[VIEWPOINT]Where to show off our culture?

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[VIEWPOINT]Where to show off our culture?

The year that the World Cup tournament comes to Korea is just a week away. Many people hold high commercial hopes for the tournament, which is expected to attract many foreign tourists. I have nothing against commercial gain, but what I really hope this event to be is an opportunity to renew Korea's image to the world - as a country where life and culture exist in harmony. To our dismay, domestic bribery scandals and a resumed international controversy over dog meat consumption here erupted, leading to concerns about the event.

Culture is like water: It flows downhill and mingles, evaporates or permeates. Trying to force people from different cultural backgrounds to understand our culture is meaningless. A humorous depiction of a tiger and a magpie in our folk paintings may be witty to Koreans, and a three-legged crow in wall paintings from the ancient Goguryeo kingdom may be a sacred symbol of the sun, but they still might look like a figureless cat or a deformed crow in the eyes of strangers.

Years ago, I once carved a jangpan, a piece of traditional laminated paper used for covering the heated floor in a Korean bedroom, from the floor I slept on for three years. I submitted it to an art exhibition held in Paris, and it was sold to a French art collector for an unexpectedly high price. A friend of mine, observing all this, commented, "Korea must sell art objects. Selling natural resources to earn foreign exchange is unwise; selling our labor force is cheap; selling manufactured goods is valuable; but selling art works is a wonderful business." That's right. Selling cultural treasures may be an act of selling your country; but selling cultural products is an act of patriotism. That could be one reason why countries around the world are competitively building new museums or renovating existing ones.

An unpleasant incident happened in my museum, Seoul National University Museum, a few days ago. After a group of elementary students passed through, the museum's ornamented wall, covered with luxurious cloth, was found with a 9-meter gash made by a razor blade. I believe the incident was one facet of insensitivity to culture by a student who rarely experiences a cultural place. I remember with shame that a famous foreign museum kindly posted a warning "Do Not Touch" in Korean for Korean viewers.

High culture is a blessing that can only be understood through learning. Adults, including myself, must bear the responsibility for our children's insensitivity. Making excuses like "I'm too busy," how many times did we forgo guiding our children through museums or art galleries? As a result, our children, with barren minds, bring razors to cut through museum walls.

In other advanced countries, museums are said to be everywhere; Just open your window, and you can spot at least one. And now, other countries are busy establishing new museums and renovating existing ones. Spain built the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, transforming a quiet rural area into a major tourist attraction. The facility was designed by an American architect, Frank Gehry. Another maestro of modern art, Rem Koolhaas, has designed an environmentally friendly art gallery for Seoul National University. The Art News, a leading magazine of the art world, selected those two men as "the architects who will lead the 21st century."

The 2002 World Cup soccer games are just around the corner, so now is the time to think about the cultural image we project. Mr. Koolhaas completed his design of the art gallery for Seoul National University three years ago so that the gallery could be built in time for the opening of the World Cup games.

But we have not even started construction. That is a self-inflicted international slur.

In the century of culture, this art gallery will be a space where the university shares its studies and knowledge with the people. The more such places there are, the more bountiful our life will be.

Delaying the construction of the art gallery at the time when other countries are expanding their cultural infrastructure is a crushing setback. The 2002 World Cup should be a cultural event as well as a sports event. Life and culture should be complementary, opening the gates for promising cultural exports.


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The writer is the director of Seoul National University Museum.

by Lee Jong-sang

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