Monday, 27 August 2012

Cheonggyecheon Museum


One Sunday afternoon in Seoul, I was suddenly seized with the sudden desire to visit the Cheonggyecheon Museum, a museum dedicated to the development around Cheonggyecheon. I had been told that it had been a controversial river project in Seoul.

In the 1960s, the slum-surrounded Cheonggyecheon River had been completely covered over and built over to form a highway, this highway falling into disrepair after a few decades, and then a turnaround decision in 2005 to remove the decaying highway. With half an hour to spare before closing time (they do not allow people in half an hour before closing time), I rushed over on a very slow bus to Cheonggyecheon. Somehow, I made it exactly five minutes before the cut-off time, giving me a good half-hour at this small museum.


Model of the Cheonggyecheon Area


Collage of Cheonggyecheon


The highway was removed in pieces



It was restored fairly recently, starting from the launch of the Cheonggyecheong Restoration Project on July 1 2003 with the dismantling of the Cheonggye Elevated Highway. And it was completed in October 2005. Coming at the cost of over 386 billion won and rising, it was said to have received much public criticism because of the staggering costs and lack of ecological/historical authenticity, but they went through with the project with the official reasons being as follows:

"The rebirth of Seoul as a human, environmentally friendly city"
"The Recreation of Seoul as a 600-Year capital of New Cultural Spaces"
"Removal of obsolete Structure for Safety of Citizens"
"Balanced Development through revitalization of neglected neighborhoods"


I find it interesting to see what official statements are released to explain such a peculiar project to bring back a river that was basically no longer flowing and no longer in existence. Although it is debatable whether historical authenticity must be still retained in such a project where history is not a continuous line, I feel at least they made an attempt to put it back exactly where it used to be.



Very similar to the Singapore River, it was a heavily used river that had been neglected and heavily polluted at the time when they decided to build a highway over it. They didn't really care about the historic value of the river at the time (it was used as drainage in the Joseon dynasty with texts written about it) and had covered it up because it was the fastest way to deal with a trash-filled river.



The highway itself was a symbol of Seoul's success in industrialization and modernization in the 1960s when it was built to cover up the trash and waste from the slums. It involved engineering feats and huge amounts of resources to build the highway back in the day.


But by the time they had decided to restore the river, it had run dry and water had to be pumped back into it. 680 kilotons of construction debris had to be removed from the site (notably all the metals were fully recycled, and 95& of waste concrete and ASCON materials were also recycled) There was also contention on how certain bridges should be restored and how historical sites should be "recreated".

Nevertheless the project went through and despite disagreements during the early process, it can certainly be said that the project was completely well-intentioned and has had a very good outcome. The green areas are an attractive, quiet place for people to rest in the middle of the city, and the resculpted bubbling brooks are now home to animals and fishes and plants. When I walked along it, many people were taking walks along the Cheonggyecheon or even having a nap or picnic by the river.





Can you imagine Singapore turning around and saying "Wait! We made a mistake in urbanizing all these areas so heavily and we're going to put a green belt back exactly where it once was!" I have a feeling they do not have this same understanding of of how geographical locations are also important.

I was reading about how the Koreans also have the same school of thought about fengshui which is known as "pungsu" over there. One of the main ways of maintaining good fengshui is through "hyol" (blood) which means: to bury your ancestors in a place with advantageous energies. The other most common method is obviously to build your own house in a place with good pungsu as well.

The very feature that had given Seoul its good pungsu was the Cheonggyecheon, because it is a small stream that runs from the mountains into the huge Han River. It was this feature that attracted monks to advise the early Joseon rulers that this was the perfect site for the capital. And thus Seoul had also grown around the Cheonggyecheon, which lies in the middle of it. Of course, as cities develop, some things are bound to be lost and forgotten, which is what happened to Cheonggyecheon until it was identified to be by the then-mayor of Seoul to be restored in 2003.

While not completely unproblematic itself (as its detractors will argue that it is being used as an extravagant symbolic action to show off Korea's efforts in urban redevelopment) the Cheonggyecheon is about breathing life back into a part of Seoul that has always been here and has history and stories in the area. They didn't just abandon it and try to build the lovely green stuff back into a brand new spot. They went back and tried to make it better.

In Singapore, there is a willingness to destroy the old cemeteries and nature reserves at Bukit Brown without a second thought, coupled with an almost contradictory interest in creating new "green" areas or "gardens". I wondered why they would meddle with the graves of so many our ancestors. Did the city planners view every last shred of Singapore's history as being completely disposable?

To be fair, it is good that Singapore has an interest in gardens. Compared to Seoul, Singapore is actually very green, but if one looks closer, then this greenery is also nothing more than an artificial construct.

To be willing to destroy the original sites of nature in Singapore, and to build the new Gardens by the Bay on a completely new, reclaimed site which is of no significant emotional or historic value, strikes me as a schizophrenic decision in urban planning, when we could be preserving and building on what we already have, like how the Koreans have rehabilitated and brought life back to the historic Cheonggyecheon.

It also reminds me of the difference between how Singaporean and Koreans handle enbloc sales. In the popular Gangnam area, apartment block residents band together to have their blocks demolished so as to build a newer and more highly valued apartment block in the exact same location - with the caveat that they can move back into the same place later (and capitalize off their investments in that very same land). Compare this to the popular Singaporean scheme of conducting enbloc sales where people sell off their houses and its land permanently to the whimsies of another land developer, without maintaining any further interest in the area. The private condos in Singapore are often demolished only to make way for another condo, causing many residents to move from older estates and to be scattered like the wind.

