Art and Seoul

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
Trip End Dec 02, 2012

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Flag of Korea Rep.  , Seoul,
Friday, July 5, 2013

Another hot and humid day in Seoul. This morning we went to the Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁). The biggest, and possibly most frequently destroyed by the Japanese, of the Joseon palaces. I had been once before, in the late winter, but today my parents and I took an actual tour instead of just running around the grounds.

The Joseon dynasty began in 1392 and lasted for just over 500 years. The capital of the dynasty was Seoul, and several palaces were built in the area. They also built the Jongmyo shrine, which we visited yesterday. Many of the palace buildings were destroyed during the 1592 invasion by the Japanese. They were later partially restored only to have many of them damaged again during the Japanese colonial period and then the Korean War.

In the late 90's a 40-year restoration project began to rebuild around a third of the several hundred original buildings. One of the first actions of the restoration was tearing down a hulking office building the Japanese had constructed over the site of the palace courtyard, cutting off the route from the audience pavilion to the main gate. If you see old pictures the building looks like it's butting in between the people and the king, which of course I'm sure was the point. Oh, symbolism.

I imagine one of the sources of data for the palace reconstructions might be the historical chronicles of the Joseon period. We learned on our tour today that the Joseon dynasty had an interesting policy of not allowing contemporary kings to read what the chroniclers had written. This no doubt helped to ensure the accuracy of what was recorded.

In addition to presenting a picture of life during the Joseon period, the palace tour included stories about the unhappy ending of the dynasty. I don't think the tone of the tour was explicitly intended to be anti-Japanese, but it was easy to see why the Koreans might resent them what with all of the buildings that had been destroyed and the killing of Queen Min aka Empress Myeongseong. She was a late Joseon ruler who attempted to strengthen relations with Western powers in order to counter the influence of Japan, but she was assassinated in the palace by a squad of Japanese agents.

One light story from the end of the Joseon dynasty was the installation of the first electric lights in Asia at the request of King Gojong. He apparently wrote the Edison company asking for the lights. I wonder what the person reading the letter thought about getting a request from the King of Korea, and if they got many requests from monarchs around the world. At any rate, the company sent lights and engineers and installed them around the Geoncheonggung building.

The engineers used water from the pond to power the steam generator. The used water was dumped back into the pond where it raised the pond temperature and killed the fish. The lights were then referred to as the fish-boiling lights. Okay, I guess that story's kind of sad too.

After visiting the palace, we were all fairly tired from the heat and humidity. We snuck a quick peak outside of the back gate at the Blue House, South Korea's equivalent of the White House, went for a late lunch/early dinner, and hung out in the hotel A/C for a bit. My mother ate part of a giant bowl of cold noodles, and my father and I shared an even more massive pot of kimchi jjigae. I'm not sure why the servings were so huge. Usually Korean restaurants serve reasonable portion sizes when they're marked for one person.

In the evening, we went to see something called the (Original) Drawing Show. It was a live-action art show where performers created works of art before the audience, usually using strong, strokes and expressive body movement. The first work was a painting of a city skyline. When the painting was removed, it was revealed that they had been painting a t-shirt with the name of the show on it at the same time. They had a raffle and my dad won it. That was nice because he really enjoyed it, and he got to play around with the performers a bit when they pretended to ask for money for the shirt. (At least I assume they were pretending...)

My favorite painting was one they made by suspending ink in a tray of some sort of viscous liquid. After they were done, they pressed a sheet of paper into the tray and pulled out a painting of flowers. Another memorable technique when they made a illustration by shining a flashlight onto a florescent canvas.

The oddest painting was one they made of September 11th. It wasn't that the painting was bad, the technique of using a light and a lens to focus in on portions of the work as it was being created was interesting--I'm just not sure how I felt about the subject. At first, it was like, "Hey, they're painting the Statue of Liberty.". Then "There's the NYC skyline. That's random but kind of cool." Followed by "Wait... they just drew and airplane. And now there's smoke. Oh... Look the Statue of Liberty is crying..."

I'm sure they didn't mean anything by it. It just was one of those things where you're in a foreign country and you're not entirely sure of the intention of the painting. I'm sure they viewed the attacks as a tragedy. Apparently, they change the paintings from time-to-time and the original version of that act was a Korean statue crying about the burning of Namdaemun. That was a Korean national tragedy, but it didn't involve any loss of lives. Anyway, I'm sure they meant no intentional offense. I think it was supposed to make you sad, but it just made me uncomfortable because it seemed like a frivolous use of such heavy subject matter.

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