Things I Don’t Understand – Art and Music in Seoul

After picking up my visa from from the Chinese consulate on Friday afternoon, I decided to see if there was anything of interest in the area around Seoul Station, what appears to be the central hub of the expansive Seoul subway system. Finding a cozy table outside a coffee shop just down the street, I spent a couple hours responding to waiting text messages and continuing the adventure in Into the Wild. Once my phone had sucked enough charge from my portable recharge battery, I set off again. It turns out that there isn’t much for tourists in the area. There are a few restaurants that looked appealing, but I was meeting a friend for dinner in a couple hours. Deciding to return to the station, I noticed a classy building that seemed to be attached to massive clump of stores and restaurants that sits on top of Seoul Station.


It didn’t take long to realize that there was an art exhibit inside. Seeing a sign that read “Admission free of charge,” I figured I didn’t have much to lose. Inside I found two full floors of modern art. Some exhibits were rather impressive and showed wonderful creative skill and effort.


As for most of the others, I must confess that I just do not understand art. Opposite the image above was a pair 5′ x  5′ photographs of while bowls on a white table in front a white wall. Sure, the shadows looked kind of cool, but the guy literally just took a picture of a cup on a table. To me, art requires some sort of creative effort. It was when I reached the center of the building, though, that I realized that I would not comprehend what was going to happen for the rest of the exhibit. From a performance hall, I could here a very calm music looping in trance-inducing repetition. When I looked through the window, I saw a dozen musicians lying flat on their backs with their instruments. It appeared to be a rehearsal for a performance that I gathered would be happening that weekend. I stayed for a few minutes to see if anything would happen, but I couldn’t see much peering through the door, and I couldn’t see if anything was actually happening.


Having another hour to kill, I decided to continue on. The art continued to become more abstract, and despite my continued efforts to understand what the artist was thinking when he/she was conceiving the idea for each piece, I was at a loss. Unable to convince myself that there was anything to take a picture of, I failed to capture an image of the blank off-white canvass that stretched over two full walls of an upstairs room. Blank canvass seemed to be a theme as I wandered into another room that had many blank canvasses strewn apparently at random.


Though I did not understand the art, I was mesmerized when I found a second story window from which I could watch the rehearsal that was still going on downstairs.


I will have to find a way to share the video with you. That man in the middle is in the process of agonizingly slowly getting himself to a standing position. He then looked about the room mechanically and started to move away. The whole process took a little over two minutes. When he had found his new position, standing, another musician started the same process. Expecting that the procedure would continue to repeat, I moved quickly through the rest of the exhibit, unable to spend anymore mental effort trying to make sense of the strange things I was seeing. When I left the building, I had the strangest feeling of discontent, like I had missed something. Unlike the feeling of failing to grasp an important concept after a complicated lecture, this, this had the added uncertainty of whether or not there was anything to grasp. By the time I got on the next train home, I had accepted the fact that I simply do not understand art.

This past Sunday, the feeling of confusion returned to me when my current guest invited me to a “sign event” of an up-and-coming girl group called Laboum. Wanting the experience, I bought a CD at the nearby bookstore and returned to the event to get in line. Along with about 75 other people, almost exclusively young men, I was able to get my CD book signed by each member of the group and have a brief conversation with them. They spoke only a few phrases of English, and my Korean survival phrases did nothing to facilitate communication. They were all very nice and very pretty, but it was an incredibly awkward experience.


To be honest, I really can’t stand the music, but as a social phenomenon, the whole idea of this idol worship is incredibly fascinating. Just watching the girls of Laboum on stage at the sign event, it was clear that they are all very well trained. Although they have only been on the scene for a couple years, they embrace the attention of the camera with well-practice cutsie smiles and adorable pouty faces. They respond attentively to the constant shouts from the crowd and happily pose for pictures as friends of the fans who are on stage with the idols wait eagerly in the crowd. The exact source of the allure draws all of this attention escapes me. I don’t understand the lyrics of these songs, but I can’t imagine they are particularly deep or thought-provoking. Not to mention, the overwhelming majority of the songs are the products of well-paid expert pop writers, who know exactly what sells. I want to give these so-called “fan boys” more credit than to say that they are willing to indulge in these fantasies fanatically for some reason other than the rush they get from watching these pretty girls dance around on stage in short skirts. Sure, many of them have wonderful voices, but they all seem to be quite interchangeable. What is the inescapable attraction? Why do they draw such fawning attention? How is this such a profitable business?

I have another post in the works that recaps my experience at a live recording of Dal Shabet’s newest single. It should be coming soon.

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