Ruins of Seoul: Gangnam Apartment

[note note_color=”#f3f3ef”]A refined version (with a proper edit) of the article appeared on The Dissolve[/note]

It’s still the ruin porn when it comes to hippest places in South Korea. Ask hipsters who like to insta-hunt cool cafes in, like Seongsu.

Cos we’ve seen too much glowingly shining skyscrapers armored by mirrors. Cos we feel there will be no more glitters of the rapid development like what 86’ers indulged for us.

No way artists will miss it. They scour Seoul all around to dig up fresh new ruins. And they put up their own works on it.

Like a PR firm staff who places his client’s luxury product next to some renaissance artworks, like a tribesman who eats his opponent’s brain from the skull he just cracked open, they attempt to drain the aura out of it.

Some, however, found another interesting place which was brought to my notice.

The name of the place is already quite ironic. Gangnam Apartment, betraying its own name, is located in Gwanak-gu. While it’s literally right it is located in the south of Hangang river (that’s what gangnam means), its value as property and neighborhood are far from being gangnam.

The apt complex is 44 years old and was designated as disaster-prone facility in 2001. Pretty much of the complex has been abandoned for a long time.

A group of artists somehow managed to hold an exhibition in cooperation with the reconstruction association.

The ruin of one apartment building became the canvass and the exhibition room for them.

What makes ruin porn porn is that we often objectify the ruin, stripping the human residue off and even stepping on it.

I enjoyed the beautiful ruinous scenery until I found on the top of the building laundries being dried on a balcony of one building across where I stood.

Still there were people who live in these apartments, it means.

Later, on my way out of the place after roaming around I saw several people coming out of one of the buildings carrying some household items in hand. They were speaking in Chinese.

With the local authority having designated the place being dangerous, the complex obviously became a slum.

It’s hard to believe it remained so over a decade even after the warning. Reports says owners of the complex pursued reconstruction multiple times but kept failing.

I kind of understand it. The neighborhood is not so much of value. Surrounded by Guro, Gwanak and Geumcheon district, Until recently it probably wasn’t that attractive to developers. Also the owners probably had many difficulties to fund the reconstruction considering the area used to be poor since the neighborhood used to be filled with factories—the original name of the nearest station was Guro Industrial Complex.

Then was when I at last realized why there were hate scribbles on the walls:

‘Die all of you Chinese piece of dog shit,’ it says

Probably many Chinese workers used to and still live in this apartment. The place is close to Daerim, which since long ago turned into a miniature china town of Seoul. Not to mention the rent.

Anyway this won’t last long. It’s going to be demolished and another new, tall and shiny apartment will replace it. Seoul city office finally decided to do something about it and a reconstruction project led by government housing corporation was approved last year.

Illustration of the reconstructed Gangnam Apt by Seoul metropolitan government

Up to 35-story apartments will replace this ruin. That there is not much time left for this ruin adds thirst for the scene itself rather than the artworks.

One particular piece of artwork, however, managed to grab my attention.

The artist Kim Lee Park((Of course this is a pseudonym.)) decorated the ceiling with ribbons which usually comes attached to wreaths in South Korean culture.

Wreath flows though the vein of Korean social life: you get them as you marry and also as your family member dies.

Turn on any news network channel and you’ll see adverts for wreaths, competing for the best cheapest price.

While it is called wreath, it’s more like a model of tropical tree ornamented with flowers.

I said model because it is an artificial tree made of plastic and when you see it you may wonder why and how a certain tropical plant became the archetype of conveyor of welcoming and congratulating messages in a culture which is situated in where tropical plants can’t grow. Jo Hye-jin did a series of interesting research-cum-artwork on Korean wreaths.

The ribbons on it bring a message and show who’s the sender. When you get to pay a visit to someone’s wedding ceremony, one of the first things you do is to see who sent those wreaths. It shows who the hero/heroine of the day is and his/her parents are. The ones that came from famous politicians and owners of big corporations come in front.

The artist gave it a wicked twist, putting up some celebrating messages for those just moved into a new house on the ceiling of a 44-years-old house, the demise of which is within a few months.

‘Thank you for moving in’

But I also found out another kind of messages in these ribbons:

‘Although we are not an ordinary family, it may also be the case that we’re more experienced than others so let’s be well and happy!’

Kim told me some messages he wrote on the ribbons were from the postcards and letters he found in the ruin of the room and other place in the apartment.

‘I hope dad is living well. (It’s) become harder than before but now only happier days are ahead.’

It looks like a divorcee and her children came to live here. And they did try to hold it up as we can see from the messages. What happened to them later we do not know. Only that this place is going to blow up soon.

Kim also found interesting things from the garbage and displayed them in the room.

Obviously someone was practice his Korean writings here

‘Have it tasty. Have it tasty. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You’re welcome. You’re welcome. You’re welcome.’

It seems to be part of a Korean textbook for Chinese speaking people

What makes this seemingly ordinary piece of a Korean learner’s book is the scribbles at the edge of the page:

‘There’s no one to believe in this world.’

‘All just saying but no fulfilling.’

‘I’m free by next week.’

God only knows what led this person to write this kind of lines.

All this bring the people who actually lived in this place closer. They ceased to be just some faceless entities. Suddenly they have faces and stories, glimpses of which we were able to catch. I might never be able to meet them in person but at least I left the building with more respect for the people who once occupied this space in a certain period of time.

‘mom, come back soon!’

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