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Responding to the need for associations with significant places

/Jeon Bobae


 As the world has faced social disasters triggered by COVID-19, today's art is entering the Pandemic era, with rapidly expanding discussions on non-places and increasing demand for changes and considerations in temporality and spatiality. Art in the Pandemic era creates a virtual environment based on cyberspace through the spread of media-based works and non-face-to-face art activities using video communication platforms. Online space is used as an alternative to places through technical media, but it is clear that physical exhibition space is the most direct and efficient way to embody an exhibition. Individual exhibition experience through space dominates, and the presence of exhibition that can be attractive through the irreversibility of time leads the audience to topophilia.

Now that human relations as well as emotional ties between humans and places are in a new phase, I try to interpret this as a time of discussion about places rather than seeking a method to replace them. I reflect on the exhibition experience that was mediated by the body and in a way that was meant for the body. It is to become a witness to a place based on the memory of the way someone looks at the world that entered my consciousness in the past.




 In June 2011, Space O'New Wall, which means "mid-summer," was located in Seongbuk-dong. Space O'New Wall aims to mediate urban-image-culture through various exhibitions, academic events, and public art projects that intervene in community and local cultural issues through art. Also four years later, in June 2015, "O'New Wall E'Juheon," named after "E'Juheon" which means "a good house", was also located in Seongbuk-dong like an annex. While "Space O'New Wall" is a normal white cube gallery where you could get a glimpse of the inside exhibition through the front glass, "O'New Wall E'Juheon" is a renovated space of an old Korean traditional house built for residential purposes, so the characteristics of the two spaces are significantly different. In 2021, only "O'New Wall E'Juheon" is in operation and "Space O'New Wall" ended its operation with Exhibition <Lemon Potato Ginger> in 2017.

In addition to O'New Wall E'Juheon, there are exhibition spaces renovated from traditional Korean houses in Seoul. "Hakgojae'' in Sogyeok-dong, probably the best known exhibition space for the renovation of traditional Korean house in Seoul, "Hakgojae Design Project Space" in Palpan-dong, "Old House" in Seongbuk-dong, and finally "Audio Visual Pavilion" in Tongin-dong, which ended operation in 2019, are selected as spaces that have been visited in person. All of these spaces are remodeled spaces of traditional Korean houses, and the exterior of the old houses are maintained with wooden frames, but the rest have been transformed into modern elements. Temporary walls for exhibitions were constructed and painted white, and the floor was rearranged using modern architectural elements such as urethane and cement. Therefore, although the interior appearance of each space is usually similar, many differences are revealed in the structure of the house itself. The representative architectural layout of traditional Korean houses can be divided into U-shaped layout, square-shaped layout, L-shaped layout, and straight-lined layout according to geographical and climatic conditions, and the nature of each space is determined according to the difference in these layouts and the presence or absence of a yard. Among them, E'Juheon was built as a U-shaped house, but due to the construction of a concrete wall shared with neighbors, it became square-shaped layout, which has a cozy and intimate atmosphere.

 Hansung University Station is the closest subway station to O'New Wall E'Juheon. If you walk for about 10 minutes from this station toward Seongbuk-dong, you will enter a quiet road lined with tall Platanus roadside trees. Passing through the old stores in line, 8-6, Seongbuk-ro 8-gil enters an alley that is too narrow for two people to walk, and a square sign is hung on the gate of the house. Standing in front of a narrow alley, the front gate is an old wooden gate with keyless entry door lock. Only one side of the double doors is open, so one person alone can pass by. When you cross this threshold, a tranquil space where you can get the sunlight hidden in the dense alley welcomes the audience. It has a small yard with a faucet, and except for the room that seems to be used as an office, all the door frames are removed, revealing the floor and room structure, and these wooden door frames are gathered together and leaned against the corner of the yard. Gidan was newly finished using tiles. Rather than leaving the space immediately after viewing exhibitions, the audience sits around Gidan and Toetmaru and have a talk. The fact that this happens here naturally makes it feel as if the exhibition space is guiding the audience towards the direction of their steps.

 Unlike the exhibition space where viewers encounter works without any precursor amid the dominant number of places failing to secure enough distance not to feel stuffy, if an entrance space can be secured, it feels more and more like that the entrance and the scenery seen until arriving at the space cannot be considered separately from works viewed at the space. Wherever it may be, such as a space other than an exhibition space, a cafe, a restaurant, or a bookstore, if you feel comfortable with a specific space, among the reasons for the comfort, the scenery seen while arriving there probably occupies a bigger part than you think. Rather than it being a part of the unconsciousness that we do not realize ourselves, we are already equating the landscape we see while going there and that place[1] for granted. There will be many factors that are difficult to estimate as they reflect individual tastes, such as whether the transportation is convenient, whether the area is low-flat without hills, presence of multiple lane roads, noise levels in surrounding areas, population density, main age group of the community, space between buildings and buildings, and whether sunlight and shadow are harmonious. Passing through the conditions of the landscape in which these psychological factors work, the place where we arrive makes us feel comfortable and stable, and the conditions that bring these feelings make us welcome the place with an open mind. Also, it is the deep-rooted desire of humans to acquire such a place. It was always joyful to visit E'Juheon's exhibition in a quiet and tranquil house after passing the road where there was no need to face bustling scenes. This is because the steps on the road heading to places that are not popular among people are very light. This is not a case of 'even though it's sad, this is true', but a pleasure to enjoy.

