An Artists Commune Among the Rolling Stock-Mullae-dong, Seoul

After a week in which my psychotic Daejon born co-teacher fell silent I was in need of a solo adventure free from the de-humanising aspects of Dullju society.

Just to clarify what incited the bunny boilers behaviour. On Sunday/Monday I’d picked up a virus, and visited the doctor who gave me fourfold medication but on Tuesday I was still too sick to work. Post sleeping for 13 hours, I texted both the head of English and “Kathy Bates” informing them of my misery. Of course my boss understands that if I say I’m sick then I AM SICK and will deal with this, if I need help I’ll ask! Kathy is less accepting and called me at 7am to advise a further hospital visit and suggest an additional potion.  I took her advice on the potion and collected this from the pharmacy, the hospital was NOT necessary. I took my medication and returned to my pit. Around 12:42pm just as 4th period ends I was awoken by another call which consisted of a banshee style monologue and further instruction which incited a rising of my hackles and the following statement. “Please stop interfering; I’m 53 years old and not a baby. I’ve already seen the doctor and my medication will take time to work”. She of course took the huff and hung up. I apologised if I’d upset her by text and went back to sleep. In the next 16 hours the meds kicked in and on Wednesday, though tired, I returned to work.

Having said good morning to no reply I began my classes as normal. She avoided eye contact and any form of communication and this spilled over into Thursday when during our class together she turned her back on me then called time on the class before I’d finished. I’m not sure if the other teachers have clocked what’s going on but for her it’ll be a long year until next February! Having failed to induce what Morrissey described as “a permanent state of circumstantial sadness” let’s see how long it takes Kathy to unfreeze. As in total only 2.5% of my life is spent in close proximity and that for just a semester and a half, I am sure a state of melancholy will be avoided. The miasmic atmosphere she has generated will fail to dampen my spirits.

I’d intended to visit Mullae-dong in Seoul for a while and a generally overcast day was forecast so that’s where I headed on Saturday. The industrial neighborhood of Mullae-dong transformed into an art district around 2005 when young artists began to set up studios in abandoned steel foundries there, most transferring from the rising rents of Hongdae across the Han River.

As I headed out of Mullae-ga I headed left at what looked like a former information booth, sparks were flying from every direction and the sound of metal being beaten into submission filled my ears. Men toiled in blue boiler suits covered in light layers of dust with sweat dripping from their foreheads, others stood, sat or simply slept in the garages that lined the streets. From the signs adorning their art studios to the humorous graffiti scrawled on the shutters of ironwork, the resident artists have made their mark.

I tumble through the alleyways, some artist’s studios double up as coffee shops others welcome was more akin to Alcatraz. The smell of Kimchi Stew hung on the summer breeze and kids raced along careering around corners on two wheels. The background noise took me back to my apprentice days with the grinding of steel, whirring of drills and the cackle of welding. In this small pocket of Seoul time is standing still but I’m sure progress will invade soon.

I indulged myself with coffee, cream cheese onion bagel and a huge cinnamon pastry before returning to Mullae-ga for my trek to West Seoul Lake Park.  Seoseoul Lake Park (서서울호수공원) is reached by subway from Hwagok Station (Subway Line 5) Exit 5. Straight ahead 3/4 minutes walk then take Bus 652, 6627 or 6625. The obsolete water treatment plant that once served 50,000 people was reborn as an eco-friendly people’s park and acted a catalyst to revitalizing this downtrodden industrial neighbourhood of Seoul.

The former Sinwol Water Purification Plant operated from 1959 to 2003 when it was transformed into its current form. The design of this oasis of urban regeneration was guided by three concepts, those of ecology communication and regeneration. The grounds include a Media Art Waterfall and the Sound Fountain which spans the lake. Every few minutes, when airplanes roar above on the flight path to Gimpo the noise pollution generated when noise levels exceed 81 decibels incites the fountain to project jets of water 15 metres in the air.

Inspired by Piet Mondrian’s horizontal and vertical lines aesthetics, the centrepiece is the Mondrian Garden, here architects have reused and recycled as much as possible from the former water plant. The cornucopia of man-made materials (concrete, galvanized and bare steel), technology (media fountain) and nature is delivered on 2 levels in an award winning design.  I have to say Korea excels at these types of regeneration project though does not always maintain them very well. The area was well populated with Seoulites including a small army of photographers and their paid model that seductively leached herself to every surface to satisfy their needs. Glam photography in a park full of kids, appropriate? I was and I must say politely instructed to keep my distance, which I more politely declined explaining that they’d got their Korea’s mixed up and this was a public space. I wasn’t out to capture the glam of course but wanted to record the event in an iphonographic form :-). As it transpired a posse of adjuma’s moved them on in a much more animated fashion than I’d been able to muster.

