|An alley is overgrown with vegetation in a redevelopment zone in Jangwi-dong, northeastern Seoul. / Courtesy of Lee Joo-young|
By Jon Dunbar
When artist Jooyoung Lee started studying Jangwi-dong, a seemingly innocuous neighborhood in northeastern Seoul, she had no idea that its name would soon receive national attention.
The site of several urban redevelopment projects in various stages of completion, it is also home to the Sarang Jeil Church, a controversial conservative church that was blamed for the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic for organizing a political demonstration, Aug. 15, where some infected members spread the coronavirus to others.
|A self-portrait of Jooyoung Lee in Jangwi-dong / Courtesy of Joo-young Lee|
"I wanted to explore more in the area where the church is, but I was stopped by a lady from the church," Lee told The Korea Times. "She kept on asking me whether I was a journalist or not. She kept on following me and asking what photos I was taking. Since then I sort of had to avoid the church. I would like to go back there."
Lee seems uninterested in chasing sensationalism as she conducts her "forensic" analysis of the neighborhood. In her art career she's turned her attention to the smallest parts of the city many times, including in her "Fantasy Real Estate Agency" in 2012-13 and "Cul De Sac Ville" projects, which she began in 2017 with German artist Klega. At that time, she lived in Samseon-dong, another doomed Seoul neighborhood now being ground to rubble. From there, she moved to Jangwi-dong where she started the "Cul De Sac Ville" project while there was still time.
|Joo-young Lee poses with a mirror in Samseon-dong. / Photo by Ryan Berkebile|
"There are many layers in Jangwi-dong. You can see traces of the urban architecture from the 1960s to redevelopment projects," she said of the area.
According to her, the Jangwi-dong we see today was constructed in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the area was developed as a residential part of Seoul with the introduction of modern and foreign forms of architecture, erasing its rural character. As of 2005, the area was 1.87 square kilometers and was home to 20,000 households, or about 80,000 people.
Although it may seem humble and working-class today, historically it has been a place of diverse social classes. She cited a wealthy housing complex built by Dongbang Insurance (now rebranded under management by Samsung), as well as the former home of the important architect Kim Chung-up, now a cultural center (affiliated with the exhibition), located in the same area as sewing factories and early public housing.
|A traffic bollard improvised out of concrete and brick is identified next to one of artist Joo-young Lee's forensic number cards. / Courtesy of Joo-young Lee|
As Lee documents these places, she maintains a dispassionate attitude, looking at the area objectively and categorizing what she observes. She places little markers with numbers from 1 to 24 in view when she takes a picture, classifying the subject matter to isolate particular traces. The categories include "buried (decomposed)," "blocked windows," "artificial material," "trees," "gates," "railings" and "roofs," although the list is always expanding.
"The result should be a differentiated sensibility towards what is or is not visible," she said. "These are categories of desperate images, these are images that impose a feeling of destruction, death and decay. It also gives direction to our interpretation, opens up our habits to narratives of the past, and the possibilities of the future."
Her exhibition is at a house that was abandoned about a decade ago and bought up by the city government for artists to use.
Inside, the house offers several artistic displays. One room has traditional photo prints on display, with a brick installation in the center made of material meant to be disposed of in the renewal process.
On one table are several photos of roughly formed sculptures serving as traffic bollards in the area's narrow alleys. Some are made of poured concrete, shaped by hand, tools or old paint buckets that weren't fully removed, as well as other material such as bricks or stones, and it is clear Lee sees art in them.
"These objects are reminiscent of the surface and debris of brutalist architecture developed by Le Corbusier, using material such as raw concrete, brick and tiles as they are," she explained. "Traditionally, rocks have been an object of worship for Koreans… Standing stones are generally 1 to 2 meters in height, generally natural, rarely carved. Most of them were erected at the village entrance or in the middle of open fields. The act of making such a sculpture is similar to the act of blocking bad energy by using towers or sculptures in each village, believing in the magical power of rocks. Built by humans, these objects sometimes symbolize a phallus. Humans constantly post and mark signs in their space, leaving both symbolic and practical traces. These bollards, which we encounter in everyday life and passed by without knowing, remind us of the guardians of the village and certainly play a role in the care and maintenance of the residence."
|Artist Joo-young Lee sorts through printed photographs at the 'Everybody's House' exhibition in Jangwi-dong, northeastern Seoul, on Jan. 27. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
At the top of the little ladder leading up to the tiny attic, there's a video screen playing back a relentless series of her forensic photos of Jangwi-dong, and another similar video on display in the kitchen. The videos feature a jarring soundtrack made by New Zealand artist Ian-John, featuring various percussion instruments and a harmonica, based on the sound of a construction site on a rainy day, with various bird sounds. Meanwhile, phrases from Yi Sang's poems, such as "Story of a Street Outside of a Street" flash across the screen, with lines like, "my rotting follows a path" and "stifling trash that came out of sweeping my vast room."
As she arrives one day to open the exhibition for visitors, she leaves out persimmons on top of the gate to feed the birds. She observes that the previous persimmons left there have vanished without a trace.
|Persimmons are left for birds on top of the gate at the venue for Jooyoung Lee's exhibition in Jangwi-dong. / Courtesy of Jooyoung Lee|
Persimmon trees have been a feature of Koreans' yards, which served as the social center of families, where anything from weddings to shaman ceremonies would be performed. She sees their disappearance as symbolic of the total erasure of the city brought about by redevelopment.
"I saw many persimmon trees that had been marked to be cut down after the residents moved out from Samseon-dong as well as from Jangwi-dong during the autumn. There was a guy trying to pick them up in Samseon-dong. Some persimmons were falling and lying on the ground after the heavy rain. The thudding sound of falling persimmons seemed louder than the noise from construction. Every time a persimmon fell, I was startled and looked around," she said. "I am concerned that natural spaces will be lost. It seems that nature is on the verge of being further destroyed. I know you have to protect trees more than 100 years old according to a forest protection law, but sadly not persimmon trees. That's another important reason I left persimmon fruits on display during the show so as to feed birds and also show awareness of nature, as it is being destroyed."
|Jooyoung Lee appears in a Korea Times article published Jan. 22, 2005. / Korea Times Archive|
The "Everybody's House" exhibition, which "Cul De Sac Ville" is part of, is being held at Jangwi-dong 219-330. Visitors are recommended to contact the artist prior to visiting, due to social distancing rules. Call 02-6906-3136 to arrange a visit, between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays.
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