A Few Days in Seoul: Flat Caps, Scandi Style, US Soft Porn, a Banging Fish Market and a Photographers Life


I was given a few days extra vacation and so I hit the culture button and found a few new exhibitions had landed in Seoul. Other than the three planned exhibitions I headed off last Wednesday morning with no fixed agenda. After dropping off my bag at the hotel I wandered off on a flat cap safari to Myeong-dong. Whilst the safari didn’t result in a kill it was age rather than the wildlife that left me empty handed. Zara had a fine line though not fitting for the bonce of a fifty something; a mustard pigskin example was just too camp!

Frank Oh Bok Young was to make only fleeting visits into Seoul on an evening as he is in the throws of a project to re-locate and downsize he and his ma, somewhere probably and hopefully closer to Seoul. A stressful time!

The next morning I headed for the Scandia exhibition “Nordic Passion” at Seoul Metropolitan Government–Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA). In addition to introducing themes of innovative school architecture, public building and experimental urban spaces, the project also creates links between design students in the Nordic countries and Korea, and provides hands-on learning opportunities for the public in open workshops – promoting the idea of learning by doing. WOW!

Learning by doing or “action learning”, particularly in groups, has been a focus of my teaching since year dot.  Maybe the Korean Education Offices and Education stalwarts in government could imbibe the concept and replace learning by rote. Remember the definition “to learn something by memorizing without giving any thought to what is being learned.” Special eh?

Anyway the architectural section was beautiful; natural, recyclable materials and light, airy, communal spaces fitting spectacularly in the site landscape. All the building would have been a pleasure to educate and be educated in. There was also a section on sauna design; every home should have a sauna! The shop was overpriced and stocked with less than inspiring products, which were not representative of the quality of design in the exhibition. Once I entered the main exhibition hall showcasing furniture, fabrics, glass and other eye-catching products I shed a tear! I’d entered my recently off-loaded London home which I’d intentionally modeled on Scandia ideas; fortunately all the personal objects are either boxed up at mums or sitting in Jess’s new flat!

As I left the main hall I stopped to snap a silhouette of some under lit glass-wear through a fabric screen. “No, No, No photo” bellowed a rather skinny badly dressed youth. “I’m not photographing the objects gobby, I’m taking an iPhone snap of a silhouette”. “No, No, No photo”. “Take me back to the politeness of Myanmar; you ignorant pleb”. “By the way in civilised societies around the globe, folk say excuse me! Too much, too soon for SK”. The frown was an indication that this rote learned individual who studied English for a minimum of eight years did not understand one jot!

Next door a more pleasurable individual explained his own exhibition “Invisible People”. Whilst I respected the aims of the exhibition its delivery was a little unimaginative; after I explained he understood why.  The two faces of Seoul in adjacent rooms, the one-celled amoeboid youth and the inquisitive fellow in front of me. UNHCR, Cheil Worldwide and the Seoul Museum of Art have joined forces to hold a 3D refugee figurine exhibition in Seoul. Titled “Invisible People,” the exhibition is aimed at making refugees in and outside South Korea “visible,” using advanced 3D technology that helped create the miniature figurines. The curator explained that he wanted to open Korean’s eyes, as traditionally they are unreceptive to the plight of refugees.

Dozens of figurines, each no larger than a hand span, are displayed in hidden places such as stairways, shelves and windowsills of the Seoul Museum of Art. Visitors who find the figurines can listen to the refugees’ stories by connecting their mobile phones with the QR/NFC codes inserted in each figurine. Unfortunately some of them are located in inaccessible places. To reflect the widespread indifference towards refugees, several large screens have been displayed in the main exhibition hall showing real-time video of people walking past the refugee figurines nonchalantly. These were switched off at the time of my visit.

I suggested that the figurines be located in places small people could find and that schools could be invited to a sort of treasure hunt whereby they located the figurines and gained prices for the amount they found.  They could then be presented by the real stories of the people’s figurines that connected with.

I also visited the impressively disappointing “Photography and Media” exhibition, which was neither technically, creatively or visually engaging!

I then walked north skirting the walls of Deoksugung Palace passing the old Salvation Army building and a myriad male office workers sucking on coffin nails. After 15 minutes I arrived at Tongin-dong and took the 1020 bus to Buam-dong. My intention was to have lunch at the small family business that makes wonderful and cheap Mandu (dumplings) but unfortunately it was closed for the full-moon festival. I climbed up the Poets Park before taking the recently improved and unpopulated walking trail back down Inwangsan Mountain. Arriving back in Tongin-dong I need sustenance and look for a local place for satisfaction. I entered a busy cafe and attempted to order visually receiving my pariah of food, squid. It has to be said most of it was excellent, fried in a light batter (Ojjingeo Tuigim) with a sort of tartar dip, all for three squid!

