A day-trip South into Gyeonggi-do to visit two top museums. There are other things to visit near Yongin as well as the Folk Village.
Eulji-ro, Seoul, Friday 13 June, 9am. The Ho-am Art Museum in Yongin is home to a number of treasures. The museum opened in 1982 as the permanent home for the collection of Samsung boss Lee Byung-chul, and is named after Lee’s own pen-name. A lot of meaning is contained in those two syllables: according to Wikipedia, Ho-am means “filling up a space with clear water as lakes do, and being unshakeable as a large rock.”
Set in pleasant gardens near a lake, the building lives up to the name. Presiding over an imposing lawn is its monstrous edifice: a huge stone monolith which nods to some traditional Korean architectural features with the shape of its roof but otherwise a brutal structure.
The challenge is how to get there by public transport. Websites will give details of buses from inconvenient terminals to places in the middle of nowhere. My preferred route was to take the subway to a station reasonably close and take a taxi from there. But when the hotel concierge said it would be less than $50 to get there by taxi from downtown Seoul, that seemed like the best solution for someone with limited time to spare.
Making allowances for a taxi driver’s ignorance of geography and reliance on GPS, the concierge wrote down the museum’s address, and while he was at it also wrote down the address of the Paik Nam June Art Center which is in the same general direction as the Ho-am, as I thought I might have time to visit that later in the day. I got into a waiting taxi outside the hotel entrance.
The concierge’s estimate of cost was pretty accurate. As the taxi turned off the expressway at the exit for Everland Theme Park, the massive Samsung entertainment complex, there was $35 on the meter. And then another $10 was clocked up as we drove around the park, which is the size of a small county, to the entrance of the Ho-am. As the driver dropped me off, he asked if I wanted him to wait. “There’s no way of getting out of here if you haven’t got a car”, he seemed to be suggesting. I was more confident, and sent him away. But his words left a feeling of unease in my gut as I walked around the Hee Won, the specially designed Korean garden which provides the setting for the museum.
The Hee Won was built more than a decade after the museum itself, and opened in May 1997. Its designer is Jung Young-sun, President of Seo-Ahn Total Landscape. Reflected in the name of her company is one of the design philosophies of the Hee Won and of some traditional Korean gardens: that of the “Borrowed Landscape”. “Gardens are made by people, but the principle is to make it look as if it were made by heaven,” says Ms Jung.1 In practical terms what this means is minimising the amount of human intervention in the physical landscaping, but instead making the most of the views of nature and surrounding scenery that lie outside the boundary of the garden. In the case of the Hee Won, the borrowed landscape is that of the mountain and reservoir that lie across the valley from the museum – though unfortunately when I visited the reservoir was running rather low.
The Hee Won has been called an “encyclopaedia of Korean gardening”2: it contains a number of separate features from traditional Korean gardens. According to Chung Jae-hoon, Professor of Traditional Landscape Architecture, Korean National University of Cultural Heritage, “visitors can experience the tranquil atmosphere of old-time gardens … with such features as Bohwamun Gate (modeled after the Yuhyeon-mun Gate of Deoksugung Palace) (which is where the taxi drops you – Ed), a bamboo grove (once a common sight in the gardens of ordinary homes), the harmonious blending of Sowon Garden’s pond and pavilion, and the gyeryu flowing into the pond.”
But Jung argues that her design is not simply mimicry. She says Heewon is not merely a Korean traditional garden—it’s an evolution of tradition.
“A lot of our history and tradition was cut off by the Japanese colonial period, the Korean War and afterwards,” she says. “Especially with gardening, there was no modernization process. In that regard, this place is very important.” True to Korean gardening techniques, Jung chose not to copy Korea’s other famous gardens. “We couldn’t just imitate Huwon or Soswaewon or Buyongdong,” she says. “We needed to make something that fit this building (the museum), this landscape and this age.”2 To further take advantage of the landscape, she included a larger “outer garden” with the lake and mountains so that visitors from the city could better appreciate the beauty of the landscapes.
If you are looking for horticultural interest and human intervention, this “outer garden” is not the place to look. But elsewhere what caught my interest the most were the stone statues, usually coming in pairs. They reminded me of the stone harubang (돌 하르방) found on Jeju Island – and indeed there was a pair of Jeju-style statues there. The human figures go by the name of Poksu. According to some information appropriately carved in stone in the outer part of the garden:
Depending on the region, poksu may also be made of wood and are known by various dialectical names such as jangseung, susari, dolmiruk, dolharubang and the like. Poksu are popular in Gyeongsangdo, Jeollado and Jeju Island. Though the names and the role they play differ somewhat from place to place, they are always unsophisticated, humorous sculptures with exaggerated features. Their friendly faces show the typical countenance of common people who make poksu with their earnest wishes. Stone poksu such as these stood as guardian spirits of tombs, village entrances, the cardinal directions, the Dharma, the gates of fortified towns, and so on, and were often placed in pairs representing the literati and the military.