Returning to central Seoul and Seonyudo-da I stopped for “3 for 2” Vitamin water and Snickers before following the signs to the Han River Park and Seonyudo Island. I’d traveled here a number of times but not on such a glorious sunny day. Another water treatment plant regeneration Seonyudo is yet one more Korean triumph. Crossing from the south Seoul side of the river the pier takes to across a 6 lane highway (Olympic Daero) and the Hangang portion of the river park before an arched bridge deposits you on the island proper. The Island was teaming with folk must it has to be said hiding in the shade feared of “turning black” (my co-teachers expression). Of course kids are slightly more frivolous and yet to be brainwashed and reveled in the playground within the converted water tank. The lotus blossoms were in early flower as young couples contorted to make selfies with a picturesque backdrop, a few gender bending Cosplay teenagers sported blue, gold, silver and red wigs in an homage to Japanese manga and their love of androgyny.

I left the park stepping onto the road bridge and crossing over the river to Hapjeong and Mercantopolis.  Here a craft fair was in full swing and the water features had for the first time in my experience been switched on. After a final caffeine injection I realised my bed for the night was only 7 minutes walk away and so I headed off to meet my host at Yooginong Guesthouse in Hapjeong.  Hapjeong is riddled with cool bars, cafes and boutiques and one of my favourite places for an evening out in Seoul. Less brash and hedonistic than neighbouring Hongdae, it delivers on all fronts. The main drag “Cafe Street” is busy without being overcrowded and the commercial area is now spreading south towards the river.

Early Sunday I headed out past the World Cup Stadium to Digital Media City a purpose built area of Seoul like the Media City in Manchester. Formerly a landfill site this electronic nirvana is the home for broadcasting, film production, games, telecom companies, cable channels, online shopping centers and e-learning. The 133-floor Digital Media City Landmark Building, proposed completion in 2015 hasn’t yet slipped out of its foundations but other construction is taking place at breakneck speed.

Outside one glass edifice there was a snaking 800 metre queue which was for some prize show on TV. It seemed the youth of Seoul with 40 fags each on board had descended on DMC this particular Sunday morning, the coffee shops that bothered to open on a weekend were booming. With the plaza a new building had landed since my last visit, this large curvaceous armadillo had taken its design references from Ms Hadid’s DDP and is another of my favourite Seoul buildings. At the far end of media city Google-maps suggested a short stroll would give me access to the 5 World Cup Parks, ironically how wrong and misleading digital media can be.

The street became an elevated highway with no access to the greenery below; I peaked over to see farmers slaving in the sun to extract any life they could from the soil in this brief spring season. Further along I came to a sign that indicated that the Hangang River Park was 500 metres ahead, I was to be disappointed! Around a kilometre ahead there was a lift down to the park, unfortunately for me it was on the opposite side of the six lane carriageway. I faced a dichotomy a 3 km reverse journey or a sprint for my life, I chose the latter.  Fortunately the only mark left on me from my spectacular quick footed sprint was the soot deposited in my crotch as I high hurdled over the central barrier. Safely ensconced on the other side I descended to the park in the lift.

I was in the Nanji Hangang Park which was developed on the banks of the Han River. It contains a campground, soccer field, basketball court, wild grass fields, a small marina and a wetland area for nature-studies. One thing I’ve noticed in my time in Korea is the upsurge in popularity of rollerblading and its denizens were out in force today. The mountain bikers also could be counted in thousands despite the park being situated on the flood plain with not a hillock to bounce over. What I really enjoyed seeing were the old guys riding decades old touring bikes and leaving the faux ninja warriors in their wake. I passed the Youth Plaza, the Water Purifying Garden and the Mirror Fountain opposite the Yacht Arena before taking the swirling new footbridge back to the Peace Park and World Cup Stadium. I still find the rows after row of tents sat upon concrete amusing when inhabiting a green space on a beautiful day but hey ho that’s SK.

As it was early afternoon I grabbed some lunch and headed to the Samsung Leeum Art Gallery/Museum in Itaewon. Well, well, well there was a showcase for young Korean contemporary artists “Arts Spectrum 2014” which was incredibly underwhelming. It seemed to me that most of the exhibits failed on two levels firstly technically inept and secondly lacking in concept. I’m no expert but I should have invested my dosh in a Wolfhound cooked breakfast or some artisan French bread! A disappointing end to another engrossing weekend.


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