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Shamans in the Creative City: An Autumn in Korea

By John Barker.

Arriving in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, on the high-speed train from Seoul after dark, the city is ready to hit you in the eye with a large-scale light and water show in the large scale station plaza. A pattern of water jets shoot up and down to greater and lower heights from a flat base without walls, while the lights change colour in time with the water kinetics. I’m here with Ines Doujak to install a collaborative work at the city’s sixth Art Biennale, entitled “The Garden of Learning.” The city’s own slogan is ‘Dynamic Busan’. Sat on the South China Sea, the busiest sea for tankers and freighters, it is itself said to be the fifth busiest port in the world. In its environs 70% of the world’s large ships are made using a technique of building them in sections which no one else has mastered. Hyundai talk of a shipbuilding tradition by reference to the ‘Turtle ship’ of 1592 which defeated the Japanese invading navy and have a model of one, but there was no history of shipbuilding since then. It was Hyundai itself which started it off in the early 1970s helped by skilled Scottish shipbuilders and plans from its bankrupt shipyards, and Greek marine engine specialists. By 1993, as shown in a series of photographs by Alan Sekula which we will get to see during the setting up of the Biennale, it was in full swing and in the process destroyed the fishing port and business of Ulsan. Instead, in the midst of a heavy industrial landscape there is a golf course, more Scottish exporting.

‘Dynamic Busan’

What is perhaps missing in the photographs is that in August 1987 Hyundai workers had defeated the police on the streets in the course of bringing down the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship that had been praised to the skies by the President of the World Bank; but also the sheer self-confidence of this industrial development. Hyundai of course had a lot going for it: its engineering confidence and capital accumulation starting with contracts for the US military including whole bases in Vietnam; the very first ships also for the Americans; a very high level of government investment in technical education; its chaebol ability to diversify –- it owns the hotel and its phone network on Ulsan had built its elevators and the cars to get around as well as the Department store next door –- backed by the resources of a dictatorship with a policy of militarized labour; and access to the surplus capital being produced in conditions of what Alain Lipietz calls ‘Bloody Taylorism’ in the export textile industry which our own work at the Biennale focused on. Yes, lots of advantages, but driving to the Museum, that would house the Biennale. Across the city which, hemmed in by sea and mountains stretches a long way, we marvelled at the Gwangan Daero bridge that crosses the sea for some 7.4 kilometres to cut the cross-city journey, and lit is up at the night to stunning effect, best seen from the Gwangali beach. This was civic self-confidence though no doubt the chaebol had a hand in its construction. Or it is a necessary fearlessness given the geography, the country surrounded by Japan, Russia and China.

The people from Seoul who included most of the staff preparing the Exhibition, think Busan is vulgar, too showy in classic nouveaux-riche style. The location of the exhibition space, the Busan Museum of Art, in the Haeundae area that had once housed a huge American base, and with its own famous constructed beach was guaranteed to validate the opinion. The Museum itself was dwarfed by the Bexco Conference Centre and not far away beyond the Trump World towers, another high high-rise boasted itself as the biggest Department store in the world. The Lonely Planet guide we’d found on the train advised, in typical paranoid style –- not to drink water from taps under any circumstances. Bexco however was hosting an International Conference on Drinking Water and Conservation in the time we began to set up our work. Another conference followed soon after and the Haeundae area hotels were full of men on what looked like generous expense accounts. This does not extend to artists and if there was envy, it was directed at those who were going to be entertained at the Busan Film festival that was opening just as we were due to leave. A film critic friend, a friend who can hold his drink, said he had dreaded the event, the sheer amount of free alcohol one was expected to consume, but what we saw was lavish spending that was going to turn the whole beach into a fantasy world for drinking, dancing and flirting, and that this was just an addition to the flying saucer cinema designed by Coop Himmelblau that is in use for just 14 days in the year. Art Biennale are a far more sober business and in Busan was kept that way by anxious accountancy. Nominally this was to prevent corruption in the public sector, but it felt like elite fearlessness stood heavily over a fearful bureaucracy.

