They have an art biennale here — doesn’t everyplace? Cindy has one of her new wallpaper pieces in the show, so we took advantage of the opportunity and came over and stayed a few extra days. The biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, who has done other big surveys, featured, besides some well-known names, lots of stuff that some might not call art — period Korean advertising photos, minus text, by Hanyong Kim, and a promo film commissioned by a Japanese bicycle company done by an avant-garde film collective in the ’50s. There were pieces by Asian artists we’d never heard of (a Korean artist did paintings in an old Buddhist style, one of which was about women who’d had abortions suffering in hell), healing drawings by Swiss healer Emma Kunz (who died in 1963), and some vaguely outsiderish pieces (including incredible drawings by Chinese healer Guo Fengyi that she originally started doing to heal herself of ailments contracted due to factory work, and now does to “heal” others). Here’s one of her drawings:
It was great to see one of these biennale things loosen up a bit on their criteria regarding what to include. Too often they seem like sales conventions for successful galleries, with an idea tacked on to add a veneer of intellectual substance — a puppet government run by the lobbyists. This one actually seemed to be about a gathering of great stuff, no matter where it came from — some of which is shown in commercial galleries, and much that is not. Here is a sample page from one of Shinro Ohtake’s books. He’s a musician/artist who is now in a band called JUKE/19 with Yamantaka Eye, of the more well-known Boredoms. An entire room was filled with these scrapbooks, opened to random pages. They seemed to be made of ephemera and then drawn and painted over — most pages were even more messy than this spread:
Not too many of the name artists were in attendance — I saw Maurizio Cattelan and Ai Weiwei at a lunch, but not a whole bunch of others. Other curators attended — Okwui Enwezor and Francesco Bonami showed up, checking out their co-curators’ work. It’s a long way to come for Americans and Europeans, though some westerners were making this part of an itinerary that included Beijing and other new art centers.
At the same time, almost next door to the biennale, which shows in two purpose-built buildings, there was the Gwangju art fair opening in the massive convention center. This was more of a hodgepodge — some kitschy stuff and some contemporary art from an alternative universe. Art has become a “thing” here, as it seems to be in China. It’s apparently something you have to have — every town should support it, and there are weird little galleries everywhere. Gwangju is proud of their biennale, as they should be, but what a choice for a town that on the surface seems fairly nondescript.
Gwangju, we were told, is a cultural town, and it is famous for being politically uppity too — there was a rebellion that the whole country remembers and celebrates. In 1980 the citizens of Gwangju rose up against the dictatorship that ruled Korea at that time (another that was aided and supported by the US), and were fired upon by the army. Citizens raided armories and essentially took control of the town before the uprising was brutally suppressed. On the face of things it’s a little hard to imagine — the town seems to be largely made of identical tower block apartments and love hotels. Chris Wiley, who wrote a lot about the artists in the biennale catalogue, called the apartments dystopian, but he added that the middle class here loves them. They prefer them to the funkier homes that used to fill this town. The tower blocks have gyms, pools and other mod cons, so the trade off might be understandable from a pragmatic point of view. When we arrived, I saw row after row and mile after mile of them and sort of began to get depressed, but then I was reminded that my reaction was based on the legacy, history and reputation of US and European housing projects, which is generally a story of vast neglect and of dangerous warrens for the urban poor. These, apparently, have none of that connotation, though it’s hard for us to shake our western biases and presumptions. Here is what much of the town used to look like:
And here are some typical tower blocks. They stretch from one end of town to the other. You can identify your block by a number.
Most young folks don’t live alone before they’re married, so love hotels abound to fulfill the need of a private place to smooch. Typically the parking is indoors, and designed so that no one sees you coming or going, or sees your car parked out front. Here’s one that mixes the Statue of Liberty with neoclassical soft core — because that’s what liberty is all about.
A typhoon hit Seoul while we were in Gwangju, which may have affected biennale and art fair attendance — all flights from the capitol were suspended, trees were uprooted in Seoul and there were power outages.
We went for a walk to the old market, Yangdong. There are two markets split by a street — one side is for clothes and curtains and such, the other for food. Korean food is wonderful — spicy, pungent and mainly vegetarian. Fish and meat are used as flavorings more so than massive portions. Typical meals are accompanied by a host of pickled vegetable dishes, and few dishes are fried.
