Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Great evening in Gwangju

Our visit to Gwangju began with a 3 + hour bus ride through the mountains. There were a number of (highway? or high speed train) construction zones which restricted lane access: Madeline had deplored the raucus tendency of the drivers to weave and pass in two lane areas, but I think I would have passed trucks in the same areas and being in the bus exaggerated the drama of what was rather ordinary mountain driving to me. While there is building going on everywhere, it is interesting that so much precious farming land is being sacrificed to massive road projects. Jim and I had hoped to find out about some of the progressive tendencies in Gwangju, but we were in for pleasant surprises.
The exhibition was hosted at the Gwangju Branch of the Korean Fine Arts Association Gallery. This organization recently elected the first woman to be its president or chairman, Jung Soon Yi. We met her and her daughter, Kay An, a ceramacist who’d studied in London and whose work was represented in the exhibition by some very fine porcelain. She spoke with us at length and translated for us. Jung Soon Yi welcomed us formally in the exhibition and said she was going to do her utmost to promote women artists in Gwangju. We were the recipients of her hospitality at the hotel for both room and breakfast. There was also Lee Jung Yong, Dean of Fine Arts at Honam University in Gwangju. He spoke about the importance of women artists in creating resolution to the conflicted poltical situation and finding a path to peace. There is a delicious consciousness of the context in which artists work here in Gwangju.
Artists were friendly and serious artworkers. I spoke with a couple of artists, including Byung Kyung Sup, whose work includes “dots” referring to stitchery. I like this work and I appreciate her seriousness. Also we spoke with Kee Young Sook, whose son, Han translated for the speakers and helped us understand as we walked through town. Young Sook was very helpful and her work is very flat and poster-like: I like it. Han had attended De Pauw University in Chicago, studying art and art history. The young people are amazing.

When we arrived in Gwanjgu, we were met by several association members, including Ko Jeong-hui, who had hosted Madeline over 10 years ago, and was grieved to learn of her passing. We chatted with her at an auto repair shop’s office room while waiting for the air conditioning repair of Lee Hye-kyung’s car: It was very hot, hotter than the weather had been, and vital we have a cool car since we were 7 jammed into an SUV. Service was available, fast and efficient Jim found a brochure in the shop of the Chairman car, whch we have seen around and about. This is the top of the line, but of which car company we still don’t know--the brochure, which emphasized the grandiose and CEO quality of the name, seemed to avoid reference to the maker, only the model. Han told us it was made by one of the big Korean manufacturers, but didn’t know which. It is a paean to conspicuous luxury and the Horatio Alger sense of upward mobility which pervades some aspects of life here.

When I get near a scanner, I’ll post the card images of Noh Jung-Suk who works in conceptual ways: installation of books, changes color, the spiral is a motif from ancient petroglyphs, and the book form is the residue of their disappearance in the digital age. Her work is clever and was exhibited in Gwangju City Museum, in 2006, which we didn’t see, but which is an active venue. Gwangju is also building a huge arts complex to include performing arts: it was near the “arts street” area where there were art supply shops, galleries and antique dealers (latter minimal). Also beautifully made and graphically exciting is the embossed recycled paper relief sculpture and engraved work of Ryu Hyn Ja. Artists I didn’t meet but whose work I like include Moon In-joung (woodcut), Oh Hye-kyung (fiber), Cho Eun-gyeung (cast paper).

We ate a great bibimbap dinner (my favorite) nearby. Gwangju is said (by its inhabitants) to be the best in Korea for food. It certainly could be called, at least in a couple of ways, the Bologna of Korea respecting food and politics. We met Deok Jim Cho, a journalist (!) with Moodeungilbo, a Gwangju newspaper and chatted with her a great deal. I got an earful and I’m so thankful. She shared much about recent history and issues in Gwangju, pointing out the construction mentioned above, and joined the group at a music cafe, the name of which translates to “Rich with Snow, or a lot of snow,” a poetic title. It is owned by a famous Gwangju musician, Jung Yong Joo, who performed for us and we have his cd. He and another singer performed passionate songs about Korea, its land and their love of democracy. Some were ballads, some more traditional, some original and some decidedly up tempo. The place really rocked, and two of the Russian artists danced on the bar top, later joined by the exuberant Jung Yong Joo, who ended up shirtless; everybody was stomping and shouting. Jim learned about drinking “the bomb” a concoction of beer and soju (tamer than it sounds due to the glass size and amount of libation involved; Soju’s alcohol content is like fortified wine, and lower than typical distilled spirits).

The amazing Dr. Park Nam Hee wasn’t done for the night, locating a karaoke bar a block away for us to entertain ourselves in for the rest of the evening. Anna and Channa, our Moscow friends, rendered the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction and an ABBA song with great spirit, but the stars were Dr. Park and Lee Hye-kyung who were very spirited with their Korean pop songs, done with great style.

Next morning, we awoke to breakfast in the dining room with this beautiful view of the city. The hotel, like many here in Korea, maintains an active wedding business and all of the meat is carefully sourced in prominent posters. One of the issues in Korea with the fair trade agreement with US is the access to Korean markets of US industrially produced beef, which truly is a waste of an animal’s life with all the antibiotics, hormones and dangerous feed. People are healthy here eating safer meat in smaller amounts. I don’t want to eat it; it’s unpopular in Europe: why should Koreans have to eat it? We also read about efforts to form a joint North-South Korean youth orchestra under the direction of famed conductor Charles Dutoit, as a cultural bridge.

We met with artists again and headed off to The memorial to the May 18 Democratic Uprising. This cemetary and complex is an education center “for democracy, liberty and justice,” about 14 acres in Unjeong-dong, Buk-gu (North district) of Gwangju. The memorial tower and photographic memorial house involve ritual and art meant to inspire strong feelings surrounding the massacre and repression during the uprising in 1980. There are also films and learning opportunties for children. It is worth visiting and returning to.

Off we went to the garden of a 16th C courtier who retired to the area and built his home and garden there. He had been the tutor to the King’s children and was a student/follower of Jo Jung An, who was not a character but a presence in Dae Jang Geum. Fans will remember that when the heroine is sentenced to slavery in Jeju, the incident provides political cover for the goal of eliminating Jo. The gardener’s after his teacher’s death, sought refuge in the garden, and it is a thoughtful, splendid environment. We toured with a poet who explained, in English, the garden and its Confuscian structures. There is much to learn here.
We enjoyed a beautiful and artful lunch at the garden and gallery of a photographer and his wife, a singer, who runs a terrific "fusion" contemporary restaurant adjacent the gallery, via the poet who introduced them. We were allowed to take the bamboo cups in which the rice was cooked. SeeSook said that is her favorite, and I'm afraid it was mine, too, but the initial soup with crunchy rice, mussels and vegetables was excellent. (I had two helpings.)

Finally, we stopped at Hainsa, the famous temple complex with the Tripitaka, carved wooden printing blocks containing Buddhist scriptures. We actually could peek in to see them, and I have a souvenir of printing from it. Quite a climb and much confusion, but Ryu SeeSook and other Daegu women figured out all our transport woes like magic! I have never met such awesome administrators on their home turf.

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