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2010 Travel Diary #3: Moon Vases and Kim Gun Mo

Friday 30 April 2010. As usual, my arrival through Incheon Airport is swift and stress-free. Morgan, my interpreter, is there to meet me, my rental phone is ready for pickup at the SK Telecom desk, plus this time I have the added luxury of a driver (though the hotel limo-bus I usually take is also stress-free). I am taken to my hotel, and see that there is just time to shower, change and get to an exhibition at Gallery Hyundai before dinner.

Gallery Hyundai had done an efficient publicity effort for this particular exhibition. It’s not often that I see coverage of contemporary art shows in the English language Korean press, but both the Korea Times and the Joongang Ilbo had been given the publicity material and had run articles with it. It was enough to catch my attention and make we want to go along.

Kang Ik-joong: Moon over Gwanghwamun
Kang Ik-joong: Moon over Gwanghwamun

While the main gate to the Gyeongbok Palace, the Gwanghwamun, is being repositioned and renovated, its site is covered by a giant mural created by Korean born, New York resident artist Kang Ik-joong, famous for his love of moon jars and his creation of big mosaic style works: each individual panel1 can be considered individually, but together they create a larger narrative.

Kang Ik-joong: Moon over Gwanghwamun (detail)
Kang Ik-joong: Moon over Gwanghwamun (detail)

The Gallery Hyundai exhibition is Kang’s first show in Seoul for 14 years. The centrepiece of the exhibition – the work which appeared in the Korean press – is an installation of 1,392 reduced-scale moon vases arranged in a circle of sand on the floor. The concept is similar to Lee Young-jae’s installation of 111 vessels exhibited in Brussels two years ago. And to me the greater space and natural light available in the Beaux Arts museum enabled that installation to breathe more, creating a more pleasing overall effect. Possibly more interesting in the Gallery Hyundai exhibition were Kang Ik-joong’s larger images of moon jars painted in lacquer on wood, perhaps an homage to Kim Whanki but of course also a continuation of Kang’s exploration of the mysterious and iconic symbol of Joseon dynasty ceramics. The woman on the front desk wasn’t at all interested in emailing me any press information about the show, so I shall say no more about it. But I caught it just before it packed up to head off to the Shanghai expo, where no doubt there are big bucks sloshing around which might be persuaded to invest in one of Korea’s better known overseas artists.

Kang Ik-joong: 1,392 Moon Vases and Mountain
Kang Ik-joong: 1,392 Moon Vases (foreground) and Mountain. From Gallery Hyundai via Joongang Ilbo

I just have time to get round the exhibition before it’s time to head off to dinner. On the way back to the hotel, I pop in at Seoul Selection bookshop, now rebranded Hank’s Book Café. I always try to go there when I’m in Seoul to check out their stock, though more serious Korea scholars will want to visit the Royal Asiatic Society bookshop as well. I’m pleased to see that they have seven copies of Jennifer Barclay’s book, Meeting Mister Kim. They were rather slow to stock it when it first came out, but they seem to be making up for it now. They don’t have the second edition of Tom Coyner’s book on Mastering Business in Korea yet, though they have plenty of the old edition.

By an amazing coincidence, that very morning Anna from Indieful ROK had arrived in Seoul from Sweden for a week, aiming to attend some exciting gigs, and I was cheeky enough to get her invited along to dinner. My KCIS hosts were graciously accommodating. Although I had known Anna by email for a few years and am a huge admirer of her work, I had never met her in person. I decided to ring her the previous day in Sweden because I thought it would be just too weird if the first time we actually spoke to each other was in Seoul.

Over dinner there was talk about Korean culture, how Anna and I first became interested in Korea, the Korean health system, and the appropriate transliteration of last year’s most happening drink. Makgeolli is the official spelling under the current standard Romanisation system, though most westerners would struggle pronouncing the word correctly when spelt that way. Secretly, some ministry staff recognise the difficulty, but they are stuck with the need to enforce the official system.

Kim Gun Mo 3rd Album
Kim Gun Mo: 3rd Album

I am also told that my hotel, just around the corner from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in the Gwanghwamun area and where the august Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, have their fortnightly meetings, is where Shin Jeong-a, the ex-Dongguk University art curator with the fake Yale degree, conducted her affair with a highly placed government official. I always like a bit of local colour.

I discover over dinner that Anna’s initial exploration of Korean music started around 14 years ago, exchanging cassettes (remember them?) with a Korean pen-friend. And by another strange coincidence, the first Korean album she came across that really caught her imagination was Kim Gun-mo’s 3rd. It was exactly the same album which first caught my own attention, though in my case it was a recommendation from my Korean hairdresser in a salon off London’s Oxford Street.

Team photo
Team photo after dinner

It was very pleasant evening of civilised conversation with our KCIS hosts, and there was a seemingly never-ending procession of Joseon dynasty palace food. Afterwards I’m ready to turn in for the night, but Anna is still full of energy and heads off to Hongdae where she catches the tail end of some gigs and has tea with one of her favourite musicians, Tearliner.

I can tell it’s going to be a great week.

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  1. According to Korea Focus, the work is made up of 2,515 painted wooden panels, each 60cm by 60cm. []