This can be wearing, constant negotiation coupled with the 12th floor clubs of Haeundae playing bad dance music, bass drum on non-stop 4/4, loud and all night. As the installation could not be done in one go we made two separate island trips. The first was on a tip with no travel or where-to-stay information except that it was a two hour bus ride to Tongyeong and then a ferry; Saryangdo, small, quiet, no English spoken and good for walking. The bus was charming, plush and tasselled head covers on the seat backs. We arrived at a quarter to five. The lady in the tourist booth spoke no English but gave us a brochure describing different islands but which suggested that the last boat to Saryangdo left at Five. Assuming the harbour was close by we took a taxi. We seemed to be travelling inland for several kilometres. Time passed. Had the driver understood? In Busan the method was to hand the driver a destination description in Korean. Nothing to be done except to be anxious and then the certainty we would miss the boat. It was half a minute to the hour when we saw the ferry down in a small harbour. Anxiety became adrenalin. I had the taxi money ready and life was very good as we jumped on the open back of the ship as it inched away from the quay. The sun shone on the sea as the boat steered through small islands, all rocky substance. From then on it rained but the port village was as advertised. Not rich, not much of it, a few hundred people, but the food was good, cheap and no fuss, and no one gave a damn about us. By luck there was somewhere to sleep, a huge hostel for a small place next to an equally large Seawater Sauna. The folly I imagined of an islander made good somewhere else.

Our second trip was a disaster, one that makes you proud to have lived through without a row, to have done some joint work even. Jeju is called Paradise island. Staff at the exhibition said they were envious of us to be going. We flew this time, not that it would have made any difference to the outcome. This time, under grey skies, the unplanned bus from the main, airport city of Jeju-si took us past a UNESCO diploma’d forest being photographed from outside by coachloads; golf courses; and bizarre theme parks to arrive at a grimy beach underneath a famous volcanic sea mountain with crater that carried another UNESCO diploma, Natural World Heritage. This, it turned out, made for more coachloads and the tourism it’s hard not be snooty about. It was good to be saved from this after the mistake of climbing up the thing, by an act of kindness and one of the best lunches of my life, a sea food casserole. The village had several identical restaurants, one had a queue. As it turned out you got a ticket number before queuing. Once inside why hurry, so the queue was slow. After a while a young couple with a number well ahead of ours could wait no longer an gave us their ticket. But there was no swimming to be had and the rain fell. Back in the main city – Jeju-si – we hotfooted to the airport aiming to return to Busan two days early and found ourselves at the bottom of a very long and expensive queue for stand-bys. Ignorance is not bliss. The typhoon that had been predicted for some days later was early and on its way as those in the know, knew. The only option in Jeju-si was a mid-price Love hotel with over head pink lights from which we watched the non-stop rain and an unimpressive typhoon which yet managed to hold up air flights for nearly three days.

Back finally in the city people who’d said nothing before said they were amazed we didn’t know it was typhoon season, and we read that those responsible for putting up the public money for the exhibition made themselves clear, the Biennale was a step towards the re-making of Busan as the ‘creative city’. Having been perfect exemplars of the war criminal WW. Rostow’s ‘stages of development’ as proscribed in the 1960s, the plan was to move to the new template. A curatorial decision to emphasize both material process and a ‘traditional’ Korean spiritual world that defies attempts to commodify it, meant that such a ‘creative city’ blueprint was skilfully avoided. The building itself was clad in scaffolding and the material that nowadays then clads the scaffold. Inside, the Sekula photographs from 1993 were next to an installation by the Basque artist Ibon Aranberri which consisted of many of the moulds made for models of ships that were to be built stood upright one after another, mimicking the forests of high high-rises that dominate the city. Such models, originally made by shipbuilders to show prospective clients had become part of the business themselves, artefacts in their own right. In a room opposite, a three-screen work by Simon Wachsmuth featuring dolmen burial sites in Korea was sequenced in such a way, and the viewer given enough time to feel the sense of timelessness such sites give while not sentimentalizing their present status, some as tourist sites shown by a party of boy scouts wanting only to have a laugh; while in another elderly people while tending the site sing and dance. Mostly they are, sometimes seen simultaneously from subtly different angles, just there, graves and gravity.

