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Korean Cultural Center Explores Evolving Nature of Cities

By Philip Gunn

As cities worldwide attract more and more people, these growing urban spaces also represent complex, sometimes contradictory, notions of identity and what “home” means for their inhabitants.

A new exhibition at the Korean Cultural City called “City, Unfamiliar Landscape,” which runs from July 6 to 30, explores the evolving concept of urbanization through the work of three artists: In Kyung Kwon, Hyun Jin Byun and Bora Jin.

In total, these 30 works grapple with the constantly changing nature of our urban spaces, their purpose as individual havens and communally owned spaces, as well as the mix of familiar and unfamiliar that results as modernization meets, and sometimes clashes with, the natural environment.

In Kyung Kwon’s “An Open House,” made of paper college and ink, is among the 30 artworks on display in “City, Unfamiliar Landscape” at the Korean Cultural Center. (Photo: Korean Cultural Center)

For example, Kwon paints a picture of her hometown of Seoul abstractly, and in a way that presents the South Korean capital as an idealistic yet conflicted mix of nature and artificial landscape. She uses traditional painting and collage techniques to create expansive city vistas seen from the lens of a single window. Some of her work features buildings surrounded by lush trees and mountains. Others portrays sterile apartment buildings with little nature, aside from the occasional plant or tree drawn in the window sill.

When asked what the apartments are meant to symbolize, Kwon said she feels that “the people and government in Seoul often prioritize artificial buildings and everyday life, rather than the existence of nature.” However, Kwon added that the images of the plants on window sills are meant to represent the fact that there is still hope that Seoul can change to incorporate a more natural environment into its frenzied urban landscape.

During remarks at the exhibition opening, she said that South Korea’s government has already taken some steps to achieve this goal. By creating “green spaces,” South Koreans have come to rely on them for familiarity with the natural environment. These green spaces offer residents an escape where they can go for recreation or relaxation and soften the unfamiliarity with the rapid urban industrialization that marks the “inverted priorities” of the people and government of Seoul. She uses her art to create an “imaginative experience of space” so that one day it can become a reality in Seoul.

Hyun Jin Byun’s “Artificial Landscape” depicts plants and other scenes from nature but using artificial elements such as bike chains and neon signs. (Photo: Korean Cultural Center)

Byun, who has contributed to numerous exhibitions across Korea, participated in her first exhibition in the United States. Under her theme “Invitation of an Artificial Garden,” she captures an everyday modern city where nature and industry coexist ironically. She paints images that look from afar like natural green objects, such as ferns and vines, but upon closer scrutiny, the natural objects turn out to be comprised of artificial elements, such as bike chains, neon signs and roller-coaster tracks. She laments that “people are starting to forget about nature” and said that in Seoul, even in the suburbs, it is hard to get away from the dirtier side of urbanization, such as the smell of exhaust. She said the goal of her work is to “reform artificial preferences to prettier natural products.”

Meanwhile, Jin depicts a Seoul that is mass manufactured and blandly uniform, likening it to tightly packed rows of cosmetics that she paints in her art. These perfectly lined cosmetic products mimic the buildings of Seoul. On the one hand, the cosmetics represent the beauty that society demands. On the other hand, they symbolize conformism, artificiality and a lack of individual identity. Jin said the portraits are meant to convey the “desolate” landscape of cities like Seoul and the “deeper desires” of people today to want more out of their cities.

Philip Gunn is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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