Field Report: Three Galleries and a Plate of Dumplings, Seoul, South Korea (29 January 2017)

A Sunday in Seoul can never be complete without the following: Mass, museums, and a meal. Fortunately, the South Korean capital isn’t short of places where one might satisfy the need for all three.

First order of business: Sunday Mass. That meant starting off my day at Myeongdong Cathedral (명동성당), the mother church of Seoul’s Roman Catholic community.

The weather forecast for the day wasn’t particularly favourable (read: wet, dreary, and freezing cold), so I decided to spend most of the day indoors. Thankfully, there’s a great big roofed refuge down in Yongsan-gu that I can rely upon on days such as this…

…the refuge in question being the utterly massive National Museum of Korea (국립중앙박물관).

I couldn’t take a proper picture of the huge building on that sopping wet day, so let’s borrow a few of my older snapshots (taken in drier conditions) to better illustrate our present whereabouts.

Like Gyeongbokgung, this is one of several places that I regularly visit (or at least consider for a visit) whenever I’m in Seoul. The main attraction is, of course, the NMK’s enormous permament collection – although “permanent” is a relatively fluid term when applied here. After all, the museum has hundreds of thousands of artefacts in its collection and only 12,000 or so could be displayed at any one time, so expect a bit of switching and swapping once in a while.

Admission to the main exhibition hall is free; this covers the permanent galleries as well as temporary themed exhibits housed in those galleries. However, a fee is charged for the museum’s special exhibition gallery, which at that time was hosting a visiting collection of 229 Ancient Egyptian artefacts from the Brooklyn Museum.

It was clear that Ancient Egypt was as popular a theme in Korea as anywhere, if the long queues at the ticket booth (mostly families with young children) were anything to go by. Indeed, demand was so high that visitors were issued queue numbers in order to regulate the size of the crowds admitted to the exhibition space at any given time.

My assigned number was 246…

…and when I entered the lobby, they were only welcoming those with tickets numbered up to 120.

Right. I’ve got some time to kill.

I crossed the museum plaza and entered the cavernous main hall…

…where, forsaking most of the permanent galleries (which I’d already seen on previous visits anyway), I made a beeline to a special themed exhibition focusing on the Baekje Period (18 BC-AD 660).

Ooh, gold. I like gold. Come now chaps, who doesn’t like gold?

Seriously, though – there were some fantastic examples of Baekje craftsmanship assembled in that gallery, over and above the tiny handful I’ve shown above. My interest in Korean history currently revolves around the Joseon Period up to the Japanese Occupation, but I think it might be worth casting my net a little wider (or rather, a little further back in time).

After nearly an hour, I returned to the special exhibition gallery, where I saw that the digital counter had finally moved up – though not quite far enough.

Aaaargh. Well, close enough. I waited in the lobby until my assigned window arrived, and inside I went. (Finally.)

Despite the crowd control measures in place, the exhibition halls were still packed to the rafters, and taking good shots of the interiors proved challenging at times (what with the queues and the dimmed lighting and so forth). But here’s a mummy for your trouble.

After breaking free of the horde, I detoured into the Myeongdong district for lunch. I wanted something fast, simple, and solo-diner friendly, so I returned to a place I’d been to before (mm, lots of that going on today) for a dish of the tried and true.

Now then, we’ve seen two galleries (both at the NMK) and a plate of dumplings, but the title of this post mentions three galleries. No worries, mate – I haven’t forgotten about the last one.

Off I went to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (동대문 디자인 플라자), yet another Seoul landmark that I’d visited more than once before. It’s quite a sight to behold, as these snapshots from my previous visits might suggest…

…though it looked decidedly less impressive on that cold winter day, with the skies almost as grey as the DDP’s metal cladding.

Not that it mattered much – I’d come for something inside those buildings.

The DDP hosts a variety of special events and exhibitions, none of which I’d bothered to see up to that point (given my general dislike of contemporary art). However, I’d recently learned of a temporary exhibition titled The Encounter between Kansong and Paik Nam June – Changing the World with Culture, featuring classical Korean artworks juxtaposed with installations created by the late Korean-American artist Paik Nam June (백남준, Baek Namjun).

Some of the juxtapositions were … mmm, I suppose one might charitably describe them as interesting. And of course, I appreciated the dozens of fine examples of traditional Korean art on display. There was also a virtual-reality experience in one part of the gallery (offered via special headsets) that was both technologically impressive and, to put it simply, just great fun.

That said, nothing I’d seen here succeeded in changing the views I hold regarding contemporary art…

…especially not this last piece.

A candle in an old television set. Set up on a plinth, inside an art gallery. Yep.

(Oh, there was an explanation. I was, and remain, unconvinced.)


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