Park mixes high art with lowbrow thrillsFor older Koreans, Seoul Grand Park in Gwacheon is more than just a kind of Disneyland. When it was originally in Changgyeonggung, central Seoul, it was a royal palace before the Japanese colonial government turned it into a zoo in 1909.
Today, little remains from its colonial past; instead, the park provides a unique atmosphere for families. (The park is still called “Seoul Grand Park” after it moved to Gwacheon in 1984 because the property is still maintained by the Seoul Government.)
Maybe it’s the subtle mix of elements that are kitsch and high art at the same time. Right next to the theme park and the zoo is the National Museum of Contemporary Art.
Just picture the elephant tram, a tacky streetcar that transports visitors from the park’s entrance to the museum, stopping in front of a giant compound of a museum that’s built in the style of an elaborate Korean fortress.
The park isn’t just for families. During the summer, the park, which is located on the slope of Mount Cheonggye-san, attracts beaming couples who pose for wedding photos in the rose garden while the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden plays arthouse films in the evening.
The park’s surroundings naturally embrace these odd contrasts with a touch of humor. The duality of the park was even used for settings for Korean movies such as the “Museum By the Zoo,” a romantic comedy about a man and a woman with divergent tastes who fall in love.
For visitors who want to avoid the elephant tram, there are also two other options. One is to get on a sky lift, which offers a fine view of the park. It passes over the reservoir, taking visitors straight to the entrance of the zoo. The other option is to walk along the reservoir, a splendid route during the spring, as the roads are surrounded by cherry blossoms. The walk from the subway station to the museum takes about 20 minutes.
On the way to the museum is the zoo, which was completed after six years of construction, from 1978 to 1984, by the city government. Before the age of the Internet and video games, the zoo attracted wide media attention for banal events.
When the zoo first opened in Changgyeonggung in 1912, a pair of hippos brought from Hagenbecks Tierpark in Germany made the headlines. During the 1970s, rumors floating among city reporters stirred controversy after some local papers reported that the zoo’s elephant had gotten pregnant. It took a year before journalists could confirm that the story was purely speculative.
Today, the park’s zoo contains more than 360 species of animals, each divided into genealogical categories. The menagerie includes a lowland gorilla, a rare chimp whose normal habitat is in the tropical rainforests in Western Africa, and a white tiger named Vera, the star of the park. A white tiger is said to be found in every 100,000 tigers. The zoo also has a botanical garden and an insect pavilion, the only place in the country to observe a wide variety of live insects in one place.
Then there is Seoul Land, which opened just before the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Frankly, this theme park is far from sophisticated. It’s probably just the opposite.
One of the park’s most popular rides, Sky X, puts adventure seekers on a rope connected to an iron crane, which then throws the passengers about 55 meters below the platform, similar to bungee jumping. The park authority says the ride allows visitors to fly like a bird. But in a family park, it’s not something parents would gladly recommend to their children.
Past the rides, at the very end of the park’s central road, is the art museum. The national museum in Gwacheon, which was built in 1998, carries one of the largest collections of modern Korean art, including some of the more recent installations by art celebrities like Lee Bul, Yuk Geun-byeong and Suh Do-ho. The museum officially has 5,404 pieces.
A tall, metal sculpture, titled “Singing Man,” by Jonathan Borofsky, greets visitors to the outdoor sculpture garden. The piece hums with a recorded voice of a man, some kind of religious chanting, creating a meditative mood, as if it is trying to force the visitors to emotionally prepare themselves for what they will be seeing.
In the atrium is “The More the Better,” a video installation by Paik Nam-june, which has become the museum’s icon. Paik piled 1,003 TV monitors into the shape of a giant tiered cake, conveying his skepticism about South Korea’s determination to join the premier league of industrialized nations in 1988, a status symbol that Korean politicians coveted.
Currently, the museum is exhibiting “Currents in Contemporary Chinese Art” and “New Acquisitions 2004,” 150 recent purchases of modern artwork. The collections show a wide range of tastes and styles, ranging from Candida Hofer’s “Pierpont Morgan Library New York III” to an abstract terra cotta painting by Kwon Jin-kyu.
The museum also holds video screenings on world museums, and this month, the focus is on the Louvre in Paris and Galleria Pitti in Florence.
by Park Soo-mee
To get to Seoul Grand Park, take subway line No. 4 to Seoul Grand Park station, exit 4. A shuttle bus runs from the subway station to the museum entrance every 20 minutes.
Entrance to the park is free, but the admission to the zoo is 1,500 won ($1.46) for adults and 700 won for children from November to March, and in July and August. The price jumps to 3,000 won for adults and 1,000 won for children from April through June, then again in September and October. The zoo hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through March.
For more information about Seoul Grand Park, see grandpark.seoul.go.kr (English available) online or call (02) 500-7321~3.