” short about two fully suited chinese men wandering lost in rural china (which was slightly marred by poor sound production or playback that made it even more confusing actually).



Eating Landscape, 2005, 7 min 7 Sec (Song Dong)

Cloud of Unknowing, Ho Tzu Nyen

Cloud of Unknowing, 2010, 28 min (Ho Tzu Nyen)


Yang Fudong

Permanent Collection: The Soul of Chun Kyung-Ja

Finally the permanent collection features an exhibition that I also saw back in 2009 or 2010. “The Soul of Chun Kyung-Ja” is a exhibition of small works by a painter/translator/writer who travelled extensively and also painted on her travels in a distinctive style with strong lines and bright colours.



Travelling as an “artist” to make work in a foreign country, I also wonder how precisely the travelling changes my work or how much of the new place I should integrate into my work. Since I make place-based work, the location matters to me. I suppose I think of these residencies and trips as research trips in which I gather information. Another thing that just occurred to me during this trip to the SeMA is that with my fondness for works about narratives, I have a feeling that somewhere further down the line I will end up working with film as a medium as well.