Like spending Christmas alone in South Korea. As I’m doing right now.
When I made the decision to come here, it was with as much forethought as putting a pin on the map. The travel agent asked if I wanted to stay longer than the compulsory one night stop over in Seoul, and I said “sure, let’s make it six”.
Which is probably a great disservice to a country that has not only a rich cultural history, but a complex and globally-significant military history (by the very greatest understatement) and an enduring economic impact and social relationship to Australia. There are a number of very good reasons to come to Korea. North or South.
I’m not entirely sure if my reasons count as good. I came just to reconcile the physical with the sentimental. To be in a place that I have some emotions for. Looking with your own eyes at something you may have yet seen via television or film feels different, or at least we tell ourselves it does. My grandfather served in Korea with the RAN, and proudly displayed medals from this conflict upon the wall, one of my ex-loves spent a year teaching English here (and subsequently being rather annoying about kim chi) and my ex-finance has travelled here several times, often in moments in his life when he has needed to climb a great big mountain, both emotionally and physically. I know several Korean-Australian adoptees and these reasons seem more than enough to stop in an interesting city of some 10 million people.
Mostly, however, and I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I just need to disconnect from Brisbane and find myself elsewhere.
Because being here is oddly arbitrary in some way, despite the emotional curiosity of seeing where others I have cared for have been, I have decided to shape some of my time here around the Australia-Korean year of Friendship (2011, for those who missed it), which I had certainly not heard of until I got to see the extraordinary theatre collaboration, Underground.
Which is why I find myself (tenuously) at the Deoksugung Palace, in the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which was built as an annex to the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which was a collaborative force behind Tell Me Tell Me: Australian and Korean Art 1976–2011, an exhibition of Korean and Australian contemporary art celebrating 2011 as the Australian-Korean Year of Friendship. And there’s a very awesome changing of the guards and a beautiful place, so I’m open minded as to whether or not the art will satisfy.
The gift store (why do I start in the gift store?) filled with excess copies of the exhibition publication. I’m assuming this is a bad thing, if they’re still trying to shift copies two years later? Either way, there’s a lot of them. The exhibition seems to consist mainly of me getting admonished, for walking the wrong direction, for taking photos, for drinking out of my water bottle and for various other infractions. As I get bustled around the exhibition of modern Korean painting, in the noisiest gallery I have ever visited, one work stands out, by a painter called Chun Kyung-Ja.
Interestingly, later while at the nearby Seoul Museum of Art, there is a permanent and major retrospective of that one artist whose work struck me, filled with exotic women with their Kahlo-crazy snakes and flowers motifs running through them.
The 49th page of my sad legend
For Chun, Kyung-Ja
would you think me terribly rude (a guest
criticising your choice of curtains) to say
I don’t quite like your painting
the naïf flatness not quite flat enough
antelopes like cut outs in savannah
surely not scenery actually seen
or perhaps actually seen, but just as early botanists
gave kangaroos great fangs – unfamiliar! horror! horror!
why, that second giraffe hasn’t even any spots
how is that yellow boar just strolling past those lions?
I only like that ghost woman
squatting upon that elephant, out of proportion
incongruous, her hair blending down to the hulk of grey flesh
ignoring all the jumping wild about her, folded
to grief, unfeeling to the drift of cloud over Kilimanjaro
I’m a sucker for a woman almost rent to death with grief
and great titles (not like Friend At Rest
or Summer Sparrows) and no smoggy calligraphy