Sulwhasoo's Sulwha Cultural Exhibition in Seoul is a window to Korea's burgeoning art scene that's about to get closer to us than you think
As you meander through Changdeokgung Palace on a fall day in South Korea, the faint smell of pine trees bestows its soothing scent upon the crisp air. Pine trees entwine themselves in Korean culture — evident in the way they dot the palace grounds as you move from courtyards to gardens and quarters of this 15th century original. Intrinsic as this ingredient is to the DNA of the country, proudly Korean beauty brand Sulwhasoo also employs this healing pine scent in the brand's flagship at Gangnam. Tucked away at the corner of a prestigious address that's shared with the likes of Hermès, Ralph Lauren and an Assouline bookshop and café, Sulwhasoo's six-storey establishment houses two spas, a heritage room (with samples of red pine, a key ingredient in Sulwhasoo's Timetreasure EX collection), VIP lounge and rooftop. Since October, the flagship and adjacent Dosan Park have also been home to the 2016 Sulwha Cultural Exhibition, where 11 Korean artists have interpreted folklore into contemporary curiosities.
Now in its eighth installment, the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition returns to cement the brand's loyalty to the Korean art scene. With the backbone of 'Once upon a time: The Two Love Stars, the Altair and Vega' as the exhibition's theme, the sculpture, sound and digital artists created tributes for the mythical lovers, who were separated by a galaxy between them only to meet once a year in July via a bridge. Found within the confines of both the man-made store and natural park, the works announce the presence of love and longing in both subtle and blatant ways. Here are our favourites.
1. Yeojoo Park, 'Magic Hour on the Milky Way' The 34-year-old has worked with the likes of Tadao Ando and held two solo exhibitions for her installation work. Taking ownership of the staircase outside of the flagship, the artist installed lights that seem to move through the ceiling, darting about and changing patterns every four times.
What do you wish for visitors to experience when they ascend or descend the staircase? I want them to think they're in their brightest moment. The Japanese movie The Magic Hour said that the moment is a really short time — when the sun sets for only 24 minutes — but it can be compared to the brightest moment of our loves. When the two lovers meet once a year, this brightest moment relates to the magic hour.
Is this your first time working with themes of folklore? I like history. I've used some kind of Korean paintings, but I took only the form. Sometimes, I use the architectural form of old paintings with the arches. It looks three-dimensional, but when I'm looking at it from the top, I like that pictorial view.
2. Joon Kim, 'Continue' A visual and media artist, Joon Kim usually works with space-specific sounds and material, using elements of nature such as wood, soil and plants. For the exhibition, he recreated an oasis of nature within the urban compounds of the store.
Where did you get the idea to incorporate nature to tell the story of the lovers' reunion? I thought their relationship was similar to that of human beings and nature. Human beings cannot be apart from nature for their survival and nature finds its raison d'être when it is connected with human beings. I wanted to express this harmonious connection by recreating the elements of nature that are gradually disappearing from the bleak environment of cities built by humans.
Where did you get these sounds from, and how were the scents sourced and where were the physical elements from? These sounds were collected in Blue Mountains, Australia, which is known as a well-preserved natural environment. I stayed there for two weeks to observe changes of natural environment and climate to collect the most characteristic sounds.
The scents were provided by Sulwhasoo. On top of the visual effect, I wanted to have the audience experience the brand's fundamental philosophy, Source of Nature, by smelling the scents spreading from loudspeakers. It's a refreshing scent that embodies serenity and vitality of forests at daybreak, and helps you regain your balance between body and soul by relieving stress.
Both the moss and logs were collected from the mountainous areas in Gangwon-do. I got the logs from a professional sawmill and cut them to fit into the exhibition space. The moss has soil and pine tree scents because it was collected from a pine tree field.
3. Jimi An and Sanghong Lee, 'Hundred of Billions of Stars in a Single Drop of Tear' Paris-educated Jimi An joins forces with Korean National University alum Sanghong Lee to present a poem in the physical form, with motifs dangling from different corners of the installation, each evoking a different sentiment.
