Seen, unseen and unsaid: Cheonggye stream

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Seen, unseen and unsaid: Cheonggye stream

It’s difficult to view shows like “Visible or Invisible” without any preconceptions. The exhibit at the Seoul Museum of Art celebrates the opening of the restored Cheonggye stream. But the museum and the public works project are both funded by the city government, so don’t expect much controversy in the art.
The show is a follow up to the museum’s “Cheonggyecheon Project: People Walking on Water,” which was held in July 2003 just before the restoration began.
It’s evident that the curators faced challenges and limits in assembling an exhibit that could please the museum’s patrons. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t comment much on unresolved issues surrounding the Cheonggyecheon project, such as whether to demolish the narrow, shabby streets behind the newly-restored stream, or what to do about merchants who continue to demand compensation for lost business during the restoration.
The title of the current exhibit, “Visible or Invisible,” refers to Cheonggyecheon’s changes, whether hidden or seen, material or spiritual.
In the “Visible” section, artists discuss the physical changes to the stream. For example, in “Return to Landscape” two architects, Kim Hyugk and Song Pil, create a waterway at the museum entrance, reviving the experience of walking along the restored river.
Artists in the “Invisible” section reveal a more compelling landscape of Cheonggyecheon that is hidden behind the scenes.
Flying City, an art collective, documents the urban reality of Cheonggyecheon before and after the restoration, focusing on interviews with vendors at metal workshops selling tools and miscellaneous goods in the area. The artists collected metal trash and tools, and turned them into machinery that serves odd purposes.
The gallery shows photographs and maps documenting the process of making the art, and instructions for the machinery they created.
Old photographs by Kuwabara Shisei depict an area of the stream in the 1960s before it was buried in concrete. “Drink in the Daytime” by Area Park is a series of photographs of nearby residents and construction workers during the restoration.
The most visceral sample from the “Invisible” section comes at the end of Park’s photographic series, which show bottles of soju scattered on the ground, taken shortly after merchants held a protest in the area. The remaining traces from the past in Park’s photographs poignantly portray the desperation of the residents and merchants from the area, many of whom no longer even live in the neighborhood.
To many museum-goers, contemporary art exists to critique established systems of knowledge. If a museum fails to meet this ideal without clear reasons, an exhibit naturally loses integrity, regardless of the quality of individual works.

by Park Soo-mee

“Visible, Invisible” runs through October 30th at the Seoul Museum of Art. For more information call 02-736-2024.
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