Underground Art Exhibition Never Stops Rolling

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Underground Art Exhibition Never Stops Rolling

Monotonous-Looking Subway Cars And Stations Occasionally Bloom With Art Works; Reaction is Mixed

A 160-ton train is traveling through Seoul's subway system carrying futuristic multi-media art. Inconspicuous security guards are on duty to protect the goods. Passengers who step aboard this particular train on subway line No. 6 are sucked into a bizarre world of fluorescent black lights, wildlife noises and overgrown ivy.

The train is an intriguing spectacle.

Designed in part by Info Art Korea and backed by the city of Seoul, the train is both a means of transportation and a public art exhibit, "Digital Travels." The traveling exhibition, which commemorates the opening of line 6, will end on March 15.

The exhibit uses video images, sound and light to create a fantasy world within the train. After her journey inside a carriage bathed in purple light, watching dangling holograms of a naked man and woman, Shin Yae-jin, a commuter on a Monday afternoon, said, "This is so cutting edge and fresh. I like this smell of art."

To many, subways are often a symbol of the nightmare of conformity. "Digital Travels" transforms an otherwise boring and typical route into an adventure. For the regular price of 600 won (50 cents), passengers can board at any of the line 6 stops and exit at their destination. The train loops through its scheduled route three times a day from 9:31 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Each of the eight cars that make up the train explores a different topic, but the overriding themes are nature, environment and life.

Four artists worked on the first car, titled "Realistic Time Machine - Coexistence." Kim Kira installed audio sensors underneath the seats. The sound of footsteps activates wildlife noises. Lee Iun constructed small wooden boxes that frame childlike figures in primary colors. Kim Byoung-jig's video explores the speed of contemporary society. The fourth collaborator, Kim Minwoo, produced computer-generated portraits of figures from discordant political and cultural spectrums. The two images appear abruptly on the outside of some train doors and meet in a kiss as the doors close.

The next car, "Ocean Travels," is a sudden change from the sensory overload of the first car. Moon Joo has transformed the car into a submarine, with blue wallpaper, blue flooring and seats and videos of ocean scenes. Under a harsh fluorescent light, most commuters appear scared or unworldly.

The overgrown vines in "To the Forest" threaten to overtake the third car. Chang Gie-hee has even covered the floor with artificial grass. Monitors display a woman's cat-like eyes, blinking coyly.

In Ryu Biho's "A Strange Being Is Here!," colorful stickers decorate the ceiling and walls. The stickers portray weird creatures shaped like ginseng, but with arms instead of roots. The same creatures, moving spasmodically, are displayed on monitors.

"Electronic Garden" evokes the cartoon "The Jetsons" in the spirit of pop artist Keith Haring. Mushroom-like shapes are drawn all over the walls in fluorescent paint, like gleeful graffiti. Shim Young-chul added black fluorescent lighting for a surreal touch.

Art at its height of snobbery is distant from the masses. These days, art is no longer confined to museums and galleries. In an effort to liven up the city and to bring art to its citizens, the city of Seoul has been backing public art exhibitions and performances specifically targeting subways.

Another public art exhibition, "The Subway Project," part of "Media City Seoul," uses 13 subway stations to "entertain" passengers by transforming an unattractive public arena into an exciting space. Info Art Korea recently handled another project conceived around the subway: "Culture in Motion - Wow" celebrated the opening of line No. 7 last fall. Several concerts have also been held in stations.

Considering the far reach of the subway, the exploitation of its potential as a space for public art is not a surprise. The subway is central to the city. Each day, 3.6 million people use the subway, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation.

Kim Un-soo, the director of Info Art Korea, encouraged the 12 artists who participated in "Digital Travels" to keep the public in mind and to prove that contemporary art can be part of everyday life.

"You are creating a project for the public, for citizens, not for a gallery or gallery-goers," she told the artists. "People who would never seek you out are going to see your work. We want to make contemporary art accessible to the public."

Since the opening of "Digital Travels" in December, 7,500 people a day have climbed aboard. If the goal of the exhibition is to entertain these passengers, Info Art Korea has succeeded. Jin Chang-il, a military personnel worker employed in the public sector -in this case, as a security guard for the train - has seen people memorize the schedule. On Monday, several passengers deliberately waited to board "Digital Travels." Lee Ki-suk, a student sitting in the darkness of "Electronic Garden," missed other trains so he could ride "Digital Travels." Monday was his second ride.

Other commuters were not so keen, and some are irritated by the noises, according to Mr. Jin. Asked what he thought about public art, Kim Hyun-sung replied: "Is that what this is? It's too dark to see anything."

Anne-Louise Cameron, a student from England, has ridden the train five times, but each has been by chance. She was ambivalent. "The ride may be a little more relaxing," she said. "It's nice to have something to look at."

The director, Ms. Kim, says she is happy if people find the train entertaining. But for her, the meaning behind "Digital Travels" is, "Art as a form of open space, created with an open heart to make life beautiful."

by Joe Yong-hee

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