Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Seoul Olympic Park

Above is the essential Olympic Park photo, taken in front of the "World Peace Gate" just outside Exit 1, Mongchontoseong Station of Line 8.

On Day 2 of my vacation, I made the long haul across town to Olympic Park, something I have been meaning to do--nearly an hour away. I have divided the trip into two posts, and you can see post number one, about the ancient history of the site, immediately below (or you can click here).

Before I came to Seoul, some people told me that trees and vast vast expanses of green would become a thing of my past--I have blogged severally with photos of the flowers and greenery in my daily jaunts, so that prediction was untrue. Here lays to rest the notion about vast green fields in Seoul--this field could fit seven soccer fields or more!

That's the gymnastics pavilion across the way, one of the venues, along with the swimming pool, velodrome and fencing hall, that flank the Han-Eul Plaza, famous for the obelisk below:

Additionally, the plaza contains the piece above, called 'Site for Expansion 88' by a Korean named Lee Chong-gak. The parabola thing is better, even though I don't know its name.

Olympic Park is indeed well-known for the Sculpture Park which forms part of its core. I am led to believe there are 200 or so sculptures in its confines, but somewhat fewer works of art. There is definitely a lot of crap, as there always will be when a some kind of committee determines what to include, and especially when they are aiming to express some grand vision or visualize some grand expression, or whatever.

I'm going to start strong and go down the list, though of course your mileage may vary. Easily the best piece in the park is this, and I could not find a plaque to tell you the name:

The red lips seal the deal. #2 in Tuttle's pantheon:

If you don't see the charm in that, then just click the red X and remember our time together on the blog as a brief, delightful, wistful crossing of paths moment--no blame, no recriminations, just a misunderstanding ...

#3, titled Dialogue, by Mohand Amara of Ethiopia:

I like these two, too, but I can't really say why:

"View to Ayacucho" by Peruvian Fabian Sanchez:

A coupla Korean dudes sitting around talking (apologies to John Ford Noonan):

The sk8r in me likes this piece, in part because of its scale, and in part because I dream of living in a house with a grass roof in Alaska or somewhere:

Here is an example of something I disliked. It is titled "Space of a Dragon" by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. The artist's interpretation plaque reads:
A crowd of people or birds, insects or leaves, is a mysterious assemblage of varients of a certain prototype. A riddle of nature's abhorrence of exact repetition or inability to produce it.
Just as a human hand cannot repeat its own gesture, I invoke this disturbing law, switching my own immobile herds into that rhythm. "Space of a Dragon" is a group of 10 metaphoric animal heads emerging directly from the soil.

At the main entrance to the park, you will find the Peace Gate,

which has the Olympic flame in the center,

has its own interpretive plaque,

and is surrounded by a series of totems with traditional Korean masks.

At the far end of the broad Peace Plaza is the National Flags Plaza,

which abuts the Mongchon moat.

Near this area is the Seoul Olympic Museum of Art (W3,000 entry price, and not really worth it) as well as numerous concessionaires, including a "train ride", and some sculptures.

The park is well-marked, with several nice big billboards showing where everything is. This is a really nice park, but it's an hour away from me by subway, so I won't become a regular visitor until they finish line 9 through to Jamsil.

Mongchontoseong 몽촌도성

In the early 1980s, Korea was a burgeoning economic powerhouse, a culture rich in tradition, and a benign dictatorship teetering on the edge of collapse. While many outcomes were possible, even equally likely, I think the world is lucky that things turned out the way they did.

Of course, we all know the dramatic story of Korea's economic birth in the 1960s and its rise to become one of the best known international consumer "brands" in the 1990s. We know, too, the historic pro-democracy protests around the time of the XXIVth Olympiad that led to the country's establishment of an imperfect, but thriving, democracy. I remember watching newsstories back home, on a nascent cable channel called CNN--like most people, wondering if the 4-year games were in jeopardy (remember the US boycotted the 1980 games, and the Soviets returned the favor in 1984)! As I say, we are lucky things turned out as they did.

One story that I have not heard until now is how the Olympic Games helped to write a new chapter in Korea's ancient history! Mongchontoseong is a sixth century earthen fortification of the Baekje 백제 Kingdom, which was driven away from the Han River by the Goguryeo 고구려 who moved south from Manchuria in the 600s CE. This is well-established in documents known to historians (mouse over photos for labels, click for large version). But less known is that its artifacts were uncovered by the Olympic building process.

paleolithic and neolithic dwelling models in Mongchon museum
bronze age dwelling replica
It is no coincidence that this historic site rubs shoulders with the velodrome, Olympic pool, fencing gymnasium, etc--the coincidence was they chose the site in the first place. Only during excavations and preparations for the Games was it discovered that on this site lay Mongchontoseong of the Baekje Period.