‘The former Presidential Council on Nation Branding’

The modernities and traditions, invented or otherwise, of different places are necessarily tangled. The new Hyundai housing high-rises of 1993 in Ulsan have a mural based on a painting by the 18th century Yi dynasty artist Sin Yun Bok that shows a woman spinning –- such a favourite with Dutch domestic portraits — while in the actual shipyards women have the most menial jobs. Hyundai itself is written in Chinese characters, a mark of traditional authority and status. Since then the sheer speed of Korean industrialization and urbanization and what feels like the over-development of the televisual and the smart phone in the present, makes it tangled in its own way. Large split screen TVs are mounted on old urban buses. In a land of high-speed internet connectivity the fax is taken more seriously than the email because it’s tangible; one step further and it’s apparent that in a bureaucracy of accountants the only way to get things done if face-to-face. What with a historic fear of Japanese occupation, then the reality of such an occupation followed by American backed-dictatorships into the 1990s, there is a nationalism that involves the usual commandeering of sites and buildings as well as umpteen period costume dramas from the Joseon monarchy past on multi-channel television The past is not a wholly ersatz construct however. The fishing port of Ulsan may have been turned over to shipbuilding but other fishing boats and the sophisticated system of nets make the fish market of the city a body-on-body squeeze along the narrow stretch between a kilometre of stalls. There are eels and zebra striped fish in tanks along with flat bottom feeders and big ugly mugs teeth on display, bowls of octopus, walking crabs and barrels of mussels. Meanwhile the newspapers are full of confrontations over tiny islands in the sea between South Korea and Japan, and then more dramatically between Japan and China. Oil usually pops up in such situations but on the street they say it is all about fishing rights despite the prevalence of fish-farming. Fish matters. Eating matters, restaurants and food stalls are everywhere in the city, and open all day, often with their own fish tanks out front. More knowing voices say this is Japanese nationalism railing against its perceived loss of power. Both may be true. The news in the art world is that Japan is finished, and of a host of people wanting to set up galleries in Korea. This market is indeed sensitive and may have picked up at subliminal level what is suggested by Samsung having had greater overall sales than Sony this year for the first time ever. This it was said had invoked national pride.

What was strange then, given this pride was the sheer scale of the cosmetic surgery business for a more western look, the eyes especially. Later, coming out of the Apgujeong metro station in Seoul into the very fashionable area mocked by its own global superstar of the moment, Psy, whose chubby face and ‘Gangnam Style’ smart dance routine features on every televisual outlet possible, the walls are full of adverts featuring a range of the before-and-afters of women’s faces to one side, and serious grinning men with bad skin in specs and white coats. We were looking for a ‘Masquerades’ exhibition which featured some wonderful playful work of Eleanor Antin. The museum was part of a Cosmetics company C+, housed in its head office with a Japanese roof garden and an additional collection of Korean antiques like the museums of Hyundai and Samsung. It was surrounded by other skin clinics, eye-changers and an ANTI-AGEING club and hospital.

