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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Forest Dump

Over the last 5 years, 42,513 hectares of forest land vanished in Korea*, 24.3% of which in Gyeonggi-do alone. We are talking about almost one soccer field per hour. And we're talking about a country 55 times smaller than the Amazon Rainforest**.

The Yonhap article gives the details for 52% of the total (23,646 ha - which could cover the 2004-2007 period)  :
- 30.5% have been converted into housing land,
- 25.0% into commercial land or factories,
- 22.7% into roads, and an amazing
- 21.8% into golf courses (yes, 5,159 soccer fields)

Yonhap also cites Rep. CHOUNG Hae-gul who pointed out that the number of cases of illegal destruction of forest land rose 20% from 2004 to 2007 (2,070 to 2,492). And the example from the top is not precisely sound : LEE Myung-bak, the former "green" mayor of Seoul who fathered Seoul Forest, wants to cut big chunks of Seoul's green belt in a massive housing program. It won't take long before developers go at the city's biggest lungs : the forests covering its beautiful mountains. 

New gardens keep popping up across the city, and I'm happy to see new regulation forcing villa redevelopments to devote part of the land to green spaces, but a significant portions of new public "gardens" are covered with concrete, tasteless fountains, and "ornaments" looking like plastic toys.

They're just breaking ground in front of the Seoul Museum of History on Shinmun-ro, and according to the blueprints, one can expect a net biomass decrease  (idem for nearby Sejongno / Gwanghwamun Plaza)...

I also wish the "Hang-gang Renaissance" were more about actual "well being" and less about clumsy "touristization". Seoul is on the right track when it highlights the essential role of its river and streams, but it should make sure that what's built makes sense for the long term.

Korea Forest Service report / Yonhap 20080923
** 84 times if you consider that 65% of South Korea are classified as forest land (courtesy Park Chung-hee's reforestation program)

KIAF 2008

After China (2002), Japan (2003), Korea (2004), Germany (2005), France (2006), and Spain (2007), the Korea International Art Fair welcomes Switzerland as its star country : 19 galleries, a Swiss Modern Art Exhibition, and a "What You Get Is What You Want" special exhibition for emerging Swiss talents (none of the 9 young artists selected for KIAF Finds Hidden Treasure comes from the guest country).

But KIAF 2009 goes beyond the partnership between the Gallery Association of Korea and Art Galleries Switzerland (AGS) : 20 countries are represented, and 102 of the 218 galleries are foreign. Korea boasts 116 galleries, Europe 65 (Germany 27), Asia 29 (16 from Japan), Americas 7 (USA 5), and Australia 1. Overall, about 1,500 artists and 6,000 works exhibited.

OK. Enough figures. Except maybe the entrance fee : KRW 15,000. Expensive, but the show is worth it.

I was positively impressed by the quality of the selection, much more exciting than what you could find in - say - a FIAC a couple of years ago. Of course, Chinese artists remain quite popular, and Japanese pop art as well (ie Yoshitomo Nara), but there was a definitely European / auteur flavor, and not just because of the guest country. And a refreshing variety.

Pros seemed to be touching wood : in spite of the economic downturn, the contemporary art bubble remains, and this show appears to be a success so let's enjoy it, you never know how things will fare next year...

Korea enjoys a powerful contemporary art ecosystem along the whole chain from creative design schools to wealthy art lovers, galleries hubs across the capital city, Gyeonggi-do and many other regions, regional exhibitions and fairs with an international reach, new landmarks (ie Leeum)... and as the Korean won takes the plunge, foreign buyers can shop at bargain prices.

But offer is exceeding demand, and quantity often comes before quality, the shell before the pearl. Like in Paju : I remember visiting Heyri Art Village in its maiden year, and it looked more like an architectural contest for hipsters than a genuine artistic proposition. Still, Korea has a knack for forcing success in this field.

Like everywhere else, many galleries will fold, though. Or devote more space to their cafes and boutiques to make ends meet. Young talents will face tougher times to reach their publics, but there's still the ASYAAF...

KIAF plays an important role to position the country globally, and this edition surely confirms Korea as a major player. KIAF 2009 will be an interesting test. Unless another art bubble inflates by then, matching 2008 will be difficult. And each exhibitor will be tempted to take little risk. But some may remember that uncertain times tend to spur creativity and the hunger for it.

