An aspect I appreciate about Korea is that I feel perfectly anonymous on my days out exploring. I am just a foreign face, with no identity, no past and no social ties, completely independent to act and be as I please. I find after having lived in Cape Town for several years, whether you choose to adhere to certain social norms or constructs or not, you are aware of them. You are aware of what to say and do in certain social situations or particular social circles. This of course can be a good tool for survival in a socially minded city like Cape Town, however, I do find it limiting. The fact often prevents me from acting freely or spontaneously. I limit what I say to certain people, as well as what I do. Honestly, without even thinking about it. However, whilst I am here in Korea, I feel nameless, speechless and free. Having embarked on this creative journey, I travel to Seoul once a week to explore or wander. The feeling of anonymity is certainly helpful in this regard – I can enter the realm of my creativity unperturbed by others around me, undeterred by their presence, and me, unaware of their thoughts and ideas. I simply have no frame of reference. I can wonder, watch, absorb, touch, reflect and simply be. So, as I sit here, in a random restaurant just off the busy streets of Itaewon, sheltered by a makeshift plastic screen distorting the view in front of me, the sun setting behind the buildings casting shadows that further warp the world before me, I feel new, unlimited and free to be whatever I choose to in that moment. It is liberating.
The Leeum Samsung Gallery is situated atop a steep incline just off the main road about 150 metres from Hangangjin Station, which is next to the popular Itaewon Station – the foreign hub of Korea.
I was distracted by the upmarket houses in the area - some exhibiting bare industrial features with stark surfaces and minimalistic touches whilst others revealed a warm modern touch with face brick walls and wooden window frames and roofs. In comparison to the dreary apartment buildings or the traditional hanoks, they offered a variation in style. I was about to continue my search up the hill for the gallery, when to my left, I see the spiders that I had only glimpsed previously on a friends facebook album. Finally, my gaze held this vision, this gigantic spider – enormous, awkward yet graceful, apocalyptic and stunning all at once.
Her massive metal legs stand, poised over the earth in a perfect position, as if she is ready to move at any moment, yet is cautiously standing her ground. I was utterly tranfixed by her presence, unearthly, primordial, even sinister. She just stands there elegantly, high above us, watching. An aura of some primal intelligence and ruthlessness can be felt as if she knows one movement of her steel legs could pin me to the ground and split me open. She is truly magnificent. Just next to her, is her smaller counterpart, not quite as tall or deadly, but exuding an equal effect of intimidation. The spiders are just so out of place, here, on top of this hill, amidst these houses, in the ever conservative Korea, massive metal arachnids, ready to strike.
On later reading within the Art Gallery, I learnt that the artist designed the larger of the spiders as a female carrying her eggs beneath her inside a steel cage, and is testimony to her fierce maternal instincts, however, that her spindly legs serve to show how vulnerable she is. I clearly felt the protective instinct about her, feeling small and weak in comparison, however, I did not feel the sense of vulnerability that the artist hoped to convey.
Inside the Gallery itself, I found contemporary and modern art work that I did not feel an affinity for, its purpose lost on me. I found 2 pieces interesting, however, there is an eclectic array of artwork from photography to detailed sketches to large instillations of radios mounted on televisions sets with antenna peering from the sides that might delight you.
Part of the exhibition I did find moving and beautiful was the Buddhist art located in Museum 1 on the ground floor. A phenomenal ‘mini’ pagoda welcomes you as you enter, utterly mesmerizing with its many floors, personalities and tales all rising and telling a different story with its detailed engravings of pictures, people, deities that I do not understand, but leave a feeling of appreciation. Following the pagoda are various statues of sitting Buddha’s, the standing Buddha triad, Boddhisatva and my favourite, the pensive Maitreya.
