Today I went to Deoksugung Palace. Outside of the palace gates there were guards dressed in colorful, Korean traditional costumes, Hanbok. The gates were decorated as they had been centuries ago, with intricate carvings, and the roof was painted in great detail. I felt as though I was transported back in time to the days when Kings and Queens ruled Korea. I strolled through the gates and snapped a few photos of the solemn looks on the guards’ faces.
I walked down a long corridor of trees covered in orange and yellow leaves and turned back to admire the gates once more. In the background stood huge office buildings and all the makings of a bustling modern city. I could see people dashing across the street. Cars and buses zoomed by. I could hear the faint cry of a street vendor calling to potential customers. And yet, here I was standing in an oasis of calm built long before cars or skyscrapers. At that point I felt transfixed between our modern world and the one that paved our way. I took some more pictures of that scene, trying to capture my feelings at that very moment. Then I made my way to meet Soleh Choe, a member of the PR and Marketing team at the National Museum of Contemporary Art located on the grounds of Deoksugung Palace.
Right now Deoksugung Palace is a part of a unique art exhibition called the Deoksugung Project. The Deoksugung project has been running since Sept 19 and closes on Dec 2. The show is a modern art show installed in the buildings of Deoksugung Palace. Each installation is a commentary on the palace, on an ancient imperial family or on a story from history. The artists have resurrected history or at the very least attempted to bring back something old and forgotten through modern mediums. It was a bit ironic that my first thoughts upon arrival had been about the mix of old into the new nestled in the centre of Seoul. I didn’t realize I was about to see an exhibition on the very same relationship.
Soleh showed me around the nine installations on the palace grounds. She gave me a quick historical background of Deoksugung Palace. It was never meant to be a main palace, yet when the Japanese invaded at the turn of the century King Gojong –the second last King of Korea- moved his family from Gyeongbokgung Palace to Deoksugung Palace to keep them safe. It had been burnt down by a previous Japanese invasion in 1592 and was often used as a place of refuge for imperial families during difficult times.
Then we talked about the artists and their creations. Ha Jihoon is a furniture designer. His piece is built into the floor of Deokhongjeon, a private building used by King Gojong. At first King Gojong used the building as a shrine for his deceased wife, Empress Myeongseong who was murdered by the Japanese. However, the Japanese transformed the building into a meeting area where their rulers could meet with King Gojong. Ho Jihoon has unearthed the memory of Empress Myeongseong. In the background plays a memorial song for her, written by Sung Kiwan. The floor is covered with 40 huge chrome-coated bumps. These bumps reflect the Chama, the old decorations on the ceilings and walls. They are also chairs. He invites visitors to sit and remember the forgotten Queen, just at King Gojong intended the space to be.
Each piece has an element of sadness to it because Deoksugung Palace was home to the last King of Korea during a devastating time in Korean history. It was also the site of other tragic historical events even prior to King Gojong. Lee Sookyung has her sculpture, a giant dazzling teardrop covered in LED lights, in the Seokeodang building. In 1608 King Seonjo died here during the Imjin War, another period of Japanese invasion. Then his wife, the Queen, was held hostage at Seokeodang for 5 years. The tear represents her sadness. The bright lights obscure the shape of the teardrop. The lights represent the uncertain fate of so many women living then and now.
Some of the works were clear and distinct in their messages. Others however, were left to the imagination. Chung Seoyoung had his work in the Jeonggwanheon hall. I enjoyed hearing about the history of the building. It was built by King Gojong to be used as a tea room. He hired a Russian architect who mixed Western, Russian, and Korean styles together. It looks much different from the rest of the palace buildings. The artist has placed an oddly shaped section of mirror in the centre of the room. On either side of the mirror are strangely arranged pieces of furniture: chairs, a dresser, small tables, and a large table. When the viewer faces the mirror, he/she can see the reflection of the furniture in the mirror. I asked Soleh about the art and she just shrugged. I suggested that perhaps the reflection of the old furniture is to encourage viewers to look back in time or learn about history. She thought my interpretation was a good one. She also mentioned that the bizarre shape of the mirror could mimic the unique combination of architectural styles used in the building’s design. She said the mirror is not a square, nor a circle nor a triangle, just as the building is not solely of Russian, American or Korean design.
The other 6 installations are varied and use mixed media. Some are videos, one is a sound display, and one incorporates fashion, while another still uses shadows and light to create images. The common element is that all of the works meld that past and the present. The medium is modern while the message is historically rooted. As I mentioned The Deoksugung Project will be on display until Dec 2. I urge you to check it out. The palace grounds make for a lovely afternoon stroll and these sunny fall days won’t last much longer. The palace grounds are open from 9am-9pm Tues-Sun, closed Mon. Entrance is 1,000won. Please check www.moca.go.kr for more information.
Deoksugung Palace is located downtown beside Seoul Plaza. Please take the dark blue subway line 1 or the bright green line 2 to City Hall Station. Take exit 2 from line 1 or exit 12 from line 2. Call 1330 if you get lost.
Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.