Tongin-dong used to be home to Government Officials and members of the Royal Court but now has become home to many artists, galleries and coffee shops supplemented by small restaurant and crafts shops. It’s a great place to wander before visiting the traditional market.  It’s only a ten-minute worthwhile detour from the swarms of tourists at Gyeongbokgung Palace.

I passed through the market on my way to the Daelim Museum for the Ryan McGinley – Magic Magnifier exhibition. I stopped off for coffee and mummified pecan pie, I didn’t record the name of the cafe but it sucks!

McGinley is a celebrated NYC artist who is the stuff off photographic legend! I have to admit for all my interest in photography its not nakedness, which incidentally is awesomely documented by Richard Avedon (circa Studio 54 times), that floats my boat. Mr. McGinley is apparently an art star, and I ‘m just a snapper based in SK. C’est la vie. The exhibition is filled with photographs of naked pretty young things. (Far more boys than girls, if that means anything.) But so what? It’s not like he’s selling these things at a porn shop. Maybe I over-reacted on Facebook and Twitter, what I mistook as cynical booty peddling is the artist’s obsession and passion, as valid as anyone’s’?

Certain symbols are repeated, fireworks, falling, caves, rivers, trees, motion, all as backdrops or partner effects to the nude youths. Yes, it all happened, and these are real people, but they don’t seem so, to put it simply it’s staged.

The colour palette is beautiful, as Hipstamatic would put it; Americana style blues, greens, and yellows. The mood is consistent, as is the shooting style. I wouldn’t want to hang most of these photos on the wall, (particularly the shot of a couple making out in the shower eyed by a mate), but they certainly provoke reaction. It wasn’t until I visited the Annie Liebovitz exhibition later that I could quantify my issues with this exhibition; simply it’s class or lack of it.  Where she documents real-life spectacularly we’ll even celebrities, he (McGinley) uses staged authenticity to impose his art on us. Take one image of Liebovitz, which is a portrait of the White Stripes and it, blows away anything McGinley delivers.

The next morning I headed south to Noryangjin Fish Market. As you get off the subway at Noryangjin Station, the aroma bestowed upon you means you’re pretty 100% sure it’s the right place. A long overhead pedestrian bridge leads across the railway and subway tracks depositing you at the roof car park of the Fish Market. It is also a wholesale auction market, and the bulk of seafood eaten in Seoul and the surrounding regions is re-routed through the venue. The auctions take place between 01:00-06:30 and the retail market follows on until late evening.

On my visit it was the full-moon festival and traditionally clad musicians entertained the stallholders who danced wildly fuelled by Soju and Makeoli dressed in pink latex. The cacophony of noise did little to detract from the pungency of the goods on offer.

After questioning a legion of mongers I discovered that the King Crabs (깅크랩) are from Russia whilst the Hairy Crabs and Snow Crabs are supposedly from North Korea, bugger knows how they extract those without being taken down by exocets. The Flower Crabs (꽃게) are local and the most common.  Small Octopus is a revered delicacy here and is eaten cooked or raw. If eaten raw, it is eaten whole or sliced up, its tentacles still wriggling as it enters your gob, as last weekend

I saw pink worm-like sea slugs called gaebul and bright red ones called monggae both of which are usually eaten raw. If you want to purchase the fish mongers will prepare for you as hwee or sashimi which I thought was sushi, complete with a throwaway plate. Now here starteth the lesson! Contrary to popular belief, sushi does not mean raw fish. In some countries, the terms sashimi and sushi are used interchangeably. But sashimi is sliced raw meat (usually fish like salmon or tuna) and sushi is a vinegared rice preparation that can have a variety of toppings. In essence, sushi is a combination of rice and sashimi and it does not necessarily have to be raw fish. Here endeth the lesson!

On the floor above the Fish Market, you’ll find seafood restaurants and the proprietors will cook your purchases for you, alternately you can order from the menu.

