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(Yonhap Feature) Artists seek new boroughs in an unforgiving city

All Headlines 09:00 September 24, 2012

By Curtis File
Contributing writer

SEOUL, Sept. 24 (Yonhap) -- When the auction begins, Jojae clutches his painting nervously in front of the small crowd before him. Seated in lawn chairs on an overgrown, pothole-ridden lawn, none of the 20 or so attendees utters a peep when the bidding starts at 70 million won (US$62,780)

The tension breaks when a young boy shouts "10,000 won!" The crowd laughs, but this is exactly the point of this afternoon's "Noitcua," or auction in reverse. Artists feature their work and interested buyers underbid each other until a final price is settled.

"We came here just to have fun and create an interesting atmosphere," says Jojae, 29, whose painting ended up selling for 24,000 won. "It's not meant to be serious; I just wanted to have fun with my art."

Thanks to Halim, a well-known 36-year-old musician, quirky events like this are becoming more frequent at DoHa. The abandoned military base sits just outside of Seoul, a former home to an emergency bridge services unit. Now it is a sanctuary for the city's "starving artists."

Painted rocks on wire stems reach out from the barren gardens of an old administration building, the largest left remaining. Inside and out, its white walls are decorated with murals, canvas paintings, and melted straw sculptures. At the back of the building a small art gallery sits next to a cafe serving Americanos and lemonade.

"Being an artist is not easy in Seoul, it's a hard life," says Halim. "We came here because we needed somewhere to go. DoHa's meaning is 'across the river,' so that is where we went."

The use of abandoned spaces for art has become a trend in the city. In 2007, an abandoned makgeolli brewery was taken over by the Space Beam community in Incheon. Mullae-dong is now seeing its factories occupied by galleries and live music venues as its workers leave before redevelopment begins. Kanghee Grandas-Rhee, a 33-year-old artist and writer, throws parties under places like the Sogang bridge, bringing artists of all nationalities and walks of life together for just an evening, or weekend, of art and creativity.

Five months ago, Halim was forced to sort the last decade of his life into piles on the floor of his fifth-floor studio in Mapo-gu, a district in the northwestern part of the city. Like so many other artists, rising developments and rent prices forced him out of the studio he'd been working in for nine years.

"The people in Seoul don't really care about art," he said. "It's not like Europe where they celebrate their artist communities. We have nobody to protect us." His collaborators echo the sentiments.

"The people here don't see artists as productive," says Grandas-Rhee. "Artists are the philosophical leaders of their communities. We may have a small voice, but we have a strong energy."

Over the last decade, Grandas-Rhee and Halim say they've seen Hongdae, a popular artist borough in western Seoul and the place they call home, change rapidly. The once bohemian atmosphere is slowly being replaced by brand-name coffee shops and clothing stores that are commonplace throughout the rest of the city. As this development continues, artists have found in necessary to become increasingly creative at finding places to showcase their work.

Halim wasn't the only one to see a purpose for the old base.

Members of the DoHa project share the residence with the Geumcheon Arts Camp, a program offered by the Geumcheon district government. In one section of the main building, a community center offers a range of programs including furniture-making and concerts. Even members of the expat community have become interested in finding uses for the base.

Jon Dunbar, a 33-year-old journalist and active member in Seoul's underground music scene, hopes to put on a concert featuring local bands in mid-October. He sees DoHa as a way to expand Seoul's underground music scene beyond the limits of Hongdae.

"I want to show the people who are entrenched in Hongdae that there is a place like (DoHa) that is inviting and receptive to trying new things," he said.

But the DoHa project is only a temporary solution to the problems these art communities face. In May 2013, the construction of a new business complex will begin, and the DoHa art project will be shut down. Once that happens, Halim and his group of artists will have to find somewhere else to go.

It's the temporary nature of these venues that Halim finds so touching and, regardless of the current state of art in the city, he finds hope in his community.

"In a way it is sad but we try not to take it seriously, because there is beauty in it," he says. "We are nomads who have become a part of the life and death cycle of the city. Things blossom, change, and die all the time. That's beautiful."


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