How did the two of you come together for this work? Jimi An: In August, we worked together for the publication of The End of the Special Time We Were Allowed, a collection of short stories by Okada Toshiki, a Japanese novelist and playwright. I worked as art director and representative of the publisher while Sanghong was the drawing artist. When this project was nearing its end, we were offered to join the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition and our collaboration naturally continued to this project.
Why did you choose the poem Love, Waiting and Being Connected to narrate this love story? We selected Eugene Mok's poem, which was also touted by renowned literary critic Hyunsang Hwang as "the best love poem ever", and tried to interpret his poetic language with typographies and drawings. The poem fully expresses the essence of our collaboration where a typographic designer and a drawing artist work together. Eugene Mok is also a screenwriter and his poem is like a conversation of two lovers, thus it was ideal to narrate the sadness of Altair and Vega who cannot be with each other.
4. stpmj, 'Shadow Bridge' The message in the duo's bench isn't apparent — until the clock strikes 3.30pm and a shadow is cast, linking the two structures together. The matrimony of US-based architects Seungtaek Lee and Mijung Lee works well, having picked up the 2016 Young Architect Award by Korea's Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
How do you feed each other creatively? Seung Teak Lee's strength is in logically resolving big-picture designs based on basic ideas, while Mi Jung Lim's strength lies in delicately sculpting space based on functional and aesthetic understanding and her responsiveness to unexpected incidents. Seung Teak's idealism and Mi Jung's rationalism create a unique synergy. This is why the design direction of our team is "Provocative Realism".
What do you feel when you sit on the bench and see the shadow? It's a reinterpretation of the waiting part of the tale. We compressed the one-year period into a day to experience how the reunion might have meant to them. While sitting on the bench, we felt the shadow was changing too slowly because the change of its location is not easily recognisable after one minute, ten minutes and even after an hour. The shadow meets the bench only after a painfully long period of time. This feeling made us imagine how Altair and Vega might have felt when they had to wait for each other for a whole year. We think most people will be able to feel the weight of time that is spent waiting for something or someone precious in their lives.
As a married couple, did working on an art piece about an unfortunate mythical couple teach you anything about love's tenacity? When we were sitting on the bench and thinking about someone or something precious for three minutes and thirty seconds, we feel that while some people will wait, others may choose to leave. The important thing to look at here is the object's value against the weight of time. If the object has a solid value, a day, a year or a decade may not mean anything.
5. FriHH, 'time - (misconstrued)' The rooftop adapts another mysterious, volatile character with the trio's work. Made up of Jungwan Bae, Sangyeon Hwang and Jinok Jo, architect and lecturer Bae anchored the work, filling up the gold-bronze hue of the lattice patterns with blue-coloured steel plates in between them. An accompanying recording of waves and water pressure turns the work from therapeutic to threatening, depending on the light of day.
What sort of emotions did you wish to evoke with this piece of sight, sound and text? Jinok Cho created the sounds based on the poem written by Jungwan Bae to reinforce the environment envisioned in the poem — that is the emotional exploration of the self looking for another — and to evoke the emotions experienced while walking through the piece.
What went on behind the scenes through the physical process of assembling this large-scale work? We did a few iterations that simulated the experience through 3D computer simulation and had certain expectations. Thereafter, we set out a few test pieces on site, adjusting the bend angles and the width of the metal. We chose the version that worked best with the walk-through, mirror-reflected image, diagonal sight-line view from far ends and the gap-image of the sky and cityscape. We used the cubed brass as an instrument to set the basic rhythm between the unit pieces and their bends.
What challenges did you encounter in its execution? We had a tight schedule and budget which allowed little time for experimental testing and interaction with other artists and hosts. This required plenty of focus with little room for wrong decisions, which can be a good thing sometimes. Playful interactions between the elements of light, sound and sculpture; discussions with artists, curators, public relations and many others; and misunderstandings, bad decisions, and mishaps are usually part of a good show that leads to evolution.
The 2016 Sulwha Cultural Exhibition runs till 13 November at Sulwhasoo Flagship Store and Dosan Park in South Korea. For more information, click here. You can experience snippets of the exhibition in Singapore from 16 to 29 November at ION Orchard, Atrium Level 1.