Outsider’s view of Korean traitsYuji Ogawa recalls the experience of being thrown into a state of shock shortly after his arrival in Seoul about a year and a half ago. He had just relocated from Sydney to become a Seoul-based vice president of a Japanese shipping company.
He said he ordered bibimbap, mixed rice, in a restaurant and, when the food arrived, started eating. Within minutes, a lady in the restaurant came over to his table, took away his spoon and started mixing his food until the vegetable toppings mixed completely with the rice ― “leaving no patchy white spots in the rice.”
After a brief feeling of intimidation, he enjoyed the pleasure of sharing a private moment with a total stranger.
“In Japan, you simply don’t find circumstances like that,” said Ogawa, whose photo essays about his cultural lessons in Korea form a photo exhibit at Gallery Ssamziegil under the title “Nan Seng Cheo Um.”
“We are not supposed to intrude on individual privacy,” he added.
A stark close-up of a bowl of mixed rice drenched with chili paste is part of the exhibit, under the subtitle “Stir.”
In an essay next to the photographs, Ogawa writes about his observation of three men sharing a bowl of shaved ice mixed with red beans in a cafe in Insa-dong, as if the idea of “mixing” suggests the metaphor of group mentality, and the culture of sharing food becomes a form of intimacy.
Indeed, “Nan Seng Cheo Um,” which literally means “for the first time since birth,” is an amusing take on cultural anthropology about Korea based on the photographer’s personal observations.
Most of the photographs, which are hung next to short essays, in Korean and English, about the Korean cultural traits Ogawa has observed, function more as casual illustrations of the text rather than as works of art and resemble amateur snapshots. (In the artist’s defense, he said, “I have better photographs from other exhibits.”)
Each work, however, sparkles with wit and sharp humor, detailing what he observes as “cultural differences.”
He has photographs from his visit backstage at a concert by Yuki Kuramoto, a celebrity new-age pianist from Japan who is a sell-out in Korea, but is barely known in his home nation; he has captured the culture of playing cards at funerals in hospital mortuaries; and there are shots of street vendors on traffic-jammed highways.
Ogawa’s angles often seem to picture Korea as alien and odd.
Strangely, the photographer’s perspective does not come across as cold or bitter, though there is a tinge of sarcasm in his subtle depiction of the urban landscape.
In the section “Romanticist,” for example, Ogawa hangs large photographs of a red daisy and wine glasses shot against a colorful background blurred with city lights, next to an essay about the cultural obsession with drama that Korean couples employ on dates to induce a romantic mood.
“Couples drive five hours from Seoul [to the east coast] to watch the sun rise,” he writes. “Then they drive back to the west coast to watch the sun set on the same day... some couples cannot make it, prevented by heavy traffic or sudden showers. As a result, they get turned off and break up in the end. Someone told me so.”
On Koreans’ penchant for brand-name goods, he writes, “As to cars, they prefer large black ones. People who ride bicycles for exercise purposely wear flashy outfits specially designed for cycling as an expression of saying, ‘I am not poor. I own a good car. I am only riding a bicycle for fitness.’”
“Koreans are the most interesting people among the countries I’ve been to,” Ogawa said. He added, “They are beyond my expectations, in a positive way. So far the subjects for my work have come one after another. I don’t really have to think about it to make it into an artwork.”
by Park Soo-mee
“Nan Seng Cheo Um: An Expat’s Wonders ― First Encounters with Korea” runs at Gallery Ssamziegil through March 21. The essays and photographs by Ogawa are also available in a book of the same title at Kyobo Bookstore. For information, call (02) 736-0088.