Seoul Village 2008

KIAF 2008 / Korea International Art Fair
Guest Country-Switzerland
September 19-23, 2008
Pacific Hall and Indian Hall, COEX, World Trade Center
Samsung-dong, Seoul, ROK 135-731

Visitors can also enjoy synergies with Busan Biennale (until november).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hamheung Naengmyeon (Seoul)

A tiny hanok in the small market street behind Gyeongbokgung Station serves delicious cold noodles with raw skate fish (hoe naengmyeon), along with fantastic mandu. North Korean style (Hamheung is a city located in Hamgyeongnam-do, on the other side of the DMZ), but not as lethal as Ojangdong Hamheung Nengmyeon.

Hamheung Naengmyeon (함흥냉면 - 전문점)
Pilun-dong 205-1, Jongno-gu, SEOUL, ROK
Tel +82.2.3210-3337

Seoul Village 2008

see other restaurants in Seoul and Korea.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

KIM Jong-Ill ?

KIM Jong-il has never been so close to his own people : The Dear Leader is said to be in very poor condition, if not dead.

A stroke allegedly diminished him a few weeks ago, which explains his embarrassing absence for the 60th Anniversary of the nation.

True or false, this doesn't really come as a surprise, and raises once more the issue of succession. Obviously, the dynasty is over : the regime is smart enough to have seen that one coming, but didn't prepare the people the same way as it did in the early 90s (the World's first successful human cloning). There is probably a stock of images ready to roll featuring the Dear Movie Fan as a phantom Movie Star. One of his kids could wave at the camera from time to time, but other people would actually run the show.

An impersonal military college could run the country for a while, but not maintain the regime for the decades to come. Doomsday scenarists see them go with a bang, optimists envision a peaceful transition towards democracy, utopists dream of a Barack Obama coming out of the Choson blue, and the vast majority expect troubled times ahead.

My base case scenarios ? Either a "Albanian style collapse" (to the nth power) or a "Georgia style Anschluss" by China.

I guess North Korean leaders will prefer the latter. Needless to say
Beijing is ready.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Buldozing Seoul, again - Dongdaemun Design Plaza, New City Hall

Dongdaemun Stadium is about to become a vast plain from which shall emerge Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park in 2010. To compensate for the "loss", a new baseball field will be arranged in Gocheok-dong, Guro-gu, where entertainment infrastructures are more needed.

It had been a long time since big games were played in Dongdaemun Stadium : the 1988 Olympic Games and Chamsil changed everything. I did watch a few amateur games there, before the place turned into an even more amateur "flea market", and ultimately a parking lot. The atmosphere around the stadium was much more entertaining. In the early nineties, that's where you would find technical sport products. Counterfeit goods too, like in Itaewon... but change has come to Korea : now all major brands have their own genuine shops in both locations. I've always found the old blue-greenish concrete stadiums disgraceful, but what I enjoyed was the colorful souk of buzzing food stands, before heading for the real flea markets and antique shops. Like it or not, this place had a soul of its own.

Then came Doota & co. Younger generations rediscovered Dongdaemun area, and the Cheongyecheon project cleaned much of the mess nearby. The green giant remained as an embarrassing dinosaur miraculously forsaken by evolution.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) may well become the next generation embarrassing green dinosaur. I like the idea of bringing disruption, and there is an interesting organic touch to the main building... but instead of environmental friendliness, it evokes (judging by the models at least) a plastic toy or one of the countless attractions recently built in minor league cities pretending to play in major leagues. To me, the gizmo already looks obsolete. I hope I'm wrong, because DDP is one of the star of Seoul celebrations as World Design Capital 2010.

City Hall could be a better bet for OH Se-hoon. That working site is very advanced, but it seems that the final design is not decided yet. If they pick a good jazzman as the top architect, improvisation could result in something really innovative. Anyway, Seoul deserves a good symbol for its design drive.

Because beyond 2010, DDP must serve as a design center, a cultural center, a mall, and a park in an area that badly needed green spaces. Furthermore, it will reconnect the urban landscape over and underground. The future with the present (Doota tower area), but also with the past : a portion of Seoul Seongwak walls, destroyed by the Japanese occupants to give place to the stadium, will be restored in the middle of the park, and along with it the perspective towards the Naksan section via Heunginjimun.

Heunginjimun is the name of Dongdaemun itself : the old Eastern gate, nowadays drowned under intense traffic, will at last resurrect, and even be awarded a decent park. Passers-by shall reconquer some of the space colonized by automobiles, and tourists admire this elegant old timer from a closer range. The tragic fate of Sungnyemun / Namdaemun* certainly cast a new light on this beautiful yet forsaken cultural asset.

To me, this is the actual new DDP landmark.

Seoul Village 2008

* see "

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