Getting acquainted with some of Korea’s traditional crafts

by Philip Gowman on 19 July, 2009

in Ceramics, Crafts, Exhibition reviews and comment, Living Heritage, Minhwa

This week presents the opportunity to catch two exhibitions at the Korean Cultural Centre: the Living Heritage exhibition is just about to close (on 21 July), while the ceramics from Gangjin will be here until 23 July.

Kim Man Hee: 10 Symbols of Longevity (십장생도)

Kim Man Hee: 10 Symbols of Longevity (십장생도)

In an era of mass productions what has been assembled in the Cultural Centre is a collection of exquisite objects, lovingly made. The “Living Heritage” exhibition gathers together some of the traditional crafts from Seoul. While Korea’s capital is undoubtedly modern, the metropolitan government has established a system of classifying and preserving its intangible cultural heritage in order to ensure that the city retains some of the spirit of its past. Korea has its system of national intangible assets, and individual provinces have their own regional assets it tries to preserve. Seoul’s list of crafts stretch from natural lacquer work, through sieve making to brewing and distillation of spirits.

Products of the distillation process will probably not be available to sample at every visit to the KCC. At the opening reception there was a table containing all sorts of unfamiliar brews. They deserved a little lecture all of their own, or maybe a tutored tasting. It was a shame that samples were being handed out with only the briefest of commentary, as it resulted in the drinks not being given the respect they deserved. My own comment: those who say soju is firewater haven’t tried hyangonju.

Silver Tortoise

Of the non-consumable crafts on display, the bright colours of minhwa folk painting by Lee Man Hee and dancheon temple painting by Yang Yong Ho immediately make their presence felt, but humble objects such as kites, rush mats and knots should not be overlooked. The simple shapes of the brown vases or the intricate inlay work – whether of mother-of-pearl in the wooden cabinets, or of silver thread in the majestic stirrups by Choi Gyo Jun – are the product of centuries of tradition.

At the opening reception of the Living Heritage exhibition, many of the masters who created the work were present to discuss their art – if you were fortunate enough to speak Korean. Sometimes you wish that these receptions were held at least a few days in to the exhibition, giving the audience a chance to appreciate the work and understand it a little before meeting the master craftspeople. One needed to have read the informative detail in the back few pages of the exhibition catalogue to understand something about the crafts. But many visitors may be distracted by the seductive images of the works which fill most of the catalogue, and never get to the small print information at the end, which is a shame. Sometimes, people are lazy, and one or more illustrated talks about the significance of the different crafts would have been beneficial.

In the customary introductions from dignitaries which fill the front pages of the exhibition catalogue, the representatives of the Seoul Metropolitan government and of the Seoul Intangible Cultural Heritage Association both express a wish that the exhibition will help Koreans resident in the UK gain a sense of pride in their culture. Even without any accompanying lecture, one can appreciate the finished objects as things of beauty, and gain a brief insight in to some of Seoul’s long history of craftsmanship.

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