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Japanese colonial company-turned-museum in Daejeon celebrates opening with Anselm Kiefer

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"Herbst," Korea's first museum showcase of German post-war master Anselm Kiefer, opened at Heredium in Daejeon, Sept. 8. Built in 1922, the building originally operated as the Daejeon branch of imperial Japan's Oriental Development Company during Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) as a state-led economic enterprise to exploit Korea's land and resources. Yonhap

By Park Han-sol

DAEJEON ― It was in 1908, shortly before Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) began, when imperial Japan established the Oriental Development Company in the heart of Seoul as a state-led economic enterprise to control and exploit Korea's land and resources.

As years went by, its business grew rapidly, prompting the company to set up outposts in other cities across Korea, including Mokpo in South Jeolla Province, Busan and Daejeon.

The Daejeon branch's two-story building ― an eclectic blend of Japanese and Western architectural features with a pitched roof and structures built with reinforced concrete and red bricks ― has stood for a century since its establishment in 1922, surviving both the 1950-53 Korean War and the sweeping urban redevelopment that came in the following decades.

And after two years of extensive renovation, the once-forgotten Japanese colonial company has come back to life this year as a new cultural complex, known as Heredium.

The facade of the Japanese Oriental Development Company-turned-cultural complex Heredium in Daejeon / Courtesy of Heredium
The facade of the Japanese Oriental Development Company-turned-cultural complex Heredium in Daejeon / Courtesy of Heredium

To mark its official opening this month, the center has put forth its inaugural art exhibition, "Herbst" (translated as "autumn"), as Korea's first museum showcase of German post-war master Anselm Kiefer.

The show brings together Kiefer's 17 latest paintings and installations, most of which have never been unveiled before this occasion. The pieces on view are all anchored in the poignant verses of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who penned three poems dedicated to the fall season ― "Autumn Day" (1902), "Autumn" (1906) and "End of Autumn" (1920).

Overall, "Herbst" encapsulates the essence of Kiefer's long-standing artistic practice, all the while providing a timely chance for visitors to take a contemplative look at their autumnal melancholy.

Installation view of Anselm Kiefer's
Installation view of Anselm Kiefer's "Herbst" at Heredium / Yonhap

The battle-scarred landscapes of post-World War II Germany of the painter's childhood came to have a significant influence on his works. So much so, that it can be felt in his "Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr (Whoever has no house now, will never have one)" series, for instance, which illustrates his preoccupation with unearthing cultural memory and history from the ruins in his art through symbolic materials such as lead, dirt, dried plants, charcoal and bricks.

But more importantly, Kiefer's somber pieces ― which highlight the eternal cycle of decay and rebirth ― resonate with the museum's own history, explained Heredium's founding director Ham Sun-jae.

"For both the artist and the museum, the ruins are where new beginnings are made possible. The very building we are standing in was once on the brink of destruction and oblivion, but has experienced a remarkable rebirth as a cultural complex," she said.

"As we embark on a fresh start to chart a new cultural narrative, we wanted to demonstrate our vision going forward through this showcase."

Taking this idea of the duality of life and death into consideration inside Heredium makes the viewing experience an intriguing one.

Just as how the waning remnant of Japanese colonial history revived as a relevant cultural institution, Kiefer's falling leaves painted in intense autumn browns on canvas are seen not only as decaying debris but as the unexpected foundation for a new beginning. The same goes for the incomplete mud-brick house installed in the middle of the upper floor. Is it a half-destroyed structure or a half-finished one?

"Herbst" runs through Jan. 31, 2024 at Heredium.

Park Han-sol


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