Step through the mirror in Hongdae and shout Oi

Jan 08,2007
First and foremost, I must apologize to readers for my decision to include, above, an image of Oi, a new club in Hongdae.

The club’s owner, Hwahwa, says visitors should come to Oi with their minds free of any preconceptions, so they can enjoy the fruits of his imagination to the fullest. And he agrees with his partner and older sister, Lee Mun-hee, who tells him to “say nothing” when asked to describe Oi.
The club, which opened in mid-December, is on a loud, commercial block near Hongik University, northwest of Seoul. It is situated next to the hip-hop dance club, Catch Light.
Yet Oi is very different from its immediate environment. Inside the space is brightly lit, all white and filled with elusive shapes and forms, like a Wonderland for a modern-day Alice. Except for the bare ceiling criss-crossed with ductwork, the interior, covering about 300 square meters on the third floor of a nondescript building, is entirely filled with curves that offer a snug fit for any body part. It’s easy to imagine a real-life Smurf sipping beer at the hand-sculpted bar.
Hwahwa says he wanted to create something like an imaginary river. “I’m inspired by nature a lot. Since I couldn’t make a real river inside a building, I decided to create an imaginary one that might exist in a cosmic world.”
To realize his vision he started with a simple sketch, and skilled carpenters followed it as he made changes over two months. At one point 20 men worked on the club, molding, carving and fixing pieces in place. Many were speechless when they saw the final shape of the interior. Hwahwa, the son of a carpenter, used wooden frames as a foundation for his crazy shapes and sculpted each one with cement, followed by a glossy white finish.
The entire space is also a work of meticulous engineering. In the summertime, real water will flow around the curvy gorges that make up the entire floor. And different light settings can create different moods. Out of what looks like a cross between a Martian spaceship and a giant mushroom, a string of DJ will pump out electronic music from various genres including progressive house, techno, tribal and electro reggae all into the wee hours. There are vocalists and drummers for live performances. Lights, from blinding halogen to golden incandescent, swirl vertiginously. At Oi, you can be in style sporting sunglasses even when it’s pitch-black and 4 a.m. outside.

▶ Fashion designer, Lee Mun-hee
That’s a fashionable relief if you appreciate haute couture. The surrealistic tree in the center of Oi is graced by a sculptural dress made by Ms. Lee, a fashion designer by profession.
On most evenings, the man wearing the most conspicuous pair of over-sized diamante-studded shades is Hwahwa. For years, on Hongdae’s artsy underground circuit, Hwahwa has been known as performance artist, creative director and DJ, all rolled into one. Even if not many people know his real name (Lee Yong-won) and his age (35), almost everyone on the Seoul club scene has either heard of his rave parties in small clubs or have witnessed his hairstyle transformations as he went from bleached mohawk to “Mr. T” to shaven.
“But that’s not all he’s done,” protested his sister. Hwahwa says he has made numerous artworks for public performances in the city, but he says much of the credit went to government organizers. He said he worked on a fashion concept for a Korean pop singer, Lee Jung-hyun, in 2000, although nowhere in her blogs or interviews does she mention anything about Hwahwa. Six years ago Hwahwa opened a cafe called “Maeum” in Hongdae, where customers would take off their shoes and sit around a lotus pond. The idea was so weird that customers left, but it later became a formula for success. “My brother often comes up with an ingenious idea, but it’s mostly other people who copy him and make money,” Ms. Lee complained. To Ms. Lee, Hwahwa is a talented artist who has been unappreciated by the public. After studying nouvelle couture in Esmod Paris for three years, she decided to support her brother’s genius by collaborating on the Oi project.
From childhood, the young Mr. Lee rebelled ― against school, the norm and the establishment. “How can a child learn to be creative when teachers tell him exactly what to do?,” Hwahwa said recalling his first art lesson in school. “I didn’t need to go to college. In fact, I didn’t even like reading,” he said, “Because in books, a person is limited to a character created [by the author]. People [in real life] ignore what a person is all about when there is a world to be discovered in that person. I open myself to that kind of infinite learning in real human relations.”

▶ DJ Hwahwa By Ines Cho

Hwahwa has spent a lot of time meditating to attain a “cosmic state of mind,” but has no particular religion. His attitude, performances and music as a DJ inspired a number of young clubbers and aspiring artists playing in the Hongdae area. People say many became Hwahwa’s “followers,” as if he were a cult leader. Now, with Oi, Hwahwa and his loyal fans, who wrap themselves in long, loose tunics, have a place they can go everyday.
On weekday evenings, the club looks like a New Age shrine with candles, lounge music and wine. Ms. Lee wants the club to function as a showplace for fashion events, including displays of her labor-intensive couture. The red coat dress, which is currently displayed at Oi, was painstakingly constructed from leather and hand-dyed and -woven wool.
Outside Oi, the Lees and their “neo-hippie” crowd remain largely enigmatic. Some say they package themselves that way but lack credibility. In the way they pursue their aspiration, there are some contradictions: Ms. Lee’s couture may be high art but her own velour cushions for the club, which she said are “fashionable” are much like cushions at any other high-toned club. Hwahwa says he finds ultimate comfort in an emptiness of mind, yet his real ambition is to get sponsorship from a big mobile phone company like Samsung to create an artificial island of pleasure, a dance club in a vacuum, floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Whether they are in search of peace of mind, artistic attainment or simple commercial success, their safe haven, Oi, is the closest thing to a real fantasy.

by Ines Cho

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