I am amazed at the pristine condition of these very old artifacts, and utterly grateful they exist in Korea, having come from China and ultimately changing philosophy and religion in Korea. The artwork conjures the beautiful complexities and intricacies of Buddhism, a tradition of transcendence and divinity, compassion and love, embodied in this art and preserved for centuries and ready for our eyes to behold. I feel truly in awe as I leave this gallery and take to the streets of Itaewon to explore and wander, feeling inwardly quieter and more peaceful from this serene afternoon of beauty. I sincerely recommend a visit to this gallery and truly feel it has something to inspire you.
On Sunday, I decided to head to Samcheong Park, beckoned by the flowering of the cherry blossoms, and in keeping true to my nature, away from the bustling and crowded streets of Yeoinaru. Samcheong Park is about a 30 minutes amble up the road from Anguk station, exit 2. This was a particularly intriguing way to spend a Sunday as Anguk is simple and charming with a sense of familiarity that emits from the streets that are new to my eyes. I felt welcomed by the warm coffee shops, boasting organic coffee and fresh teas, art galleries, furniture shops and expensive clothing stores all intermingled with bakeries and specialised food stores lending to a unique aura of Italy meets Korea. A sense of sophistication can be felt, uncharacteristically clean and somewhat classy with their modern buildings with marble finishings and stylish lighting. However as we ventured further up this street, we came across traditional Korean style homes, Hanok, made from timber, soil and rock with their exquisitely tiled roofs (Giwa) and wooden beams. I can’t say why I love these building so much, only
that they seem to speak to a part of me that I don’t even know, as if I once lived in a Hanok – perhaps grew up in one, grew old in one – there is just a connection felt, and it is strong. Perhaps it is the sense of living history that one cannot help but feel emanating from the very old and sturdy walls.
The streets veered off from the main road, winding their way into a confused maze of houses and alleys and stairwells, all exhibiting the same richness of time and perfection in constructing these homes.
What I do find particularly beautiful about these buildings are their decorative eaves as well as the decorative doors. Such detail has been put into the making of these often overlooked aspects of our homes, however, there is something so intriguing about doors in Korea, which will be another entry on my blog, but for now, their decorative capacity and attention to detail is astounding and somewhat mystifying.
Further along our way, we pass several places of interest, or at least wonder, such as the Seoul Museum of Chicken Art. I did not wait around to find out why such a place exists, but chose rather to accept it was just another idiosyncrasy of Korea. The road meandered its way up the hill, offering sweet passages up small stairwells, more hanoks to delight the eye, and finally, at the crescent of the hill, our eyes fell upon some of what the cherry blossoms had to offer. In the distance, a feast for our eyes, was a hill, scattered with trees, and smatterings of cherry blossoms, visible by their contrasting colours to the early stages of spring and their still hibernating neighbours. Fresh white and pink blossoms colouring the hill with an unimaginable softness and newness that only the dawn of spring can show.
The park itself offers pathways and hikes demarcated by wooden walkways and bridges. Benches are provided for rest or simply to sit upon as you absorb your surroundings. My friend and I ate our Kimbap happily, talking away about the welcomed coming of spring and the imminent heat that will follow in summer, an occurrence we are both looking forward to. After lunch, we made our way around the park, enjoying the boardwalk and the earthen sound it made beneath our feet, watching butterflies glide by, people walking their dogs and families out on excursions.
Our chosen path winded its way up and around, opening up to what might have been a brook had there been sufficient rain to water its thirsty banks.
Finally, after much exploring and feeling our why through what nature and this beautiful park had to present, we returned to the main area of the park, with concrete paths teaming with visitors and families alike. Here the cherry blossoms stand like centuries, overlooking and overhanging the path, enveloping it with its beauty, creating an archway through which to exit. Perhaps the allure of these flowers, is the fact that they are so short lived, and must be savoured as much as possible.
On heading back down the street, we stopped to wish the last few alleyways a warm farewell, stopping to peer at the last few stores that caught our eye on the way up, and finally, stopping to have tea in one of the many quaint tea rooms along the road. An exquisite journey, and one I definitely recommend.