Our own work at the Biennale focused on exploitation in the clothing industry as it manifested itself most dramatically in deadly fires in its factories all the way back to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York in 1911. Over the years deadly fires have been outsourced to Asia along with the work itself to its poorer regions. Korea itself was once included, young women had been burned to death in a locked dormitory above the clothing factory they worked in Seoul in 1988; earlier in 1970 Chun Tae-il, a textile worker himself, died after his self-immolation in protest at the conditions of the young women workers who were making the Koran/Han river ‘miracle’ working 16 hours a day in such factories helped along by a ‘speed’ drug called Timing; and we had metaphorically extended the work to include ‘burn-out’, a class notion exclusively applied to professional people but not to the more fitting circumstances of women (usually) still working in similar conditions and under incessant performance pressure. Just as we were installing the work came news of the worst such fire ever with estimates of over 250 people killed at a factory in Karachi making jeans for Europe. The causes of so many deaths replayed so much of what we had described in the work: barred windows and locked emergency exits –both for employer anxiety about cloth theft, or to enforce extra overtime; and electrical short circuits caused by an overloading of the system to match the overloading of workers. Both are consequences of the impossible demands of the buyers, in this instance the German retailer KiK, standing for Kunde is König (The Consumer Is King.) and its line of OK label jeans that retail at Euro 15.99.

‘Gangnam Style’

It made us determined to follow up what had happened in Karachi (still in progress), but also to meet someone who was also actively ‘doing something’ and to add what she had to say to the exhibition web-site. This was Chun Soon’ok the sister of Chun Tae-il and whose mother had been subsequently so instrumental in creating the first independent trade unions during the Park Chung-hee dictatorship in the 70s, which were so courageously made by the young women of the Dongdaemun area of Seoul who had been described by the dictator as Industrial Warriors On the Export Front when textile and clothing provided the bulk of the country’s exports and surplus capital. Soon’ok herself was a clothing industry worker until she had to support her mother during one of her many periods of imprisonment. After what she describes as a series of her own miracles she completed a PhD at Warwick University describing those women’s unions and, still committed to the clothing industry and its workers helped set up a women’s clothing co-operative and also became a legislator for the opposition Democratic United Party (DUP).

A Presidential election is warming-up when we do get to meet at her office in the National Assembly, and though the campaign seems to involve only self-interested side-switching and allegations of personal and party corruption –- the accountancy bureaucracy working only further down the chain –- it matters when the present government has restored an authoritarian style to its chaebol-tailored policies. Its candidate is the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee, who has had to soften her line of defending his dictatorship as one patriotically devoted to “Growth Now, Distribution Later.” As part of the advice from party managers to tweak her message she went to the Chun Tae-il Foundation, where Soon’ok confronted her and refused her entry, saying her brother was not there, he was dead, so why didn’t she visit the living workers of Ssangyong Motors whose protest has run for three years during which 12 have killed themselves. Soon’ok is a spiky woman who unusually in party politics talks of class and capitalism. During the interview she acknowledged that the Han River/Korean ‘miracle’ was used against a range of other countries, as if they were intrinsically inadequate, but that she could not see it being repeated. Indeed she would not wish it, it had been too painful, too destructive of people.

By the time of the interview we were in Seoul in the northern quarter of Chang Dong next to the hill of the eunuchs, high status courtiers whose sacred burial place it is, and I understood how the folk from there stuck in Busan for the period of the Biennale felt. Hauendae was likely as not, special in that city — a young person’s place to party; the all night clubs, promenades; and 500-page editions of Vogue in all the many coffee shops — but Seoul was easy-going, more like a city; cities that say are a series of well connected villages. Here especially no one took any notice of you even as the only non-East Asian person on the street, in the cheap and efficient Metro, or even eating in a market restaurant. There are mountains surrounding and, hills everywhere that are designated, as in Chang Dong, as sacred and cannot be built on. In some places they divide just the one single neighbourhood. The city covers a huge area and despite the Metro, to move from one quarter two or three away, was a real journey. But which ever one, non-stop working Dondaemum or the bars and music spots of Honik University, it felt easy, the only outward stress the porters – pulling carts or riding motorbikes crammed high with cloth — of what remains of the clothing quarter around Dondaemun. What remains is huge, markets within markets, 300 stalls of selected haberdashery, and cutters and tailors working long hours in the low ceilinged sweatshops of the 1970s. In exactly the same area Chun Tae-il had died and where a statue was erected to him in 2005. Soon’ok said that when she’d returned to the country in 2002, she went back to work in a textile factory and found conditions had changed very little. Except, as she said, the bigger factories had all gone because workers were no longer “Industrial Warriors on the Export Front.” When free trade unions had flourished after the 1980s Chung Doo-huan dictatorship was overthrown by the 1987 June uprising, multinationals in the clothing business promptly closed down and left, while Korean firms outsourced to lower-wage countries in the region. It also meant that it was now more difficult to organize workers in the sector than it had been in the dictatorial 70s because they were divided up into such small units with little chance to know each other. One reminder of the heroic period of women’s organizing were the still present wig shops — some portable, others attached to highly individualized heads as if guillotined and with the hair styles of the French Revolution which are for trainee hairdressers to practice on. The Y.H. Trading, a wig exporter up through the 70s was the site of a sit-in strike by women which was attacked by hundreds of riot police during which one women was killed and many injured.

