Seoul’s nature
inspires Kiwi artist

The parks on the edge of the Han river are a welcome respite to the hustle and bustle of Seoul, writes Sam Thomas, who is doing a three-month residency at SeMA Nanji.

I’m just over midway through my three-month residency at the Seoul Museum of Art Nanji Studio (SeMA Nanji), escaping Auckland’s winter to an especially hot summer according to locals. Only this week have I been able to turn my air conditioning setting down to low.

Man holding rabbit

Sam Thomas and Soon Doong Yi the rabbit

SeMA Nanji is located in the middle of two large parks on the edge of the Han river which runs through Seoul. For me the parks are a useful buffer between the studio and the city, which can sometimes feel overwhelmingly huge with a population of over 10 million. After travelling through the immaculate subway system at rush hour, through underpasses and packing into train compartments, it is a relief to arrive back at the oasis of Nanji park.

The park has also served as an inspiration for my work, as I explore it and find interesting details which can be incorporated into my paintings.

For example, in the middle of the park is a fairly high mountain covered in walkways and forest. It’s an important habitat for a local species of toad which can be heard calling out on most nights. Scattered throughout are concrete vents, like manhole covers, which are signposted as ducts for releasing methane. I learned that the mountain was in fact created by the city from a huge garbage dump that was covered over with forest. This idea of layering nature over discarded human culture fascinates me, and is something I try to reproduce in my paintings: Juxtaposing ancient with modern in an attempt to produce something that belongs to no time.

I was surprised to find magpies living in Nanji park which are almost identical to the New Zealand birds with the same feather pattern and call. They provide a common point between our two countries and I was interested to learn how the same bird is perceived differently. The New Zealand magpies have a slightly sinister reputation for dive-bombing people and greedily collecting shiny objects, while the Korean magpie is seen as a good omen signifying the arrival of positive news and as a protector of people in mythology.

Scattered throughout the park are exercise machines which I have incorporated into my morning routine. In the morning, the park is usually empty apart from retired locals who also use the machines and meet for tai-chi type exercise. One morning on my jog through the park, I came across a white-and-black spotted rabbit who must have been recently released from someone’s apartment, because he was still very tame. He has been living in the residency garden and sometimes joins me in the studio as an artist assistant. The residency coordinators said he could live in the garden and even helped to name him.

Four people standing in an arts studio talking

SeMA Nanji is located in the middle of two large parks on the edge of the Han river

The coordinators, curators and resident artists have been a great feature of SeMA Nanji. As well as the international residents, there are also local artists who do a year-long residency. They are a great aspect of the studios as they can help to explain how the city and culture works from a Korean perspective. The coordinators have also been invaluable to my project helping with my research using the Korean search engine ‘Naver’, as sometimes Google struggles to find things here.

For example, part of my proposal for this residency was to research the Korean art of Bangjja Yugi, a hand-forged brass technique that has been practised for thousands of years. Through Google, I was only able to find workshops outside of Seoul, however the coordinator was able to find a much closer workshop and has even come to help with translation. I have been visiting it regularly watching and learning their techniques. The workshop has three generations of one family working together to make mostly religious items such as gongs and incense burners.

I hope to collaborate with them to create a unique forged artwork, and have already found their techniques useful in my paintings.