‘Deoksu Palace Project’ melds history, art

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‘Deoksu Palace Project’ melds history, art


The National Museum of Contemporary Art and the Cultural Heritage Administration have commissioned artists to reinterpret the history of Deoksu Palace. One of the nine artworks to be shown in the palace buildings and yards is Ha Ji-hoon’s “Jari” at Deokhongjeon. Provided by the museum

Every palace has its own dramatic stories, but it can be said that Deoksu Palace in central Seoul shows upheavals and hard days of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) better than others.

King Gojong (1852-1919) made Deoksu his main palace, instead of Gyeongbok Palace, which had long been the dynasty’s main palace, when he declared the establishment of the Daehan Jeguk, or Great Korean Empire, in 1897. So Deoksu Palace carried the king’s dream of making Joseon an independent country equal to the world powers that surrounded it.

But the dream failed and the humiliating Eulsa Treaty of 1905, which deprived the Daehan Jeguk of its diplomatic sovereignty, was forcefully imposed by the imperial Japan at the palace.

King Gojong, after being forced to abdicate the throne in 1907, died of suspected poisoning in the palace in 1919.

“The ‘legacies’ were not of our choices, but have been inherited by us, and we are right here, right now with them on our shoulders,” the National Museum of Contemporary Art said in a statement for its “Deoksugung [Doeksu Palace] Project” exhibition that starts today.

That’s why the museum and the Cultural Heritage Administration have commissioned contemporary artists to create works that reinterpret the history of Deoksu Palace, the museum said.

The nine works by 12 artists, designers and performance artists will be shown in such palatial garden and buildings as Junghwajeon, Hamnyeongjeon, Deokhongjeon, Seogeodang and Jeonggwanheon.

Furniture designer Ha Ji-hoon’s work is exhibited at Deokhongjeon.

It was originally a shrine for the spirit of Empress Myeongseong, the wife of King Gojong who was killed by Japanese assassins in 1895. But in 1912, the Japanese authorities renovated and renamed it as a reception chamber where the king received the Japanese rulers. The building’s floor structure was changed to make it more appropriate for the chair-sitting culture of the West.

Ha paid attention to the “irony that this aesthetically remarkable space is in fact the product of distortion and deformation,” according to the museum. He filled the floor of the building with his chairs, whose chrome-coated surfaces mirror the lavishly decorated walls and ceiling. The combination of the LED lighting of the interior and the natural light coming in from outside intensify and amplify the irregularity of the reflections.

As viewers stroll around the building, they hear a piece of music by poet and sound artist Sung Ki-wan. The music includes the lament of a woman - perhaps the slain empress - as well as the rattle of teacups and slight laughs, reflecting the forceful changes the palace building went through.

Renowned artist Do Ho Suh shows a work encompassing installation art, performance and media art at Hamnyeongjeon.


Kim Young-seok’s installation “Better Days,” left, and Yeesookyung’s sculpture “Teardrop” are both at the Seogeodang building of Deoksu Palace. Provided by the museum

Hamnyeongjeon was built in 1897 as King Gojong’s bedchamber and was destroyed by fire in 1904. King Gojong stayed mainly at Dong Ondol (the East Room) in Hamnyeongjeon, especially after he abdicated. He also died here.

“I was inspired by the attestations given by court ladies that three boryo [Korean mattresses] were prepared for King Gojong every night,” said Suh. “Why did he want so many mattresses? I guess he needed some warmth, as he missed his first wife Myeongseong and his second wife Eombi, both of whom died before him, and as he was constantly suffering from inner conflicts and anxieties as king in times of national crises.

“But many other questions came to me, resulting in active research about the king and the palace.”

In an attempt to bring back the “warmth” that might have filled the room during Gojong’s time, Hamnyeongjeon has been cleaned and re-papered, and efforts to ascertain the details of royal everyday life are documented as part of the work.

And Seogeodang is the place where King Gwanghae’s political opponent, Queen Mother Inmok (1584-1632), was confined by the king for about five years. Here, artist Yeesookyung placed a shining sculpture that resembles a teardrop that seems to have become a symbol of the tragic destiny of Deoksu Palace.

“As the sculptural condensation of a single teardrop is refracted by its own thousands of LED light bulbs, one cannot obtain a clear view of it,” the museum said.

“The paradox inherent in this sculptural piece that it is brilliantly lit but not easily recognizable represents the fates of countless women, including Queen Inmok, who led their lives as human beings here inside the walls of the palace.”

The other artists include Kim Young-seok, Choi Sung-hun, Park Sun-min, Liu Jae-ha and Chung Seo-young.

By Moon So-young [symoon@joongang.co.kr]

* The exhibition runs through Dec. 2. Admission is 1,000 won (87 cents) for adults. The palace is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is closed on Monday.

Go to City Hall Station, line No. 1 or 2 and exit No. 1, 2 or 3.

For details, call (02) 2188-6114 or visit www.moca.go.kr.

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