Running through the area and for several kilometres in the city’s ‘downtown’, is the re-engineered Cheong Gye Cheon stream some 20 below. Artificial it maybe but it does provide a pleasurable towpath walk below the non-stop world. On some sections plants have grown wildly, there is seating under willow trees in the sunlight blocked out only in one stretch by a cluster of 20 storey high-rises owned by the Lotte chaebol and called Lotte Castle fronted by ghastly mock Grecian pillars. The stream’s own non-stop with gradients so that the sound of running water is a regular feature, is 120 kilotons of water flowing in and out daily to maintain a regular depth of 40 centimetres. Here the engineering confidence evident in the building of ships and high-rises alike, is celebrated in a stylish modernist museum devoted soley to the stream itself, its history and its re-making; it is the confidence that ambitious and thoughtful design will be realized as planned. The stream itself was always there and in 1780 the activist King Yeongjo had it dredged, a mass operation involving 210,000 men. After the 20th century Japanese occupation –- their plan to cover the stream not having been realized — and the Korean war, it became the site of a particular spurt in clothes production; the market was flooded with military clothing and these were re-dyed for civilian wear in workshops set up on the Cheong Gye Cheon, spewing waste water into it.

All too many urban redevelopments have been in effect, class-cleansing operations. Under the present government a development of the Yongsan district where the American army still has a huge swathe of real-estate, residents died in a fire after a police attack on their resistance base in January 2009. Two of its proposed beneficiaries, one being Lotte have since fallen out over control of building the Yongsan International Business Zone centred around a 150-storey skyscraper with a ‘wealth of riverfront business and tourist venues’; poetic justice or more salt in the wounds of the friends and family of those who died. Much of the development of the city took place under dictatorships and their leaders for whom nationalism would not have been an option without the civil war since they had all been collaborators with the Japanese. In this period brutality was normal practice as the dictators continued the occupiers’ militarization of labour strategy with hyper-urbanization a bi-product. The Cheong Gye Cheon development however, is presented as belonging to the era of democratization that began with the election of Kim Dae Jung in 1998.

The decision to re-engineer the stream was made in 2002 and completed in 2005, in the same year as Chun Tae-il’s statue was being erected by trade unionists. The museum itself acts as a form of historical self-criticism. What happened before that is shown as an ugly pre-history of modernisation. Between 1958 and 1977 over two dictatorships, the stream was covered and the icons of that modernity –- the Sewoon Arcade and the Cheonggye Elevated Highway were built. The Highway as it transpired did little for traffic congestion and its realisation, was a case of over-confidence on the cheap. Constant repair work was required during the 1990s.

