Artist finds Seoul in
the cracks of the city

Auckland artist and Foundation Leadership Network member Xin Cheng was artist in residence at Sema Nanji artist residency in Seoul, South Korea, from September to November last year. In Seoul she developed her 'nomadic toolkit' concept, which she describes as "an open and ongoing invitation to fellow human beings for sharing ideas, things, attitudes that could be used and improvised on over time."

Watch a slideshow of images from Cheng's time at SeMa Nanji residency

Seoul is not for the light-hearted. I was shocked when I first arrived – its megalopolis sprawl, the resulting amount of time spent in transit (and the zombie-like people in the subways engaged to their smart-phones); the conglomerates of apartment buildings; the prevalence of massive advertising and maze-like shopping malls.

Yet, Seoul is also a city of many folds and dimension. As the artist/curator Taeyoon Choi pointed out in a presentation: "...the back-streets of Seoul where time runs at another pace."

Slowly, as I learnt to escape or get lost amongst the cracks of the city, a kaleidoscopic world opened up: eye-dazzling profusions of kimchi, tteok (Korean rice cakes), rubber bands in every size and shape imaginable spilling out of their market stalls; older, accented neighbourhoods full of makeshift resourcefulness; mobile carts selling food and offering umbrella repair services; and many independent, self-organising spaces, full of people with warm hearts. Like mortar between the bricks, these spaces carve out multiple modes of existence in a rapidly morphing city.

In Seoul, I never knew what I was going to discover. I simply went out, ready to be surprised.

The collaborative nomadic tool-kit, which I started in preparation for the residency by inviting people I knew to contribute something to be used, added to the serendipity. For example, William Hsu's request for a ruler delivery led me to venture out to Maseok Furniture Complex, where the collective Mixrice had been working with migrant workers. I caught the opening of their new project space, with a shared workshop for the locals to use — what a great idea! Why isn't there more art spaces with workshops for people to make things together?

Eunseon Park from Listen to the City invited me to do a talk at Kookmin University. While the projector was being fixed, I handed out objects from the nomadic tool-kit, and soon the classroom was transformed into a dynamic web of movement and laughter. That provided the inspiration for a collaborative performance I organised a few weeks later, with musician Passing Josh and the audience, for the opening of Space VAC, a new interdisciplinary co-creation space.

In Seoul, I never knew what I was going to discover. I simply went out, ready to be surprised.

With the other Nanji International artists, we organised critique and work-sharing morning, which brought two visitors I met in the dance world: Zdenka Svitekova and Lucia Choi. Afterwards, we realised our shared fantasy of dancing on the subway—what an underwater-like psychedelic experience it was!

Spontaneous joy is indeed possible on the subway. Lucia also returned a couple of times to run a calligraphy workshop and perform for People are the most Precious things we can encounter, a collaborative project I organised. Along with dancer Soeine Bac and musician Bohyung Jeon, we played with the materials gleaned from my rambles around Seoul, and explored the peculiar properties of the circular Nanji Exhibition Hall for the opening night of the Open Studios.

Attending the Mapping Lab at maker-space FabCOOP, I met the media art group Diana Band and later went down to Gwangju to join their workshop exploring alternative uses of smart-phones, as part of the ACT Festival at the Asia Cultural Center.

Later, I also initiated a convivial workshop at FabCOOP, that combined making from junk, walking, looking at the resourceful constructions of the neighbourhood, inventing and playing games with laminated cards from my makeshift research, improvising snack recipes and sharing stories.

In a way, my experience in Korea was a series of serendipitous encounters, where one connection lead to another. Over time, I found myself amongst a growing mesh of people with similar interests.

Through conversations, walking, doing and making together, many things were learnt and new perspectives shared. Indeed, people are the most precious things we can encounter.

Cheng partook in the residency with the help of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.