Tag Archives: public space

Seoul Man

I’m back from a holiday in Korea where I saw some awesome art and met some warm generous artists. I was also impressed with Korea’s public sculptures, urban design and the public toilets are the best in the world.

Public toilet in Gyeongju, South Korea

Public toilet in Gyeongju, South Korea

When I travel I like to visit art galleries, from the major official art galleries to what smaller galleries I can find; I try to avoid the tourist focused commercial galleries. I try to find some street art but that’s not always that easy because it is generally not in the guidebooks. Along the way I see historic buildings, public sculptures, travel on public transport and eat at local food at local restaurants but seeing art is my primary objective. I have written so many blog posts about art tourism that I have now created a separate category for them. Maybe I should write a book about them; I haven’t been finding Lonely Planet that useful a guidebook when it comes to this side of travel.

Seoul does contain two of the top 20 museums in the world (based on visitor numbers) the National Museum of Korea (Seoul) with 3,1289,550 visitors last year is in 12th place (according to Art Newspaper’s annual museum attendance figures for 2012) and in 15th place the National Folk Museum of Korea (Seoul) with 2,640,264 visitors. (Melbourne’s NGV was in 25th place with 1,571,333 visitors.)

I didn’t know much about Korean art before my trip; I was vaguely aware that Korea was promoting itself as a centre of contemporary art. But the only Korean artists I knew was Nam June Paik and Lee Bul. Nam June Paik was the man who cut off John Cage’s tie and who did video installations before it was commonplace. Lee Bul who makes white contemporary space-age alien kind of sculptures that hang.

Before I left I tried to familiarize myself with the Korean art scene by reading Seoul Art Fiend! Earlier this year I walked in to Doosan Gallery in NYC Chelsea gallery district (See my post Black Mark in Chelsea). It was certainly distinctive as a not-for-profit space amongst all the commercial galleries. I wasn’t sure about the art on exhibition it was very neutral and very studied.

I saw a lot art, ancient, modern and contemporary as Korea does have some great galleries and museums large and small. There are many contemporary public sculptures in the streets of Seoul of varying quality and there is a small graffiti and street art scene in Korea. More blog posts to follow about Korea when I have copied my notes and read more of the literature that I brought back. (Not Gangnam Style – Korean Street Art, Seoul’s Big Art Museums, Wandering Seoul’s Galleries and Wandering Seoul’s II.)

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen sculpture in Seoul

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen sculpture in Seoul

I particularly liked the use of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen sculpture that marked the start of the urban redesign masterpiece of Seoul, the Cheonggyecheon. The stream side walk is such a relaxing place to be but just a few steps away from the centre of Seoul and it goes on for kilometres.  It is like the reverse of Boston’s new park, a great reinvention of an urban space, a raised hight way demolished to recreate the urban space.

Korea2

Korean folk art has a lot going for it too – could these be the new tikki?

Aside from all the art, the buildings, the food and the hard mattresses my strongest impression of Korea is of the excellent public toilets that are there where you need them. I am not just talking clean and functional but automatic motion detector lights and music. And there is always access for the disabled. The public toilets in the streets and parks were well design and not simple utilitarian constructions. Korean public toilets are the paradigm for public toilets and made my trip so comfortable.


Private Public

People complain, “Taggers vandalized my fence”.

“Really?!” I think to reply. “They came onto your property and scribble stuff on the inside of your fence, that’s outrageous.”

I’m then informed that the taggers wrote on the outside public side of the fence or wall. Not your side of the wall then? You wouldn’t complain if your neighbour wrote on their side of the wall between your two properties but you want to claim ownership of the public wall. You want to impose your beige or mission brown identity and taste on the public but object when others do it.

Public space in the city is an illusion. As far as the state is concerned it is the public and consequently public spaces organized like private space. In Melbourne public transport infrastructure is fenced off allowing buildings to go derelict rather than to allow any other use of it. Every defined border of public space, the walls and fences, is theoretically either privately owned or under the control of some government authority. Then there are private spaces posing as public space, like the shopping malls and pubs (short for public house). There is petty parochial nature in Melbourne with the proverbial dog in a manger attitude of ‘I was here first’ is matched by the territoriality of some graffiti crews.

Public and private are not natural states they are created by a culture and therefore can change or be in a state of flux. Changes in the public and the private become an issue for a culture to discuss – private or public communications on Facebook, how much of your body you can uncover in public and the contrary how much of your face do you have to show in public.

What exactly the public is an even more complex political issue. Do you mean the sum total of all the individuals, including all the taggers, the psychos and the others that you might want to exclude, or just the mob majority? Or do you mean the mean average, the beige, neutral public, Baudrillard’s silent majorities the great force of inertia? Or a ghostly public that is altogether imaginary, theoretical and ideal, that is a cover for politicians and executives that essentially owns it and treats it as their private space.

Upfield line wall – Brunswick

In part this post is a comment CDH’s article “Street Artists Aren’t Vandals”, that expands on the ideas in his Trojan Petition, because the issues are greater than just permission. A lot of new concrete walls went up along the Upfield train line in Brunswick, these walls haven’t been neglected but they are magnificent public walls for graffing. Street art, squatting and the Occupy Movement challenge and examine the sacred concept of ownership. The ownership on this city that was originally owned by the aboriginal peoples of the area has to be examined in a practical and civic way. Real and substantial damages should be the measure of a crime as opposed to transgressions on the sanctity of ownership.

We all share this city. We see it, hear it, feel it and smell it everyday. Tom Civil has spoken about “how street art and graffiti create community, mark space and act as a human-scaled anarchic form of urban architecture.” A piece of graffiti in a good location where nobody can be bothered buffing or a legal piece on the side of a house can last for ten or more years. It becomes part of the neighbourhood’s identity, in what is often a featureless uniform urban environment.

Street art explores the border of areas of the city, the areas of marginal interest, the laneways and alleys, the littoral zones of the walls that divide the city into sections. It challenges the ideas of public space.


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