Today's "Olympic Park" fits the arena venues (swimming, fencing, biking, tennis, gymnastics), the Peace Plaza, the stream and the Sculpture Park in and around the remnants of the Baekje fortress and its moat. Mongchon fortress was discovered and excavated during Korea's preparations for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. What we have today is mostly a lot of mounds and ridges that of themselves say little to the ordinary viewer--but to the archaeologist with a wider view, the fortress becomes self-evident.

view of part of Mongchon earthen fortress
view of part of Mongchon earthen fortress
model of Mongchondoseong fortress in Mongchon museum
The museum itself is a small affair, though it is attended, or was today, by an ebullient fellow with good English and firm command of the facts--enough that he was willing to admit he didn't know what something was when I asked him about one of the scale models! Still, he had his axe to grind, which was mostly about how the relics in the museum demonstrate that Korea gave its culture to Japan, rather than the other way round. This I find to be pretty common--all part of Korea's "han" syndrome, the I have an inferiority complex which explains why I am such a braggart thing.

Below are photos snapped somewhat surreptitiously of: first, a seven-bladed sword; second, some burial artifacts of a Baekje king from the Buyeo period, including a pig/haetae/whatever creature that guarded the tomb; and third, some Baekje period pottery--no museum blog post is complete without a picture of some pottery.

Finally, here are two photos from the museum grounds, I really have no idea what they represent:

Monday, September 28, 2009

Vacation Day 1

I went to the FC Seoul game on a whim yesterday. It had a five o'clock start, and I only decided the rain was going to hold off at four, so I barely got there in time for the first goal, about four minutes in. By Seoul--the opposition was Daejeon, which languishes in the bottom third of the pack and all but mathematically eliminated from the post-season.

FC Seoul remains in first with a 3 - 0 win, and a point lead in the standings over Chonbuk. Suwon Bluewings, last year's champions, are in 10th place, and need a miracle to make the playoffs. The system is kind of weird--#3 plays #6 while #5 plays #4. The winners of those two games play each other to determine who plays #2. Then the winner of that game plays #1 in a two-legged final for the league championship.

Since the game was over by about seven, I sat around outside at the GS 25 store to drink a few beers and watch the crowds. After a while, a pair of old Korean men sat at my table and we shared small talk. I don't mean we discussed the weather, I mean we could only talk a little. My Korean is practically nonexistant and their English was just as difficult to find.

They broke out a bottle of "Korean whiskey" which was actually pretty good, reminiscent of Seagram's 7, and we sang "Edelweiss" and a couple other popular favorites from the last century. Both were beaming--but I think that's the Asian alcohol blush more than anything else.

I woke up a little late today, but that was okay, since this is my first day of a two week vacation I'm taking. Between exams, Chuseok and class trips, we are in a two week stretch where I would have to spend the better part of an hour walking to and from work, in order to spend three hours sitting around--so I'm using seven vacation days to get two full weeks off.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Have A Very E-Mart Chuseok

A key aspect of Chuseok, which is a Korean harvest festival along the lines of, say, Thanksgiving, is the bearing of gifts to the relatives. Back in the day, I bet this would have been a couple of spare potatoes, a bottle of raspberry wine or an ox-horn comb in a burlap sack, done up with a scrap of ribbon or some silk salvaged from a worn-out hanbok (the traditional garb, as worn by the salesgirl in the photo above).

In a Korea that has become one of the wealthiest nations on earth, such simple gifts are a thing of the past. Today's Chuseok presents range from fresh fruit to towels to coffee, all done up in elaborate packages and a healthy markup. In a quick trip to the Chuseok gift section of my local E-Mart, I found items beginning at a low price of W6,000 (about USD 5) up to W199,000 (around $180). The first photo below is part of a huge stack of fruit boxes. Next is a selection of fungus selections; ginseng extracts; and canned luncheon meats--aka SPAM.

SPAM (the SPiced hAM precooked meat food product from Hormel Foods Corporation of Austin, Minnesota) has a special hold on the Korean heart, going back to the Korean War years, when refugees depended on help from the Americans to survive in the war-ravaged countryside. Leftover food, like hot dogs, SPAM and other processed meats made their way from army camps to the locals' stew pots, resulting in an enduring fondness for such foods in the Korean palate.

Food is definitely a mainstay of the Chuseok gift, in keeping with the notion of a harvest festival, such as these preserved meats; a more mundane gift might be the selection of haircare products below. And who doesn't enjoy a little liquor?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tuttle News Wrap Sandwich

A couple notes which may be of interest, however mild, to the Teeming Dozens (and a Hail fellow, well met! while I'm at it):

1) One minor complaint many Westerners share here is the thickness of loaf bread slices. They are really thick! 20 mm thick (get out a ruler and look, that's some serious bread-heft!) Some people I know don't even eat loaf bread, because they can't handle so much bread.

Our friends at E-Mart's Day and Day Bakery have begun offering a new product, and I dare say it will be the biggest thing since sliced bread: sliced bread. BUT, not just the usual 20 mm, they are now offering 15 mm and 13 mm options.

I celebrated by getting some peanut butter (about US $5 for a small jar) and strawberry jam. I also made a club sandwich for dinner tonight, with a slice of Velveeta, bacon, lettuce, tomato and some slices of leftover ChickenMania fried chicken heated up in the bacon grease.

2) I have been scouring the stores for inexpensive, interesting, no-batteries-required toys for an upcoming lesson; yesterday, I was in the HomePlus a few blocks from my place when I found myself in the pencil case aisle, where I found the items below. They are without a doubt the most successful examples of English wordplay I have seen in this country!

Fantasy Orange
I mean, Coca-Spaniel--how brilliant is that?