Art and Seoul

30 Sep 2006 by intern11
There’s a new creative spirit sweeping through Seoul, evident in the bohemian quarter of Samcheong-dong with its eclectic mix of art galleries, museums and cafés, Julian Tan discovers

It’s a golden Sunday afternoon in a picturesque area of downtown Seoul. A cool breeze is blowing, traffic whizzes past and leaves fall quietly from the trees lining the avenue. The scene is straight out of a Korean soap – the heroine aimlessly roaming the street, looking lost and fragile, her mind thousands of miles away. Enter the leading man (suave-looking, no less), who suddenly appears from nowhere. Their eyes lock, tears stream down her cheeks and the pair glides inexorably towards each other, falling into a passionate embrace. 

Welcome to Seoul, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, where intimate corners for would-be Bae Yong-Juns and Choi Ji-Woos (reigning romantic leads of the small screen) can be somewhat difficult to find. Fortunately, there is Samcheong-dong.

Not far from the grounds of Gyeongbokgung (meaning “Palace of Shining Happiness”), built north of the city in 1394 by King Taejo, and the president’s office Cheongwadae (also known as the Blue House), this bohemian quarter developed without much fanfare when art entrepreneurs set up shop here in the early 1990s, attracting visitors who naturally gravitated here to catch the latest exhibits.

Nowadays, it’s not only art galleries and specialist museums that are arrayed along the tree-lined walkway but also cute boutiques and funky coffeehouse-bars and restaurants – some located along the main street, some on the sidewalks and others neatly tucked away up on a hill studded and reached by climbing stone-paved staircases. In keeping with the area’s off-beat character, many occupy low-rise buildings or hanoks, the traditional Korean-style wooden houses with intricate roofwork, which are regarded cultural treasures because there are only a handful left.

“Samcheong” meaning  “the three colours of blue”, represents the mountains, the waters and the residents, while “dong” is east. (What a well-conceived interpretation, I thought, from a country, whose abundant granite and limestone resources make it one of the most mountainous regions in the world.)

At the start of the Samcheong-dong walkway is Kukje Gallery (www.kukje.org), a contemporary art venue famous for the statue of a red-clad woman in a running pose on its roof. The installation, by American artist Jonathan Borofsky, is one of many from the gallery’s collection of works by acclaimed international artists such as Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder and Anselm Kiefer, as well as emerging Korean talents. 

In the back alley nearby is the three-storey World Jewellery Museum (www.wjmuseum.com). Touted as Asia’s first showcase devoted entirely to ornaments, it is the brainchild of a diplomat’s wife whose 30 years of globetrotting resulted in a 3,000-piece collection from 60 countries, of which, 1,000 have been selected for display. One-of-a-kind pieces from Africa, Central Asia, Europe and the pre-Columbian Americas are laid out in nine galleries, given whimsical names such as the Forest of Modern Jewellery, Amber Wall, Garden of Jewels, Altar of the Cross and Necklace Hall. There’s also a wall, studded with 16 masks illustrated by captions and diagrams detailing their origins. For those wanting a memento of their visit, the museum shop carries a fine inventory of antique and designer baubles. 

Wandering down the street, I espied a staircase marked by some intricate wall graphics. It led to a men’s boutique named Horse Cabbage (tel 82 2 730 5509), which is ensconced in a white-washed, glass-panelled shell. Here, one can find smart street style, from polka-dot collared shirts to multipurpose bags and key chains. If browsing gets to be tiring, there’s even a cosy sofa corner to take a cup of tea. 

Despite my scanty Korean – limited to only a few phrases like annyông haseyo (hello) and kamsa hamnida (thank you) – I decided to ask the friendly-looking salesboy about the provenance of their goods and if they had a website I could consult. No luck there, he didn’t understand a word of what I said, but instantly made up for it, apologetically offering me a gingerbread boy, nicely wrapped in plastic with a bright red sticker embelished with the shop’s contact details.

The charm of Samcheong-dong lies in its serendipity. There’s no a trace of Singapore-style zoning here as galleries, shops and cafés follow each other in no particular order, which only heightens the sense of discovery.

Art fanciers will be spoiled for choice with the number of establishments catering to the gamut of intellectual tastes. The current selection includes Gallery Jinsun (www.galleryjinsun.com) featuring changing window exhibitions by well-known paper and mixed media artists such as Kang Jin Suk, Kim Meen Jeong and Ohm Jung Ho; Geumho Gallery, which has shown the works of renowned painter Jang Seung-up; and Boinhang (www.boinhang.com) of the celebrated ceramist Yang Gu, who uses it as his personal showcase.

Fashionistas are welcome to burn their plastic at Luielle (tel 82 2 723 7206) which specialises in designer hats; Z.I.Gallery (tel 82 2 739 1241) featuring clothes by local couturier Zia Kim, Farbe (tel 82 2 720 7879) for vintage hand-me-downs and accessories from Europe and Brazil; Yeoncraft.ce.ro (tel 82 18 302 3248) that offers handmade necklaces and earrings in silver with crystal and beads; and Origin Asia (www.originasia.net) – with branches in Singapore’s Chinatown and River Valley Road – for unique furniture sourced from around the region.

Feeling hungry? Head for Waffle Café (tel 82 2 733 5727), frequented for waffles, sandwiches and beverages; Image Book Gallery (tel 82 2 730 1045), which encourages browsing in its mini library while having a cuppa; and Cook’n Heim (tel 82 2 733 1109) for Italian and international cuisine with its own art space and a beautiful garden perfect for contemplation.

Fatum (Latin for destiny), a double-storey chi-chi café and bar located in a three-tiered structure behind some buildings lining a downward slope, is interesting design wise. Its all-black interiors have been attracting the yuppie set who come faithfully to nibble on cheese nachos (US$16), organic New Zealand cheese (US$26) and cinnamon toast (US$4) and wash them down with lashings of cappuccino and latte (US$7 each).

There’s also an extensive wine list of New and Old World wines to choose from.

Although Seoul is still earning its stripes as a hip and happening city, it’s getting there to the delight of repeat travellers, who’re familiar with its once-limited dining options (bulgogi restaurants and more bulgogi restaurants) and surprising first-timers who’re noticing a wealth of wine bars (a phenomenon that sprung up only in the last five years) and offbeat enclaves like Samcheong-dong.

They’re also discovering Pyongchang-dong for art and cuisine, Apgujeong-dong for exhibitions by young and promising coturiers and Hongdae, a nightlife district near Hongik University, which is famous for its art and design college and colourful weekend street fairs.

Any visitor, intrepid and curious enough to explore this city that’s long been operating under the tourist radar will be well rewarded. Seoul, if given the chance, can compete with the best of them.

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