The cute statues were kept out of the main parts of the garden so as not to disturb the refined sensibilities of the scholars within. Instead, in the Main Garden – dominated by the rectangular lotus pond (representing the earth) with its circular central island (representing heaven) – were some natural stones typical of a scholar’s garden.
Similarly, to the side of the main lawn (which represents Yang with its bright, open space) is the more shaded Woldae (representing Yin) which contained other natural stone for peaceful contemplation.
Indeed, it is the shaded, less structured parts of the Hee Won – the views through the trees, the occasional kimchi jar sitting on the grass, a Buddhist pagoda perched randomly on a rock – that probably give even more pleasure than the big set-piece Main garden, containing its large rectangular lotus pond, which sits between the museum building and its imposing front lawn at its back and the borrowed landscape of the hill and reservoir in front.
I finish meandering around the various corners of the garden and enjoying its different vistas, ending up on the front lawn, and then venture inside the museum itself. Inside, it is cool, quiet, and empty, apart from its treasures. In the half hour or so that I browsed, I came across one other visitor – it’s rather a privilege to have such undisturbed access to the exhibits. In the first room was a temporary exhibition which featured works depicting children at play; in the second room some precious ceramics. What else there was, I can’t remember. The museum has a no-photo policy, and if there was a leaflet describing the exhibition I didn’t spot it.
Outside the museum, to one side of the main lawn, is a picturesque tea-shop where I idled away the time sipping some exotic-tasting tea and watching the peacocks, until it was time to test the ease of escape from Everland.
The escape plan is to get on any shuttle bus you can find. From the museum, there is a free hourly minibus which takes you, via a tourist hotel, to the massive parking lot at the entrance to the main theme park. From that car park you take a leap of faith and get on the frequent bendy-bus service that takes you to a nearby public bus terminal and coach park. And at the bus terminal there is a taxi rank.
As it’s only around 3pm, I take a taxi to the Paik Nam June Art Center, a 15 minute drive away. Having been to a Paik Nam June exhibition (at Tate Liverpool) where photography was prohibited it was refreshing to go to a place where there seemed to be no restrictions at all, but frustrating that I didn’t have a decent camera with me.
Inside, the museum is divided into a number of spaces. In the foyer, which looked out onto the green slopes of the hill behind, was an exhibition entitled From Horse to Christo, named after a 1981 essay by Paik of the same title, in which he examines the way in which in the past people communicated by means of messengers on horseback, at a time when means of communication and means of transportation were indistinguishable. For Paik, the modern way of mass communication was the television, and the sculptures in this part of the exhibition included an elephant pulling a cart of TVs.
Further inside the museum space were examples of other of his works, such as TV Buddha, Electronic Moon and TV Garden (the latter installation being pretty much impossible to photograph because of the contrasts of light and shade).
I had somehow managed to miss out on lunch, and made up for it by having a ridiculously large piece of cinnamon toast with coffee in the museum café.
From the Art Center I take a 15 minute stroll to Giheung station on the Bundang Line, and take the subway for the hour-or-so ride back into town. With perfect timing, just as I get off the train at Hyewha, the phone rings to ask me why I’m not at exit 1 yet.
Yi Chul-jin is there to meet me, and we proceed to a nearby barbecue duck restaurant for dinner before a performance at his nearby theatre.
At his theatre he is showing a series of regional traditional performers. At the end of the series, the troupe judged to be the finest will get a prize. Tonight it was to be a group of performers from Gochang County in Jeollabuk-do, performing some mainstream nongak.
Encouragingly, the house was full. And even better, the audience was knowledgeable and enthusiastic, shouting the occasional words of encouragement or appreciation, which makes a performance so much more enjoyable than when an audience is just sitting there expecting to be entertained.
As might be expected, the show ended with audience participation, the performers inviting different audience members on stage for either solo or group humiliation. I thought I was safe, sitting several rows back. But as the only foreigner in the audience I was a prime target and had to relent, prancing around on stage with the rest of them.
We retired for drinks with some of the cast to the adjacent restaurant – beers, soju and a spicy fish stew. As I stepped out to phone Louise I realised that this was the very place that had caused such a devastating hangover a few years before. As the rest of the company head off to go to what would be 3cha for me, I make my apologies and stroll back to Myeongdong for bed.
- Source: interview with Robert Koehler in November 2013 edition of Korea Magazine.
- Korea Magazine, ibid.