Maybe Singapore needs to learn from the Koreans and their system of building on the places that they already have.




Sunday, 26 August 2012

A Presentation of Ethnographic Fragments (Aliwal Street, 25 August 2012)


Lee Wen addressing the crowd

The Collection and Exchange of Ethnographic Fragments travelled to Aliwal Street the other day, under the invitation of the Independent Archive & Resource Centre. This is an independent archive of materials and documentations of visual arts, performance arts, and other events, and some may also remember this archive previously being at the Singapore Art Museum. It has found its new (temporary) home at Lee Wen's new place, where we had a kind of "soft launch" or private event to introduce it to people.

About the Independent Archive: "The independent Archive and Resource Centre (working name), is intended to be developed as a professional archive of visual art practices and other cultural manifestations in Singapore. The focus of the archive, especially at its initial stage, is art practices that benefit from archival support — such as visual art practices that are ephemeral, time-based, event and/or specific or that may not be conserved in conventional institutional environments or practices.

A project proposed by Lee Wen, June Yap, Kai Lam, Jason Lee, Hafiz Nasir, Koh Nguang How with the assistance and collaborations of various artists, cultural workers and friends. Many serious minded colleagues of repute and note, younger ones of intense enthusiasm and courageous energies, famed and unknown spirits of inspired momentary wisdom, even dissenting doubters of authentic integrity have contributed to our destined desire in setting up the independent archive and resource centre.

We who prefer to appreciate art in the essences of meaning, values, ethics, aesthetics, whether unilaterally or multilaterally propagated beyond our subscription to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, calls for an independent archive for reflection, review and research what we have done, what we do today."

We aim to serve: The maintenance of an archive and resource centre open to the public an access to these materials.

The project is research-driven, to facilitate access to significant art materials (documentation, objects, images, correspondence, etc) and the production of critical discourse that interprets and creates forms of mediation of the archived materials.

The archive is to be open to the public. However its key audience are students, institutions, researchers, curators, artists and academics for further academic, artistic and historical production, that in turn will also be archived, thus expanding the knowledge-base on performance practice and history in Singapore and the region.

The development of the archive and resource centre requires the building of a sound foundation in archival practice. The infrastructure of such an archive and resource centre — and in this, its key value — lies in building an environment and set of practices where these artworks can be reliably and securely archived. Such an infrastructure includes: archival venue with climate-controlled storage, technical facilities for the transfer, backup and editing, indexing, cataloguing and referencing, as well as the development of public access frameworks and channels.

Under the backdrop of this great archive (of which I have found great use for, to watch video documentations of ephemera and performances), the fragments were here for a show and tell.




I gave a talk on the Singapore Psychogeographical Society and its various independent archives.


This was followed by a conversation with the rocks (ie: Lee Wen investigating the sounds the rocks would make with a guitar). And following that, it was an evening of improvisations and jams with Jordan Rais, Reef, Kai Lam, Rahman, Dennis, and many others who had come down that night.











Many thanks to Lee Wen for his amazing archive and for hosting this, and Mike for helping to organise all this and helping with the logistics of all the rock moving! If anyone is interested in getting involved with the Independent Archive & Resource Centre, they are always looking for people, so please get in touch with them.

For more images, see the [Flickr Set]

[ ] (Seoul Art Space_Mullae, 16 August 2012)

Me and Heewoo had a work-in-progress exhibition (entitled "[ ]") at Seoul Art Space_Mullae on 16 August. We made three different works: (1) The Pyeongcube (2) A Life-sized Comparison between the Typical Apartment Layouts in Seoul and SIngapore (3) What people think their houses look like on the inside?

The very existence of a "default", “common”, or "typical" size and layout of apartments/flats in both South Korea and Singapore shows that there has been an attempt to quantify and define how much private space people should be allocated. But how much space do we need for living? How much space do we want to live in? What is the shape of our spaces? How do we want to shape our living spaces?

For preparatory work, we collected a survey in both Singapore and Seoul of people and what they thought their flats looked like on the inside. We visited traditional korean houses, modern apartments, and showflats to get a feel of apartments in Seoul. As the space in the gallery was very large, we decided to maximise the use of the space by making a life-sized outline drawing of what would be a typical 3-room flat in singapore, next to a typical 24-pyeong flat in Seoul.

We also looked at the "pyeong", a unit of area used in Korea to measure the size of houses. Most people can describe houses in terms of pyeong, but many do not know what one pyeong looks like, as one is more accustomed to speaking of it in terms of pyeongs in multiples (eg: 24 pyeong house). A pyeong is anecdotally said to be the size of an average man with his arms and legs stretched out, so we made a "pyeongcube" in which people could stand inside and be photographed/documented standing inside. We created a wall of polaroids of visitors and their size in relation to the one pyeong square on the wall.

Setting Up






Opening Night & Artist Talk






The Work














Many thanks must go to Seoul Art Space_Mullae for having us living and working there for the 3 weeks in Seoul, especially Suyeon and Miri for their assistance during the project; thanks to Substation and Khai (who came down to join us for a few days), thanks to Huyun (for doing the video documentation), our capable technicians (and their remarkable speed and impressively professional work), Murim (for all his help around the Mullae area), and all the friends who came down to see it (Kat, Kieran, Bin, Nico, Jerry, Yangjah, Jeongjoo, and so so many others; I'm sorry I can't spell all your names)! AND of course, thank you Heewoo for the great time working together!

For more images: [See the Full Flickr set of images]