In the market there were lots of dried and fresh fish dealers, hundreds of kinds of kimchee, and beans and legumes galore. Here is a kind of pizza with greens, crab and sausage on a bean pancake. It makes a nice composition.
A vendor told us that the older folks continue to enjoy silkworm larvae, but the young folks don’t go for it so much now.
On the clothes-side of the market there were, aside from Nike and Adidas knock offs, aisle after aisle of traditional formal wear. It was hot that day, and by the time we arrived it was mid afternoon, so some of the sales personnel took advantage of the slowness and napped. We saw booth after booth of incredible, brightly-colored, formal clothes — with here and there a sleeping beauty fallen down among them.
The island was recommended to us by a Korean American friend. It’s a volcanic island (though not active) about the size of Puerto Rico and lies off the southern coast of Korea. One large volcanic mountain dominates and there are hundreds of smaller cones scattered about the lush green landscape. An organization called Jeju Olle initiated the establishment of a series of trails that lie along the southern coast. The trails are divided into numbered sections, each about a 5-hour hike. Eventually they hope to have trails surrounding the whole island. This one used to be a honeymoon resort, but no longer — for a while tourism languished a bit, but now these trails have stimulated a kind of ecotourism as visitors collect hikes and compare experiences. It’s an admirable project in a place that has some local culture left (they speak a unique dialect). Unlike the theme parks and resorts that often get built in places like this, the trails are free — they foster an appreciation of the land and place (of a sort, see below) and leave no carbon footprint. The hotel suggested we try Number 7.
The first part of Number 7 is fairly mediated and built up. Along the path there are signs that show the exact locations used in historical TV dramas. There are also special tours of the island that focus entirely on former movie and TV locations — a different way of viewing a landscape. It’s landscape as a set — with accompanying nostalgic and emotional connections, if you happen to have seen the TV series.
Further on there is a baffling sign/billboard that depicts, in heightened colors, what lies directly behind the sign. Maybe it’s there to help you recognize the landscape as the real manifestation of a more iconic and familiar image: “Ah yes, that’s where we are! I’ve seen this image before.”
Further on the trail becomes more primitive, the signs are no more and one has to scamper over rocks at the base of some basalt cliffs that are honeycombed with indentations.
Then the trail leads along volcanic black rock beaches typical of this place, where women are bent over gathering seaweed that they dry on bushes or on the bike lane at the side of the road.
Koreans eat some seaweed with almost every meal — either in soup, dried as a garnish or pickled as a kind of kimchee. It’s delicious, healthy and judging by the huge piles of it these women accumulate all over the island, I assumed that Jeju might be a major seaweed source for all of Korea. I was told that no, what is gathered here is pretty much consumed here — the Korean peninsula is surrounded by water on 3 sides, so lots of seaweed is needed and it’s gathered everywhere.
Nearby these pungent piles are loads of tiny fish farms. There is abundant fresh water that pours down from the interior, which feeds these farms and is then dumped into the ocean, along with some fish that manage to escape.
We stop for a meal of fishtail stew and an amazing iced soup that is made of ground red pepper, sesame, cucumber, garlic and raw squid slices — and ice cubes. Nearby the local fishermen are bathing, naked, in a rocky pool where a river pours into the sea. Later some of them are having lunch in the restaurant, and they sprinkle a kind of acid on their dishes. It’s like super vinegar concentrate — 30% as opposed to the 5% in European vinegars — and the odor is like smelling salts or amyl nitrate. We were warned not to even smell it.
However, they do also make low acid vinegars — pomegranate, persimmon, garlic, apple and pepper — that are for drinking.
When the volcanoes in this island were erupting, the lava flowed down towards the sea, creating huge underground tubes as the outer layers of lava cooled and hardened. Subsequent lava flows took the same readymade routes, and we visited one where you can walk 1 km in. It goes on much further, 17 km I think. They’re not like limestone caves with stalagmites and stalactites, but more like a road, an abandoned subway tunnel. Water drips down everywhere and one imagines there are significant aquifers deep underground.
There are lava tubes elsewhere in the world — I went into one out west, in Utah I think it was. Those are more on the surface — one can see the overgrown snaking mounds stretching across a lava field that betray their presence, and fairly often a roof collapse allows one to clamber down into them. The tubes in Utah are smaller than those in Jeju, and in the one I climbed into there was no one around. I went in a ways, but without good lights I stopped and turned around, thinking one of the branching tributaries might be a perfect hibernating spot for a bear.