Thursday, July 08, 2021

Looking back: final days in Korea

At the national museum in Seoul, I was so curious about how well bamboo planters can work, and so unsurprised by the roots poking out.
I was delighted to be able to see Jeong-in one more time (and even one more time after that! In a surprise book gift drop off) at a book arts show in Seoul at the Korea Foundation gallery. She's so good about documenting me in space, and has been a dear friend for years. The kind you know you can always lean on.
I intentionally got off one bus stop early on the way to the gallery because I was so early and figured it would be more interesting to walk. I hadn't eaten properly either so I went into one of the underground subway/shopping areas and took a lap before sitting down to some tuna kimbap (which would be one roll plus soup and kimchi, which all come out immediately, for 4,000 won. That's under 4 US dollars, and this is not a tipping culture. I will miss the instant, delicious, affordable food!). Then I made my way to the gallery up the fancy staircase.
My understanding of this show is that it's a mashup of the winners of the latest Dutch book design award (given to books published anywhere, but designed by Dutch folks) and Korean books. It would be a stretch to call them artists' books though a very few are. The awarded books are on the long table that is designed to look like an accordion book. There are also large photographs of some of them on the walls as you enter and throughout the gallery.
I spent the most time with this book, by Henk Wildschut, called Rooted. At first, I had kind of skipped over it, but then when I went back to actually read what was going on, it felt so of this time and every time: how humans create home in temporary places by building gardens. In this case, refugees living in extremely harsh landscapes where water is scarce.
The Korean books were then placed in designed spaces around the rest of the gallery and clearly not the focus of the show. Some cubbies were more clever than others. I was mostly annoyed by the constructions like the one at left, where you can take the book out of its hole but then where do you put it if you want to read it and it's a big heavy book?
Some books are literally shoved into a corner and then others given a bit more room to breathe.
After I went down this wall from the corner, I was so confused by the constructions that I assumed the HVAC unit on the left also housed a book!

Jeong-in inspired me with her close attention. She is an illustrator and book artist, and we met years ago during my first grant. She at the time had a studio close to my aunt and late uncle, where I stayed for a few months during my language study. She helped me so much with my research but also in understanding the artists' books community in Seoul at the time, which apparently has dissolved these days. She also connected me to my calligraphy teacher and we had lots of wonderful meals together.
This clever little book "shelf" of sorts. The book is sweet as well, drawings of leaves and accompanying text.
We talked about book arts in Korea and I wondered if more commercial printing and large editions were common in Korea over one of a kind and fine press editions because their printing industry and economy are so robust. Something you might notice that is very Korean is how very much printed matter they create. It's not as expensive as it is here to get well-designed, well-printed ephemera and books, so every artist seems to have their own self-published monograph or booklet to share, of which I've been jealous. If I hadn't been so strapped for time, I would have gotten some done myself.
My last visit to Seoul had to include family, and that is what I made the most time for. Here is my eldest female cousin (well, her hand), who essentially taught me Korean again when I decided I wanted to be more fluent when I was 20 and living with her family in Seoul. We took a little break from her very difficult job running a tangsuyuk place in a very hip neighborhood.
She had already fed me stuff from the shop and then we had lots more treats at the cafe. She even called an old friend of hers that I had not seen in years, who came by and then helped me shop for last-minute gifts.
The next day I was able to see my eldest aunt again as well as my eldest cousin (who was so good about checking in on me throughout my stay even given his busy cardiologist schedule) to welcome his younger brother and his family back from Jakarta for a summer stay. They had just gotten out of quarantine and came straight to my aunt's home. The night before, they ordered the lunch spread so that she wouldn't have to cook. The king crab is not pictured and it was all delicious. I was overjoyed to meet his kids as I haven't seen them for over seven years. His daughter in particular was so chatty and fun, his son terribly sweet, and I made them both some hanji jewelry before we had to say goodbye again.
They were kind enough to give me a ride afterwards to my dinner date to see another old, old friend that had lived in New York when we were kids, and then in New Jersey when we were teenagers, because of her dad's work. She now lives in Kuwait and had just gotten out of quarantine for her summer stay with her kids. She came out with her mom, whom I hadn't seen since I was probably a teenager! Those friendships are the best—being completely out of touch and then back together like no time has passed. They gave me a ride in the torrential rain (as monsoon season has definitely started) to the subway. But this sign on the bus was something that I appreciated: "Are you having a hard time? It's okay to say so" is the rough translation. It's a very ... non-traditional Korean thought! There were similar little signs on the bus that were a good pick-me-up right when I needed it.
Ugh, then back to the reality of having to return home: the covid test. I thought this would be a quick visit to a hospital I've never been to but I was very wrong. Just to get "registered," I had to wait in line behind 20-something people. Then I had to wait for over 40-something folks to get through the line to sign testing paperwork and get info. We all hung out in this skywalk that I had seen when walking to the hospital (thinking, "surely that won't be the line *I* have to wait in..."). Then I wanted behind another 20-something folks to pay for the test. Then I got the test! Which was speedy enough but the rest of the stuff took all morning.
Leaving the hospital I saw this bottle solution to the gutters.
And on the way to see some other dear friends, I saw this new store for massage chairs. They are really nice to lay in and have tons of settings. I can attest to that because I tried at least 3 or 4 settings during my stay with my angel host near Mr. Shin.
My final research visit (and I was SO disappointed with myself for not getting to her sooner...that was out of my own insecurity that she wouldn't remember me but of course she did) was to Professor Park Ji-sun, a noted and very experienced conservator who has done tons of hanji research and has been behind a lot of Mr. Shin's success, encourage Jae-gyun, her student, to become his apprentice.
This is what I wanted to do more research on but was guided away from it by the person I no longer speak to: screens made of grass and reed fibers. Jae-gyun himself had harvested these.
And my final guide as always was my first: Kim Bo-kyung (Beau Kim of FIDES) and her husband drove me from our lunch meeting with Prof Park (Bo-kyung also masterminded combining meetings so that we could three meet together and I could then have a free evening to pack and see family one last time) to the post office. This was a BIG job: combining over 400 sheets of paper and a wooden frame into one giant box. The packing guy was so helpful in letting us know that it was better to actually splurge for EMS premium (aka UPS) because the regular EMS (express mail) was adding a surcharge due to pandemic that made it more expensive than the top option. It arrived the day after I did!
Final taxi ride to the airport, complete with lego car made by the driver's daughter.
I lucked out again with three seats to myself, and a safety video by BTS on Korean Air. How times have changed! Time now to head out for caretaking. I miss Korea for sure but hope that I won't have to wait 7 years until the next visit.

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