Lessons from KansongThe Dongdaemun Design Plaza opened on the site of the Dongdaemun Stadium, which had long been a part of our urban lives. After years of construction that stimulated our curiosity, the building — shaped like a large spaceship — was finally completed and a special exhibition featuring the collection of the Kansong Art Museum was launched, providing an opportunity to look back on our community. The magnificent silver building is a symbol of Korea’s status as a rising power in culture and technology with its 484 billion won ($449.2 million) in investment and technology that managed to link 45,133 pieces of aluminum pieces of various sizes and shapes. This is yet the latest product of national efforts that were put forth over the past century for Korea to join the world’s mainstream history and become a leader in an era of globalization.
Most of all, the decision to commission the project from Zaha Hadid, one of the most renowned architects of our century, reflects the level of our society’s globalization. The architect attempted to achieve harmony and a kind of conversation with nature — a space that connected with its surroundings. The space created that atmosphere through curved architecture, and her philosophy is in line with our community’s norms and emotions. Whether you are rich or poor, it is truly meaningful to communicate together in this great public space, she has said, and her remarks reflect that idea.
In order to perpetuate a national community, a cultural continuity among members must be preserved and reinforced continuously. Expectations are high that the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, located at the heart of the public cultural space of the Dongdaemun Market in the center of Seoul — the 600-year-old capital city of the country — will bring new energy to Koreans’ solidarity. It is also extremely meaningful that the special exhibition by the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation — known for its pride in protecting the country with culture — was launched at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, the site of the Korean community’s leap into the future based on its people’s imagination and creativity.
Kansong (1906-62), whose real name was Chun Hyung-pil, was a renowned pioneer who championed the preservation of Korean culture. He made historic efforts to protect cultural properties during Japanese colonization based on his firm belief that preserving items from Korea’s culture was an absolute must to protect the nation’s identity. He was a strong believer of regaining national sovereignty and he also sensed an opportunity from the crisis of militarist Japan’s furious rampage toward World War II.
When you have a clear goal, a crisis comes with an opportunity, and Kansong managed to prove it. At the peak of Japan’s militarism in 1936, he purchased a collection of 30 paintings depicting contemporary folkways called the Hyewon Jeonsincheop from a Japanese owner. In 1937, he also purchased a collection of the finest Goryeo celadons from John Gadsby, a British lawyer, before his departure from Japan as Japan’s ambition to invade China grew stronger. In the summer of 1940, the Japanese colonial government’s policy of trying to obliterate Korean culture peaked. The use of Korean was banned and Koreans were forced to change their surnames to Japanese names. At the time, Kansong managed to purchase a guide to Hunminjeongeum, also known as hangul, the Korean alphabet.
His philosophy and exemplary acts to preserve national culture and continue communication with the people, no matter how difficult the situation is, was carried on by his descendants and by many scholars. When Korean politics were in turmoil in the early 1970s with a constitutional amendment and the October Restoration coup d’etat, the Kansong Art Museum hosted special spring and fall exhibitions featuring Gyeomjae in 1971, Chusa in 1972 and Danwon in 1973.
In any civilization, a market is the heart of a society’s economic activity. Dongdaemun Market has served this role for the past 100 years of our modern history. After the 1950-53 Korean War, shanty towns were built along the Cheonggye Stream to serve as homes for those who lost their hometowns in the war, and Peace Market, based on the needlework industry, was created in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the market grew to become the largest wholesaler of apparel in the country. With the restoration of the Cheonggye Stream and the boom in mega shopping malls, the market became a global site with annual sales of 15 trillion won since the 1990s. It has developed into a special tourist destination and some one million people visit daily. Around 2.5 million foreign tourists head to Dongdaemun each year to shop, haggle and view late-night Hallyu performances. It has also became a kind of national laboratory for our youngsters’ creative ventures.
The Kansong Art Museum in Seongbuk-dong, the Dongdaemun Market and the Dongdaemun Design Plaza are connected with the restored Seoul Fortress. As we contemplate the production and history of our past, the energy of today and the creativity required for a unified community, we feel spring has truly arrived.