  1 The use of the term place is based on humanist geographic views. In human geography, a place is necessary for human beings' existential and emotional purposes and has an approach to understanding a place based on interactions and relationships between humans. The point of human geography is that the relationship between place and human beings, like the relationship between people, is essential, diverse, and sometimes unpleasant, and that it is important not to lose the way to experience, create, and maintain meaningful places. The founder of human geography, Yi-Fu Tuan, distinguishes space and place by whether or not to create value. It is a concept that transforms a space into a place as values based on individual experiences are given to the space.


 Yi-Fu Tuan,『Space and Place』, trans. Dong-hoe Gu and Seung-hee Shim , Seoul: Dae-yoon, 2007




 Among the many memories accumulated around the place called E'Juheon, I still have a magical experience of clearly replaying a certain scene. I was an audience of Kim Jihyun's exhibition <The Realm between Spectator and Performer> held at Space O'New Wall in June 2017. 

 The exhibition space was filled with iridescent lights that were dispersed due to reflective objects that were placed under natural and staged lighting. The audience had to take an active movement to appreciate the exhibition, and only then could they find the works on exhibition. The exhibition introduction text archived on the website of ARTBAVA reads, "a metaphor for violent structures that force communication and participation within a few options under the pretext of voluntary participation." Thinking of that time reminds me of a series of experiences in which I had to take off my shoes or wear a safety helmet for viewing. It may be contextualizing my experiences without going through censorship of my memory, but it is inferred that it was a time when specific discussions on audience intervention and interaction were active because I was also participating in <Simple Activity> where I held an audience's hand and applied nail polish.

  Kim Jihyun's exhibition <The Realm Between Spectator and Performer> also required voluntary participation from the audience, such as having to climb onto the podium or shine flashlights, but the reason why this could work as "intentional violence" was that in the exhibition space with no guide nor instruction, the audience must find the works depending only on a piece of paper with captions of the works on it. When certain actions or conditions must be preceded for viewing for personal inclination, the audience may feel uncomfortable first not because of laboriousness, but because the intention to blow themselves up that can be inferred from those actions and conditions may seem somewhat excessive. ​​On the other hand, when I looked around the exhibition space, the number of works I could see was not much, but the amount of captions written on the paper in my hand seemed to be more than that, so a piece of paper with captions on it even felt cynical. Due to silver paper panels and plastic crystal orbs, the exhibition space was filled with scattered light throughout, and this approach through light fits the title of the exhibition appropriately. Light as a material for proper "view" was given to the artist as a transparent material, and the iridescent color was repetitive.

 Text[2] about the archived exhibition brings back the memories of the day in fragments, but I already know the work that served as an axis for remembering O'New Wall E'Juheon. What I discovered while following the caption paper in my hand was <when you are on time> oil, soapy water, hologram paper, installation, situation, variable size, 2017. It was a puddle that was created by rain the previous day or by deliberately turning on the faucet in the yard. The artist dropped oil in a small puddle of water on the asphalt floor of the exhibition space yard, and let the audience discover a situation in which the rainbow oil band on the water was shaking. When I saw the illusory caption that said "situation," I exchanged glances with my friend who went to the exhibition together, and another look came over our faces. The illusion of wanting the audience to discover the oil band of the puddle which was somewhat far-fetched was like facing the artist's hope from the front. The size of the puddle was not as large as the water stagnant on the rough asphalt floor, and there was no apparatus for dramatic effect. Just because of its insignificance, the caption that said "situation" accidentally led me to topophilia.[3]


3 Topophilia is a new term coined by Yi-fu Tuan, a Chinese-American humanist geographer. It is a combination of the Greek word topos, which means place, and philia, which means love. In Korean, it is called jang-so-ae, meaning an emotional bond between human and place.


“... peak experience of topophilia: the form of a place, or our inclination towards it, can penetrate the consciousness resulting in "feelings of joy, ecstasy, of awe or despair, of unity with our surroundings, of perfection. Although fleeting in the moment, the impact can be profound, and constitute a touchstone by which other experiences of place can be evaluated.”

 Edward Relph,Place and Placelessness, Pion Ltd, 2008



 When I vaguely try to think of good works and good exhibitions, I am always connected to this day's place. From a certain day acquired by senses, the so-called "mental imagery" is aroused. This is a phenomenon that approaches as synesthesia and cannot be separated from the place. The path of this connection, which entered my consciousness, acquires the fact that the way I remember good exhibitions or works does not recall intrinsic factors such as meaning or form, but rather recall memories there. The audience becomes aware of themselves located in the landscape, which remains as a memory, and the work exists as a part of the meaningful exhibition experience itself. The memory played in the audience's head is a memory of the way the artist looks at the world, and at this time, the work plays a role as a medium.

