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Understanding Cities

Korea-New Zealand Artist in Residence Program
Fiona Amundsen
Seoul is a city overtly complex and dominated by concrete, roads, and traffic. The Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration project was an effort to address the lack of "greenness" in this city. However, for me. Cheonggyecheon was a kind of meeting point between abstract philosophical ideas and the stuff of real political life. And it is through this that I have started to understand the specific of Seoul itself, as well as cities per se.

Every city is both physically and abstractly marked by its unique natural, political, socio-cultural, and economic histories.
Such particular phenomena form a kind of invisible web that ultimately serves to transform geographical landmasses from generic to very specific cities. And although this infrastructure is not necessarily clearly visible, it contributes to our sense of understanding, experience, and knowledge of place. Cities and their associated characteristics are always the result of particular processes of cultural production; some cities demonstrate this more obviously than others – South Korea’s Seoul is a good example of a city whose cultural construction is far from invisible. Seoul’s recent cultural, political, and economic histories are overtly complex; its geographical landscape attests to this.
The city itself is massive, with its urban centers sprawling in an almost limitless manner. Ubiquitous fast food joints and global consumer brands sit alongside uniquely Korean shops and restaurants – all clear representatives of capital growth in an industrialized modern city. However, within Seoul’s recent post civil-war development more attention has been directed toward economic growth – than urban recreational areas: Seoul is a city dominated by concrete, roads, and traffic. Subsequently, in a world becoming increasingly aware of the realities of global warming, it is not surprising that this obvious lack of “greenness” has started to be addressed.
First up has been the Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration project; a major regeneration process involving pumping water back into a damaged stream, relocating the overhead road, and developing recreational areas in the form of long parks running on either side of the water flow. This area of Seoul is significant in that it is geographically representative of both traditional and contemporary aspects of Korean culture: old Joseon Dynasty palaces sit alongside generic skyscrapers housing government officials and the like. In essence, Cheonggyecheon has become a unique, albeit political, site clearly mingling the old with the new, politics with history, the social with economics, as well as nature with culture – aspects of a city that influence the way it is both understood and experienced.
I came to Seoul as part of a two-month artists’ residency program, hosted by the Korea Foundation and the National Museum of Contemporary Art and facilitated by the Asia New Zealand Foundation. I was here to do a very specific project, which involved photographing the newly beautified Cheonggyecheon stream, in a manner that was consistent with my existing art practice. Having read about the restoration project before coming to Korea, I was fascinated with how this site possessed all of the somewhat abstract trappings that make up our sense of cultural space. I thought that politics, economics, and socio-cultural histories would “materialize” themselves, influencing my attention and therefore experience of Cheonggyecheon. In short, actually being at Cheonggyecheon was different from the ways described by varying media sources.
Much of the information available on this enormous restoration project is aimed at tourists, describing the developments in positive glossy phrases that are devoid of any of the messy realities. For example, none of the promotional material makes reference to the Seoulites who were displaced or lost their jobs as a result of the restoration project. Nor, is it mentioned that the stream’s natural infrastructure is completely constructed and that it costs several million won per day in electricity bills to pump water through the place, as well as to light it. After learning more about the realities associated with Cheonggyecheon I became confused. I had thought the stream’s restoration was such a constructive move for a city dominated by grey concrete.
After visiting and photographing Cheonggyecheon, I realized that there was a disparity between my real life experience of the stream and its multifaceted socio-cultural histories. In other words, before coming to Seoul it is impossible to really “know” anything about what Cheonggyecheon and its restoration politically represents because many of the complexities of such a project are simply overlooked, which forms a kind of false consciousness. In short, I did not appreciate that I had chosen to photograph such a contestable site.

Upon reflection, I can now comprehend that the series of photographs produced will always be essentially political for a Korean (and possible broader) audience, simply because of the subject matter. The immediate realities are that Cheonggyecheon is representative of and first and foremost in each photograph. However, alongside these political narratives, a whole host of other infrastructure exists, influencing not only how we relate to Cheonggyecheon but also cities themselves.
For me, this has been the benefit of coming to Seoul as an artist in residence. Not only have I been able to further grasp the specifics of culturally produced dialogues linked to the photographed site, I have also been able to see how all this contributes to a sense of comprehension, experience, and knowledge of place. Accordingly, for me, Cheonggyecheon is a kind of meeting point between abstract philosophical ideas and the stuff of real political life. And, it is through this that I have started to understand the specifics of Seoul itself, as well as cities per se.

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