I next took line 9 to the recently opened IFC mall on Yeouido Island. In the midst of the mirrored glass skyscrapers this is billed as he first “international-style shopping mall” in Korea with 40,000 square meters of retail floor space, a Hollister flagship store plus a further 99 brands. I was still engaged in my cap safari and Zara had the by now familiar ochre (sounds more camp than mustard?) one but I couldn’t find any further buyable specimens. After an overly hot “tyne-brand” curry I returned to the subway and headed for Hapjeong and the Mercantapolis Centre another soulless venue but with cap possibilities.

My dreams were fulfilled, a sale and new “bottle green” cap reminiscent of that I wore as an eleven year old when entering Canon Slade Grammar School. Satiated I flaneured down then up and over the hill through Hongdae passing the Hello Kitty cafe and a dog peeing before descending down the subway. On the train a carefully manicured imperious old lady snoozed in a dignified was surrounded by screaming youngsters and sojued old men.

Next day I was to spend the day in the company of Angel Disley and Annie Liebowitz and so made my way to rendezvous at Seoul Arts Centre, Seocho. Annie Liebovitz: A Photographer`s Life 1990-2005 is an roller coaster ride into the life of a truly great photographer, the death of her partner and others in her family. It also showcases how she embraced the technical advances in photography to create memorable celebrity visuals.

In the 70s and 80s, she worked for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair magazines. While with Rolling Stone, Liebovitz developed her trademark technique, which involved the use of bold primary colors and surprising poses. Many of her Rolling Stone covers became collector’s items, like the one that featured a nude John Lennon curled around his fully clothed missus, Yoko Ono.

After I consumed yet another coffee at the Bauhaus, Angel D and I enjoyed the breadth and scale of the show and the two walls, which showed images not blown up and displayed, this covered the curated 15-year period. We decided on a late lunch and some window-shopping so I escorted M to Sinsa station the departure point for Garusogil, assuming of course she’d never been. We have to assume because on past joint forays into Seoul I discovered when I take her somewhere she’s been before!

On arriving at Garusogil I was uplifted to find this was a new destination for M but disappointingly the post winter vacation banking situation meant her wings had to be clipped. The street is full of quaint artsy shops run by local designers, chic cafes and restaurants. Garusogil means “a tree-lined street” and apparently it looks really pretty in spring and autumn when the Ginkgo’s add their yellow hue. After 30 minutes or so pottering in and out of trendy but relatively expensive (Brit prices) shops we stopped for Coffee and Cupcakes at “Gentle Lady”. They were good but overly expensive, outside a large crowd gathered and we discovered this related to the opening of a new Nike shop. A raffle took place, the prizes being pairs of the ex-trendy brands shoes. Further on M discovered some “vintage” shops which made her day and I am sure are on the “must visit again” list when the bank account swells.

We headed into Jongno for lunch, feasting on Andong Jjimdak (Andong Chicken) before making enquiries about price plans for Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5S; M’s contract is up for renewal. She, I think, was set for S4 until she felt the build quality and has now doubled-back to 5S. Unfortunately the shops system had a virus and so the purchase was put on hold. We picked up coffee and headed back to my posh room at the Designers Hotel before M made her way back to Gangnam for her bus. A busy but satisfying day.

On Sunday I wandered up through Insadong towards Samcheong-dong for my favourite burger lunch at Coon N’Heim. After lunch I climbed the hill to Samcheong Park stopping to pet a Pyrenean Mountain Dog called Charlie.  There was a full-moon festival inside the park and by this time (mid-afternoon) the antics were well fuelled by the local liquid. I left the park climbing up to Bukchon Village and after green tea at the Asian Museum I made my way to Bukchon Observatory.  The third floor observatory gives great views across the rooftops towards Namsan Mountain and Seoul Tower, it was a hazy day but I garnered a couple of nice snaps before returning to the hotel for an Seochi catch-u and a nap. In the evening I felt a bit knackered so I watched a movie, imbibed a bottle of Concha Y Toro Cabernet and headed to bed. Monday early doors I headed back to Chungers.

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3 thoughts on “A Few Days in Seoul: Flat Caps, Scandi Style, US Soft Porn, a Banging Fish Market and a Photographers Life

    • in the past maybe, now they all have Kimchi fridges! Yes fridges for Kimchi and only Kimchi! The pots could also hold red pepper paste but thats also likely to be in plastic tubs from the supermarket. Sorry for spoiling the dreamscape 🙂

      • Ha ha ha
        I guess the image of SK in my head was a bit biased by the movies or TV series I watched.
        I was hoping that it contains rice wine, preserved apricots or kimchi.
        There is a special fridge made for kimchi? I’ve never heard of that!!!

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