The new stream does make downtown more liveable, but the museum’s presentation does not bring us quite up to date. It has the usual lexicon of future development, “maximizing the synergy effect of the Cheong Gye Cheon” involving ‘amenities and character’, but leaves off with how the concerns of traders who had taken over the space of the then covered stream had been met by providing space around the Dongdaemum baseball and football stadium for them. Since then however that area too has been redeveloped, the stadium gone and in its place the Dongdaemun Culture and History Park with a completed design by Zaha Hadid. The traders may or may not have found another space, the markets of the city like the flea market are immense with tight streets in areas where high high-rise clusters are background view, but here the historical experience in its own Dongdaemun history museum is televisual confectionary. No possibility to learn because the space is all filled in with projections.

By this time I was on my own mission both to get more of a sense of the city and its history and specifically to see the film Anyang: Paradise City, a film made by Chan-Kyoung Park in 2010. I knew from the Internet that it had as a starting point a fire at the Greenhill Textile factory fire in Seoul in 1988 when 22 young women died, locked inside the dormitory above the factory itself. The film had won prizes in Europe, there was a trailer on YouTube, but so far, no way of getting a copy. What was written, said he related the fire to the way in which Seoul was developed and I was keen to see the film and meet the director to know why had he chosen this instance from some 20 years ago to make a film now. I had a phone number and this turned out to have his Skype name attached. I rang for several days and then left SMS. Meanwhile we followed up the Pakistan fire story with Pakistani newspapers and a woman Trade Unionist in Karachi. Everything that came out about what had happened. was all the more heartbreaking. An Inquiry was underway: an electrical safety inspector said they had stopped doing formal factory inspections in 2003; the Karachi Electric Supply company refused to give evidence; the person in charge of forensically inspecting the burned-out wires was ‘abroad these days’; the USA-based Monitoring Group Social Accountability International via their Italian contractor RINA, had given the factory full health and safety clearance one month before the fire; and the architect of the factory turned out not to exist or to have been 102 years old when signing off the building. It’s not that accidents don’t happen now in Korea — people had died in a fire in a synthetic fabric laboratory earlier this year and a dangerously polluting chemical reaction some 70 kilometres from Seoul while we were there — but there’s not the carelessness, the sheer expendability of human labour shown in Karachi. A modern Korean history of labour militancy and popular uprisings has seen to that.

‘Anyang Paradise City’

In the absence of the Anyang film I went to the Seoul History Museum which showed the whole city’s development from the Joseon dynasty period. It is a city that had grown from half a million to 18 million in 60 years. The 1960s mayor, Kim Hyeon-ok called it “aggressive construction”: the development of the Metro system; the sequenced opening up of areas to develop as the population grew; how attention was turned to south of the Han river in the 1970s; and the impact of both the 1988 Olympic Games and the 2002 World Cup. It also showed how the late 19th century opening up to being a cosmopolitan city was cut off before it started by the military take-over of the country by Japan during which many of Korea’s own historical buildings were destroyed. This made sense of another of the tangles of ultra-modernity and the past, the need to recreate facsimilies of much of what had been destroyed. What was not so evident in the Museum version was the dominant presence of the USA after the war. In photographs of the brief ‘cosmopolitan’ period, there are plenty of American missionaries. In the 1970s some Christian groups and individuals like George E. Ogle were actively supportive of the young women trying to form free trade unions, but now as institutions, the religion flaunts itself, its wealth and power. Everywhere red neon crosses pop up in the landscape even on the small fishing island of Saryangdo. Coming out of the Seoul History Museum you are immediately confronted with a high-rise block of the Salvation Army opposite the massive headquarters of L&G and Citibank in front of which, as if needing to assert that they have a role in real ‘wealth-creation’, is a silhouette kinetic statue some 15 metres high involving a hand bring a hammer down in slow motion on what must be a piece of metal. Just up the street is a smaller high-rise of the Presbyterians and up on the corner the 20 storey block of the Methodists, partaking in gigantism as power, Busan ‘vulgarity’ in Seoul.