 Without being curious about the artist's intention or whatever it was, the caption written as "situation" by Kim Jihyun and the light oil band in the puddle became a medium for accessing this day. The vaguely reproduced memory left after facing the puddle is a memory of the way the artist looks at the world. This has established itself as the previous "same thing as a touchstone," and the memory of the world viewed by the artist becomes my memory and connects by sharing each other's memories in the same place. It is a magic in which the artist and the audience share the same memory in the same place called E'Juheon.


 After we have responded to a work of art, we leave it, carrying away in our consciousness something which we didn’t have before. This something amounts to more than our memory of the incident represented, and also more than our memory of the shapes and colours and spaces which the artist has used and arranged. What we take away with us - on the most profound level – is the memory of the artist’s way of looking at the world. The representation of a recognisable incident (an incident here can simply mean a tree or a head) offer us the chance of relating the artist’s way of looking to our own. The forms he uses are the means by which he expresses his way of looking. The truth of this is confirmed by the fact that we can often recall the experience of a work, having forgotten both its precise subject and its precise formal arrangement.

 John Berger, Edited with Introduction by Tom Overton,『Landscapes』, Verso Books, 2018



 But soon the place was robbed by itself. This was because the director of Space O'New Wall was added to the timeline of #harrasment_in_art, and gender issues were assigned to the space. In 2016, the accusation of sexual violence that had a major impact on the flow of Korean contemporary art started with #sexual_violence_in_otaku centered on Twitter, followed by simultaneous exposures in literary, performing art, and visual art scene. It was the beginning of gender issues that had a direct impact on Korean society. Feminism rapidly spread within Korean society in the wake of the accusations that led to the Me Too movement, and women used solidarity as a tool when it was impossible for women to become judges themselves, despite the validity of related discussions. It was a method of expressing opinions while leaving a retweet or writing of active support, expressing an intention not to consume, external protests, and establishing communities. In addition, these individuals who responded to the issues faced their own naive attitudes and served the movement as an opportunity to review the use of misogynistic terms and existing inclination that had been used on a daily basis.

 However, as the issues progress, the prevailing opinion is that Korea's women's rights are not improving, but rather regressing. Feminism issue, which has spread to the confrontation between men and women, has become the biggest political issue in Korean society, and the term, strangely enough, has not yet been established as a concept. It is only possible for someone to call themselves a feminist with a firm conviction, and that has become a confession and declaration. This is because the remarks are likely to lead to censorship or slander from others. In particular, mass media have led to a trend of generalizing, amplifying, and mass-producing a small number of discourses from the male-dominated communities, which promotes a social atmosphere in which women are likely to be targets of misogyny.

 In this type of environment, the topophilia I have in E'Juheon is again recognized as suspicion and obstruction resulting from space and social relations. This is because I sense that even if it is a scene that is only kept in my own head, I can no longer fully acquire that place and memory. This indicates that a place deviates from an absolute state that does not change as an individual's romanticized memory and experience. A place is a variable concept that can lose its identity and disappear at any time due to social relationships rather than a setting in which an event takes place or an immutable unique identity.[4]



 4 This concept of place is based on the radical concept from the perspective of relational geography of Doreen Massey. A place moves away from a fixed entity, an inwardly oriented and conservative viewpoint, and moves to a progressive viewpoint of a place composed of social relationships based on gender, power, and capital. Doreen Massey defined a place through a relational geography approach that space cannot exist as an independent variable and must necessarily be conceptualized with time. Through Doreen Massey's externally oriented relational concept of place, place is not a fixed entity, but a constantly formed sense and process. Based on this view, the connection between art and place becomes clearer.



  I am writing quickly using what was held first in my hand, but I know that there is a world of senses that was perceived earlier. Now that the route of connection has been dug up, the exhibition was four years ahead. It is out of the blue, but I have to take off the mask of mystery that is suddenly called out. Agile sensations are also vague at the same time, so for me, making art is a process of digging into the ultimate reason for clinging to such sentiments. In the midst of tracing the reason for the senses, the narrative is built by retracing the experience that is like evidence. The process of trying to set this up as reason is to reconstruct the time by looking back at the past alone, so it's like a simple nonsense, a joke, or an overreaction, and ostensibly a suspicion. It's interesting to tell a story that seems neither fish nor fowl, and the most dramatic situation for me is that a story that has not ended up in any genre has no choice but to end up in the genre of art. The investigation into the indispensable attitude of art led to 'Responding to the need for associations with significant places'.[5] Is it an exchangeable matter to exclude a place that is the center of meaning that cannot be replaced by anything? I wonder if I can access this place again only with this question and how I can acquire this place.


A deep human need exists for associations with significant places.  If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue unchallenged, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter.  If, on the other hand, we choose to respond to that need and to transcend placelessness, then the potential exists for the development of an environment in which places are for man, reflecting and enhancing the variety of human experience.  Which of these two possibilities is most probable, or whether there are possibilities, is far from certain.  But one thing at least is clear – whether the world we live in has a placeless geography or a geography of significant places, the responsibility for it is ours alone.’ 


 Edward Relph,『Place and Placelessness』, Pion Ltd, 2008

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