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Seoul Museum and Seokpajeong blur the lines between art and nature

Seoul Museum’s “Fear or Love” exhibition in Jongno District, central Seoul, is running through Sept. 18. [YONHAP]

Tucked in the quaint neighborhood of Buam-dong in Jongno District, central Seoul, Seoul Museum is a private repository weaving together Korea’s nature, art and history.

Boasting breathtaking scenery all throughout the year, it is especially beautiful in springtime when the flowers in Seokpajeong, the museum’s historical garden on the top floor, are in full bloom.

Since April, the museum has been celebrating its 10th anniversary with an extensive 140-piece exhibition on modern and contemporary Korean art.

Presenting works by 31 leading modern and contemporary Korean artists over two floors, the series on display is like a textbook for an intro to Korean modern art class, except the would-be two-dimensional images are now real and in front of you.

Titled “Fear or Love,” the exhibition shines a light on the passion and creative spirit of the country’s 20th-century art virtuosos by highlighting paradoxical emotions that are interpreted in unique ways on canvas.

  Kim Whanki's “Echo of Morning 04-VIII-651” (1965) [SEOUL MUSEUM]

Kim Whanki’s “Echo of Morning 04-VIII-651” (1965) [SEOUL MUSEUM]

One of the highlights of the exhibition is Kim Whanki’s “Echo of Morning 04-VIII-651” (1965). It is part of the new collection at the museum that is being showcased for the first time.

It is also the work leading to Kim’s magnum opus, the “Hundred Thousand Dots 04-VI-73 #316” (1973) which is also included in the current exhibition.

Besides Kim’s “Hundred Thousand Dots,” the collector’s note recounts founder of Seoul Museum and art collector Ahn Byung-kwang’s process of acquiring the 10-billion-won (about $8 million) piece.

“To buy it, I had to sell six other artworks. I still don’t know if the painting was worth letting go of those other works,” the post reads.

“But I believe that art is something that you cannot count in numbers. And there is nothing more that comforts the heart than not having to count anything.”

Kim Whanki's “Hundred Thousand Dots 04-VI-73 #316” (1973) [LEE.JIAN]

Kim Whanki’s “Hundred Thousand Dots 04-VI-73 #316” (1973) [LEE.JIAN]

Ahn, 65, is also the CEO of Union Pharmacy Group, a local pharmaceutical distributor.

He has been collecting art as a hobby for over 40 years since he was a sales team employee at Union Pharmacy.

Out of his passion for art and desire to share his collections, Ahn established Seoul Museum in August 2012.

The ongoing exhibition not only delves into the fears and loves of artists but also of Ahn as an art collector. More stories behind his art collection are displayed through dozens of collector’s notes posted on the walls of the show.

Kim Ki-chang's “The Birth of Jesus” (1952-53) [LEE JIAN]

Kim Ki-chang’s “The Birth of Jesus” (1952-53) [LEE JIAN]

Other pieces in Ahn’s collection on display at the museum are Kim Ki-chang’s picture cycle reimagining biblical events under the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) backdrop. The amusing sight of a Korean Jesus Christ wearing hanbok (traditional Korean attire) sparks fresh conversations among groups of visitors.

Nine paintings by Chun Kyung-ja (1924-2015) are on display as well. One of the few female artists of her time de ella and the only female artist whose works are showcased at the museum’s ongoing exhibit, Chun is famous for her bold use of colors and portraits of women that evoke a dual sense of power and loneliness.

Chun Kyung-ja's

Chun Kyung-ja’s “Marriage Proposal” (1989) [LEE JIAN]

More contemporary artists featured in the exhibition are Kim Tschang-yeul (1929-2021), best known for abstract paintings of water droplets; Lee Ufan (1936-), a minimalist artist who uses unconventional artistic processes; and Chun Kwang-young (1944-), who creates installations and sculptures with Korean traditional mulberry paper called hanji.

The exhibition “Fear or Love” runs through Sept. 18.

A hanok in Seokpajeong outside the top floor of Seoul Museum [LEE JIAN]

A hanok in Seokpajeong outside the top floor of Seoul Museum [LEE JIAN]

Seokpajeong

An exit on the third floor of the museum leads outside to a massive historical garden and hanok (traditional Korean houses) complex called Seokpajeong.

Roughly translated to mean a house surrounded by water and clouds, Seokpajeong boasts a breathtaking natural landscape. It is characterized by boulders that make up the nearby mountains — Mount Inwang and Mount Bugak — and a stream that flows through its crevices.

Large rocks at Seokpajeong [LEE JIAN]

Large rocks at Seokpajeong [LEE JIAN]

At the opening of the garden stands a 650-year-old pine tree that stretches its branches over a sarangchaeotherwise known as a hanok that was used by men of the household for leisure activities and writing poetry during the Joseon Dynasty.

There are three more hanok in Seokpajeong. Although visitors cannot go inside the houses, they can sit on the deck and enjoy a picturesque view of Buam-dong surrounded by ample greenery.

The hanok and other historical structures in the garden date back more than 600 years.

The space used to be owned by Heungseon Daewongun (1820-1898), the father of the Joseon Dynasty’s last emperor Gojong (1852-1919). During his reign of him, Gojong used Seokpajeong as a place to both work and rest.

Today, the space is managed by the Seoul Museum and it is open to those who view the museum’s exhibition. There is no separate ticket to enter just Seokpajeong.

A small pavilion called Seokpajeong is nestled in the woods.  The name of the whole area actually comes from the pavilion, which is called Seokpajeong. [LEE JIAN]

A small pavilion called Seokpajeong is nestled in the woods. The name of the whole area actually comes from the pavilion, which is called Seokpajeong. [LEE JIAN]

On the opposite side of the hanok complex lies a small pavilion nestled in the woods. The name of the whole area actually comes from the pavilion, which is called Seokpajeong. It was designated Seoul City Tangible Cultural Heritage No. 26 in 1974.

Another must-see spot in the garden is the neoreok bawi (broad, flat rock), characteristic of the nearby rocky mountain Mount Inwang. Towering well over several tens of meters, the natural rock is said to grant people wishes and bring them good luck. It is also a popular spot for outdoor weddings.

  Neoreok bawi (Broad-flat rock) in Seokpajeong [LEE JIAN]

Neoreok bawi (Broad-flat rock) in Seokpajeong [LEE JIAN]

The entire Seokpajeong garden is some 15,000-pyeong large (about 534,000 square feet). It takes about 30 minutes to go around the entire garden.

Perhaps what makes this space so rare and precious is its ability to stay static. Despite having been opened to the public for a decade now, Seokpajeong still feels quite hidden away from camera-twirling tourists and locals alike.

Instead of sipping coffee and staring at their phone screens, visitors bring books to read on benches in the woods. People who come with friends take their shoes off and sit silently on the hanok decks to take in the landscape rather than chat. Some seemed to have come alone to enjoy a quiet day of nature and art.

Time seems to go slower inside Seokpajeong.

Relaxing isn’t always easy these days, even if you try to set aside time for yourself to wind down.

But somewhere over 140 artworks and a stroll around Seokpajeong, it becomes difficult to remember the things keeping you at a subtle yet constant unease.

Seoul Museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm Seokpajeong is open from 11 am to 5 pm but is closed for public viewing on some weekends due to various events that are held there, so it is advised that visitors check Seoul Museum’s official website or its Instagram page before making plans.

Tickets for adults are 15,000 won ($12).

BY LEE JIAN [lee.jian@joongang.co.kr]

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