The street is busy, with cars and people, but clean, and somehow comfortable. Seoul is special in that sense, different from the other major cities in Asia that I have spent time in. It does not perpetuate the chaos I am used to surrendering myself to in Hanoi or Bangkok or Hong Kong or Delhi. It doesn’t even feel as intimidating as Manhattan, despite the lack of any language barrier there. In the week there I didn’t once feel the weight of the millions that call the city home, nor the millions of miles between my physical and mental world and that of the thousands I passed on the streets, on the bus, in the subway, markets, palaces, and temples. It was truly bizarre, how safe and comfortable I felt in a city so alien to me. I think it had to do with the details of the city, there’s always truth in the details.
Brothers chase a rabbit around a group of trees. The boys are not much bigger than the bunny, and second guess themselves whenever he lets them close. On the grass next to them an elderly couple play badminton on the lawn. The grassy area is overlooking Seoul. From here it is impossible to tell that ten million people are moving through the streets and subways in the city below. From here the city is a skyline composed of skyscapes towering over high-rises towering over palaces towering over villages. Markets sprawl across block here and there, full of more food and clothes and physical pieces of Korean culture than anyone could ever need. The setting sun casts a golden tint over the city, trying to homogenize the cityscape but failing to compete with the contrasting architectures of heritage and progress. Looking away from the city, Namsam Mountain climbs in altitude until its summit where the N Seoul Tower reaches skyward. A cable car is slowly making its way toward the tower’s base. Travelers and locals share in the view from the top while lovers add their locks to the fences at various lookout points around the monolithic tower. I sit on the grass beside my peers, watching events close and far, caught in the magic of this place as they delve into our purpose here. I often feel this way with them, like a fly on their wall, documenting what I can, grateful all the while.
On one side of the street are new buildings, tall and chromatic. On the other are the walls of an old palace. Walking down the street businessmen walk hurriedly to offices or meetings, young men in police uniforms stand at regular intervals around the palace walls, women in pants suits stand at bus stops beside older women they’ll follow onto the bus when it arrives. Groups of teenager’s flock into the palace, clad in traditional gowns, at once both subtle and stunning to the eye. They take photographs together in front of the old pagodas and ponds. Inside the palace generations of locals and tourists walk through the old but not forgotten heritage of Korean culture. A soft summer rain begins to fall and umbrellas come out over the beautiful dresses and the heads of the girls, but none of the thousands of tourists flee palace grounds for shelter. The rain is inviting, and there is no need to escape it. I think there is the greatest truth to Seoul, that even the forces that so often drive out, invite me in. There is a softness, a subtlety, and so much beauty in such a place. The country’s heritage is not at odds with its progress, its culture is evolving without forgetting. The world of business and economic progress does not ignore the world of artistic expression. Perhaps I am naïve, but I felt harmony in Seoul, in every capacity of the city’s identity, and I think we all saw beauty in that balance. Whatever the World Folk Art Movement becomes, I think we all aspire to achieve in the spaces we create those feelings of harmony, invitation, excellence.
World Folk Art Movement