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Controversy continues over chosen Cheonggye sculpture

Feb 16,2006

A recent symposium on Cheonggyecheon attended by art critics, historians and advisers of urban planning in Seoul. Provided by the organizer

It’s been months since the Seoul Foundation of Art and Culture unveiled the design of “Spring,” a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, which will be installed at Cheonggyecheon Plaza, a restored stream that had been buried under concrete slabs for years, on the orders of the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Ever since the announcement, the work has been under brutal attack by local artists and critics for what they describe as a result of “bureaucratic administration.” The attacks come mainly from artists, who were enraged by the government’s decision to commission an artist to design a public sculpture without a jury process.
Earlier this month, a performance was staged by a local art collective to protest against the installation, followed by a series of seminars by a committee made up of artists and critics.
“Spring” will be a 20-meter-high (65.6 foot) spiral cone painted in red and blue, with water spiraling down inside the towering steel to a pond at the sculpture’s base. The project, which was commissioned at a cost of 3.4 billion won ($3.3 million), resembles the shape of a black snail, which the artist explains is used as a symbol of renewal in nature.
The city chose the renowned Swedish pop artists to commemorate the historic Cheonggyecheon project and cement Seoul’s image as a global city. But while commissioning well known overseas artists might have been effective in drawing attention to the site, critics point out that Korea has made enough mistakes in the past by commissioning great artists to produce valuable works at a high cost for the wrong places. Typical examples commonly used to point out the disharmony between the urban landscape and the chosen artworks are “Hammering Man” by Jonathan Borofsky, which stands in front of the Hungkuk Life Insurance building at Gwanghwamun, and “Amabel” by Frank Stella, located in front of the Posco headquarters on Teheran Street in southern Seoul.
Stella’s Posco piece was purchased at one of the highest prices for an art sculpture in the world. Yet months after the installation, the cluster of steel frames was heavily rusted, posing a disturbing presence. Complaints poured in and, as a compromise, trees were planted around the sculpture.
Art critics have raised concerns that “Spring” lacks historic insight into the Cheonggye site. In a symposium held Tuesday on public art and culture in Cheonggyecheon, critics and historians pointed out that the couple’s work has no relevance to the site-specificity, calling it “a plump art” for being chosen for installation without considering the context.
“It looks like the empty shell of a black snail, which has been thrown out after someone ate the meat,” said art critic Park Sam-cheol. “It’s an anti-ecological shape. A live snail would lie horizontally. The work is standing. Unless someone is trying to express an acrobatic snail, it hardly says anything about the renewal of ecology in Seoul, which the restored river is supposed to symbolize.”
Sung Wan-gyeong, an art critic and former director of the Gwangju Biennale, said, “I have very good reasons to like Oldenburg’s work. But I think there are reasons that he’ll be ashamed if this work is installed. Spring is a strange work of art. It doesn’t reflect anything authentic about his past works. Not only the shape of the sculpture, which has no relevance to the restored stream, but the tacky design of water coming out of the spiral cone is a telling symbol that this is a strange blend of Korean conception of art with Oldenburg’s name.”
Through an e-mail interview, van Bruggen responded firmly to the controversy.
“We had nothing to do with the process of selection of an artwork for Cheonggyecheon,” she wrote. “As far as we know a common procedure was followed: the mayor and City Council have been selected democratically by the citizens of Seoul; a Cultural Committee appointed by the city government in one form or another selects the artists. It is impossible to obtain in advance a general agreement on taste. The large-scale sculpture will have to prove itself with everyone, and only time will tell! The best art is always controversial, because it does not confirm what we already know.”


by Park Soo-mee


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