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2019 Travel Diary #1: Seoul

Lanterns at Jogyesa
Lanterns at Jogyesa, a week before Buddha’s Birthday

This year I decided to ease myself into the Korea trip gently: an evening plus a half-day in Seoul before heading off to visit friends elsewhere on the peninsula. I didn’t know how much energy I’d have when I landed, but had made tentative arrangements to meet up with London-based artist Bongsu Park, possibly with the dancer and musician with whom she would be collaborating in London later in the summer, at a group show that opened a couple of hours after my scheduled landing. On the other hand, if I had no energy, or if the arrangements fell through, the Jogyesa / Insadong area of Seoul is a great place to be if you just need to chill or spend time on your own.

Seoul traffic is never conducive to a swift journey from Incheon into the downtown area, and my hotel bus takes a circuitous route around the Seodaemun area before arriving at its final destination near Jogyesa, so I wonder whether I am going to be too late for the exhibition opening. But on exchanging messages with Bongsu I discover that the exhibition timing seems to be flexible, so I check in at the hotel, take a shower, and head off out to Jongak subway station to refresh my memory as to how the T-money system works and find the right subway line to Mullae-dong where the exhibition is taking place.

A few months ago the Royal Asiatic Society conducted a walking tour to an area that you wouldn’t have thought would have been worthy of attention – one of the many interesting activities organised by the RASKB, which you should join even if you don’t live in Korea. Gentrification of the Hongdae area has pushed artists and indie musicians south west in search of cheaper space. Enter Mullae-dong, “a fading industrial neighbourhood south of the river. Here, the creativity as well as the noisiness of industry and art go together. The area has led to the rise of art studios and live music venues, while also remaining one of Seoul’s roughest areas.” Obviously, being London-based, I wasn’t able to join the tour, but I was about to enjoy my own solo exploration.

Walking through the area at dusk immediately after arriving in Seoul after a long-haul flight was a slightly disorienting experience: the Naver map that guided me was accurate enough, but the exact location of the exhibition space among the backstreets of the area, was unclear. The likelihood of there being a gallery space in a neighbourhood where truckloads of sheet metal were busily being unloaded by fork-lift trucks illuminated by arc lamps seemed slim, and the helpful picture in the map was not much use after dark. Fortunately a messaging app comes to the rescue, and I manage to contact Bongsu who is in fact on the top floor of a building that I had walked past several times and completely ignored as it seemed to be in darkness.

The building was pretty much derelict, unused. But that did not stop a group of artists – mainly alumni from London’s Slade college of art – showing their video and installation work there.

Bongsu Park: Lethe
Bongsu Park: Lethe, 2015 (video still). single channel HD video, 6’30”. Edition of 3 + 2 A.P. Courtesy the artist and Rosenfeld Porcini Gallery

I spend some time absorbing Bongsu’s ghostly dance piece Lethe (2015-16). As I sit on a bench facing the video projected on the opposite wall, the neighbourhood cat joins me – a friendly creature whose long white fur seemed to have attracted all the dust and grit from the adjoining workshops. On the roof terrace people are gathering and chatting over some beers, and after a while artists and guests go in search of more beers and food at a nearby bar. A pleasantly chilled way to spend my first evening in Seoul.

Choi Jeong-hwa: Dandelion (2018)
Choi Jeong-hwa: Dandelion (2018). Kitchenware, diameter 9m

The next morning is equally relaxed: a leisurely coffee at my favourite coffee shop near the Japanese Embassy; a stroll around Jogyesa enjoying the colourful lanterns; a browse around Insadong, and a quick visit to the Seoul branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, where a zany installation by Choi Jeong-hwa constructed of used pots and pans graced the courtyard.

A quick brunch with the Drawing Hand, designer of the LKL Christmas cards, would likely be my last meeting with her in Seoul: she would be getting married and moving to Spain later in the year.

Bangpo Beach at sunset
Bangpo Beach, Anmyeondo, at sunset

It was time to return to Jogyesa to meet up with Chris, who as in previous years had kindly agreed to join me on the first leg of my travels. Leaving some bags in the hotel, we start on the journey southwest to Anmyeondo, Taeangun. We arrive at our small hotel on Bangpo Beach just before sunset, and head off to find some local crab for dinner.

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