Time was running out, I was getting nowhere in the matter of seeing the film Anyang. As a last resort I decided to go out to the National Film Archive situated in Digital Media City. This is one of the latest zoned developments built and being built on what was the Nanjido waste dump, or rather that part of the dump that had not been turned into an eco-park at the time of the 2002 World Cup. Here Seoul boasts of itself as a UNESCO City of Design. It was a long metro trip and then a bus. For once my confidence with public transport in the face of an impenetrable language messed up. I journeyed out beyond old industrial plant onto an empty highway before accepting that I’d messed up, jumping off, returning the way I’d come and finally locating the DMC itself. A bad mood necessarily makes for jaundiced perception. I told myself not to be so European, this was a new city, it was a not-mean city full of non-paying public toilets and exercise machines for mostly old people to keep fit, but the wind blew cold, the sun shut out by the giant buildings already constructed and those –three more around the DMC ‘square’ — under construction. A kind young woman with western-shaped eyes at the entry of the modernist tube of the DMC Gallery who, unusually spoke English, said she loved my accent and said ‘London’ in a way that sounded like it is paradise city, directed me towards the Film Museum housing the archive, and gave me a brochure in which sunlit high-rises were peopled with Smiley faces. The square itself was empty except for an old lady, a work-battered body pulling an empty handcart. The cranes on the blocks under construction were moving above the hoardings around the site that are covered in large-scale stencils or paintings of two-legged cats wearing dark glasses or bow-ties. The three cafes on the ground floor of the completed side, all belonging to different chains, probably chaebol-owned, looked weighed down under the many storeys above and were empty.

The ‘lobby’ of the film museum was immense and its café with the espresso machine was also empty. On the second floor there is a library and several people in booths with earphones on, looking at films only they can see. The ladies on the desk speak almost no English. I show them the name of the film and director. No, it does not exist. I babble away that it has won prizes in the belief that national pride will come to the rescue. It takes a while to pronounce YouTube in intelligible fashion and this motivates one of them to kick-start her computer. Ah yes, she finally tells me, it does exist, but only on film. There is no DVD? The shops are full of DVDs. No, no DVD. Only film.

Given half a chance, a bad mood can develop its own dynamic. At the same time I feel duty bound to go back to the Seoul Museum of Art back in what is the central centre of the city by the City Hall. I had only seen the upper two floors of the Media Biennale. Now and then that sense of duty gets its own reward and I became enchanted by a work entitled ‘The Algiers Sections of A Happy Moment 2008′ by David Claerbout. I’ve always loved it when writers get ‘the moment’ especially when there is no banal melancholia involved; James Kelman say, when Kieron Smith is climbing a drainpipe; or, in completely different style, William Faulkner at the beginning of The Unvanquished, the boys playing in the mud. This work uses the now established technique of making continuous film from a series of stills. It was set on a high-up flat roof on which there are goal posts. Various young Algerian men are stood around, and we move from a variety of mid-shots to close-ups of the different individuals who we may return to. It takes a while to see the shot which tells us why they are not playing with the ball and looking in the same direction; in the centre a man perhaps in his 40s is holding his hand up with something that attracts one of the gulls flying over the roof. A small boy is stood next to him looking upwards, close to an older boy who is holding the football. It is always the same moment and lasts on a loop for about 40 minutes in and out of each cranny of that moment. I saw it through twice, calm and happy, thinking only afterwards that it also humanized the ‘Arab male’ that I’ve seen in no other representation, not in dramas however sympathetic.

