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2016 travel diary 4: National Folk Museum, Kim Soonam’s shaman portraits and the journey to Chungnam

Jongno, Seoul, Monday 16 May 2016, 9am

A visit to the National Folk Museum

In the grounds of the National Folk Museum

The good thing about having a local companion sense-check your travel plans is that they can point out weaknesses that only a local is likely to know about. So when Chris saw that I was planning a day trip from Seoul to the Baekje capitals in Chungcheongnam-do on a Monday she was able to make two suggestions:

  • Some of the attractions of the ancient Baekje sites are in museums, and most museums Korea are closed on a Monday. The main museum that does stay open on a Monday is in Seoul: the National Folk Museum in the Gyeongbokgung palace area, and that museum fortuitously has a couple of exhibits related to Baekje. We should therefore visit the Folk Museum first, before heading down to Baekje.
  • If we weren’t going to be able to get to Chungnam until early afternoon, why not stay in the area overnight, and have the opportunity to see a few things that we wouldn’t have been able to pack in to a single day?

Both excellent suggestions, further improved by an offer to drive me from Chungnam to Sancheong on the Tuesday morning so that I could resume my itinerary in the South as planned.

At 9am she arrives at my hotel and we drive to the National Folk Museum. It is a museum that I have always known about, but never visited. There have always been other priorities. And to be honest the five-storey pagoda that dominates the site looks as if it has landed from another planet, or at least another country. It is in fact based on the five-storey pagoda at Beopjusa in Chungcheongbuk-do: the Palsangjeon (National Treasure #55), which was built in 553 CE; and the platform on which it has been constructed is based on the stairways at the entrance to Bulguksa near Gyeongju (dating from two hundred years later). Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of styles and lack of context that has put me off.

But the museum is an interesting way to spend an hour, exhibiting as it does displays relating to many different traditional customs: marriage, death, kimchi-making, soju-making and more.

Seeing the exhibit relating to mat-weaving, some of the works of artist Lee Seung-taek immediately made sense.

Another exhibit to catch my attention was a display case showing how straw sandals were made: a wooden frame with pegs is used to wrap the straw around. Beside the wooden frame was a picture of an old man making sandals who could not afford a wooden frame. Instead, he was using his big toes to wrap the straw around. It was an entertaining little picture, full of character and affection. And then I saw the name of the artist: it was another of Yun Du-seo’s works, and I would see the original down in Haenam County later in my trip.

And we achieved our main objective of the visit: the full-size replica of the famous Great Gilt-bronze Incense Burner of Baekje (National Treasure #287) – just in case we didn’t get to see the real thing on our travels.

Kim Soo-nam’s shaman portraits


Often some of the most memorable moments in a journey are those that are completely unplanned: sometimes you are simply meant to deviate from your intentions: an unseen hand seems to be guiding you to something unexpected, fascinating or beautiful – or all three. Later in my trip, a couple of missed turnings on the road or misreadings of the map generated a detour or a viewpoint which was much better than the schedule originally planned, and that was the case this morning too. A special exhibition at the Folk Museum focused on the photographic work of Kim Soo-nam (金秀男, 1949-2006), whose family donated his collection of 170,000 photographs to the museum in 2015 – a generous gesture and also a very prudent step in passing the responsibility for conservation of this important body of work to a national institution. This was the first time that the museum had shown extracts from the collection, and the captions attached to the photographs were precise and detailed.

Shaman portrait by Kim Soo-nam
Image credit

As the exhibition description states:

From 1970s to 2006 over a period of 30 years, Kim Soo Nam took a series of pictures of gutpan (scenes of Korean shamanic rituals) across the country and in many other Asian countries. He not only captured those exciting and precious moments during the ritual, but laughed and cried with the people he photographed.

Sometimes Kim, putting down his camera for a moment, tried to understand feelings and thoughts of both people who invited shamans and shamanic practitioners; to know reasons people ask shamans to perform gut (Korean shamanic rituals) and roles the rituals played in people’s lives.

This exhibit presents themes relating to life and death that Kim wanted to convey through his images.

The photographs that particularly gripped me were those which documented guts conducted by Kim Geum-hwa (the central character documented in Park Chan-kyong’s mesmerising film Manshin) and by her spirit daughter Choi Hee-ah. Those which had an unsettlingly strong effect on me were the photographs taken at the time of Choi’s naerim gut in 1981, at Kim Geum-hwa officiated. Somehow the still, black and white images of Choi’s preparations and performance seemed to be reaching out to me with a mysterious power, and I am now on a mission to witness in person any gut conducted by her. Speaking to a photographer a few days later, she too said she had experienced a strange sensation on seeing one of Kim Soo-nam’s shaman portraits: in her case, she felt that she saw the photographer himself look back at her through the eyes of the shaman. I can’t ever recall having such a strong sensation on seeing a photograph – a tribute to the art of the photographer and the mysterious power wielded by his subject.

I eventually dragged myself away from the exhibition, and forked out 50,000 Won on a collection of Kim’s shaman photographs, published in 2005. Visitors to Park Chan-kyong’s exhibition at Iniva in early 2015 will have seen it in Park’s thoughtful collection of bonus materials that he left on the table for people to browse. Sadly, the captions in the book were far less precise than those in the exhibition itself: the images of the 1981 naerim gut were all there, but neither the name of the initiate or her spirit mother were recorded. Similarly, in the smaller format necessary for fitting into the book, and with the image often spread across two pages with the middle portion lost in the fold of the pages, the images lost some of their power. Nevertheless, a fine memento of a very special exhibition.

Kim Soo-nam Gut

Journey to Gongju

Some young visitors to the National Folk Museum
Some young visitors to the National Folk Museum

We emerged, slightly disoriented after the emotionally draining exhibition, into the brilliant sunlight outside the museum. With a heavy book under my arm I requested a quick detour back to the hotel to deposit it with my large suitcase to await my return to Seoul: I didn’t want to be carrying surplus weight on my journey down south because I knew I’d be collecting additional bulk (brochures, books, and more) on my travels. On the way, we stopped the car on the Insadong crossroads and bought some sticky mugwort ricecakes as breakfast substitute to see us through until lunchtime.

Getting out of Seoul was really rather slow for a Monday mid-morning: traffic was surprisingly heavy on the expressway until we got past the satellite town of Seongnam. We stopped at the Anseong rest area for lunch: Chris knew that it was a dependable source of tasty nutrition, and as we were on a tight schedule it seemed far preferable to have something quick on the road rather than dither at our destination wondering where to eat.

Anseong Gukbap at Anseong rest stop
Anseong Gukbap at Anseong rest stop

Anseong rest area, on the oldest expressway – the GyeongBu – has become known for some of its dishes, among which is the Anseong Gugbak (can you imagine a British motorway service station becoming similarly renowned  – except maybe Gloucester Services on the M5)? We top up with spicy hot food, and then I browse the ppongtchak stall for CDs to keep me entertained in the car. I buy a double album of Namdo Minyo – folk songs from South Jeolla, as that’s where ultimately I’m headed. We also buy a small bag of hodugwaja (profiterole-like pastry stuffed with walnut paste, served hot, straight from the cooker) and a couple of coffees to accompany us on the road as we head off down the expressway into Chungcheongnam-do, listening to some han-drenched southern laments.

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