Happy to be back enjoying the city we spent our last day, a Sunday on the Ingwansan hillside on which are unostentatious Buddhist temples and sacred rocks and which is known as the Shaman’s hill. We had been the previous Sunday and loved it then, such a surprise after climbing some few hundred steps from the Donginmum metro station through a forest of identical 20-storey high-rises. Once above it, a path winds upwards on volcanic rock through cypress trees, with almost no people, here, right in the city. No entry gate, no tickets, such a pleasure after that UNESCO volcano on Jeju where, climbing the strictly controlled path hemmed in by artificial wood fencing, with a series of speakers telling the same story of myth and geology, we had been stuck in procession of people all kitted out in the gear for serious hiking and taking pictures of themselves. We had seen the shops, as much outdoor hiking gear as high fashion, everyone with rucksacks with a special holder for half-litre water bottles. Even for a walk in the small wooded slop of the Eunuchs by our base in Chang-dong, most folk in hiking shoes and many with the ubiquitous two handed ‘walking’ sticks.

On Ingwansan there was none of this. By lucky chance we missed the one side where rebuilding of the Joseon period city wall had taken place; at another spot in the city where this past was reclaimed speakers played European classical music. Instead, as we climbed springs covered with wood and blue plastic bowls to drink from appeared in the rock. One was different, and had a levelled cement flat made around it and another, the size of a large table slightly higher, and had candles lit in an alcove. Gifts of small money and bottles of the alcohol spirit soju were left. Much closer to the summit close to another spring with a stunning view of the city, its material new and pale, two more platforms had been created, on each a slab of 10 centimetre thick polystyrene that you might lie on. Three different cats mooched about like they owned the place. Below the platforms was a small garden and a man with a broom and a continual cough came out of a tiny hut built into the rock close by. This second time travelling south and then west across the city felt better; this time it was not curiosity but a guarantee that we would enjoy our time there. Leaves had begun to fall and the autumn light was especially clear. It was Sunday 21st October, a possible solstice, but for whatever reasons there were more people, not in hiking gear but with candles and cloths that were ripped into strips in ritual fashion over their bodies. Many stopped at the first spring and platform on the higher of which food and drink had been laid out and a shaman sat there sang the same riff flowing into the one before. A younger man with some authority was sweeping the concrete surfaces and summoning others to take rubbish and falling leaves. down the hill. Some people carried large dead fish. We asked a small party of smartly dressed people with such a fish, why the fish? A woman said because they believed the god of the mountain was a cat and that did we know the man in her group, with business card, was a very famous shaman one of the 200,000 shamans in the country.

By then we were keen to get up to our favourite spot. It was incidental that here was a similar set up, two women and a man, food and several bottles of soju, flowers and incense. We carried on to the higher platform. Bushes made the one not visible to the others but after a while the man of the group came and sat in one corner of ‘our’ spot. He said nothing. Later he turned up at the opposite corner where a broom stood. And then, we having been checked out in unembarrassed silence, he was gone and a woman’s voice started a melodic chant, deep throated. A cymbal that must be like ones we had seen in the city’s acres of Flea market each with its own pitch, joined in with an unvarying rhythm. Not the voice however, there was movement in the repetition; louder, more insistent; then, without missing a note, softer again.

After a while the voice stopped. The sun was falling. The voice started again as if it had not stopped. What stamina! The pause then likely as not for a full glass of soju, maybe a cigarette. Ines was stretched out on the polysterene, legs moving in time to the cymbal. My back, snug in a slope of rock, took the weight off my feet. Below the man from the hut came out into his garden, coughed and threw a stone at a chicken. Cymbal and voice quickened. In the segment of the city below a neon light came on, a hazy pink square half way up a high-rise. Then another some blocks away and at a lower storey. The phrasing of the voice had changed, there was an urgency to it while the cymbal stayed to its beat. And stopped. The path back down was steep, it was suddenly darker; more oblongs of neon had appeared in the 3D below. We had not been voyeurs but neither of us made a move still the shaman started a new chant. Passing by we saw her or the first time, now dancing, her feet drumming the flat as a new chant began, backed by the man who had checked us out, fast and steady on the cymbal.

jb
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Barker was born in North London where he still lives. He was imprisoned in the 70s as an Angry Brigade ‘conspirator’ and served a further sentence in the early 90s for hash smuggling.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014.