Monument, Mountain, Metropolis
The urban landscape of Seoul, South Korea’s sprawling primary metropolis, is characterized by a bilateral relationship between past and present. The city’s notoriously forward-thinking infrastructure is tempered by its deeply traditional roots, intersecting cutting-edge technology and contemporary popular culture with historic sites and ancient belief systems.
The work of South Korean photographer Seunggu Kim draws upon this duality. In the series "Jingyeong Sansu"(2011–2019), Kim explores the twenty-first century reinterpretation of “true view” landscape painting, which originated in Korea in the eighteenth century. At that time, "Jingyeong Sansuhwa" (“true view landscapes”) referred to the artistic shift from painters depicting imagined, idealized scenery from China, which had been popularized through centuries of revered Chinese landscape traditions, to painters depicting Korean mountains that “expressed both the actual topography of a famous site in Korea and the layers of psychological and art-historical meanings embedded in the scenery.”1) Mountains comprise more than seventy percent of Korea’s land and have been integral in evolving notions of culture, heritage, and identity. Traditionally, mountains were spaces for hunting and gathering, ancestral rites, and religious practices; they were also mainstays in ancient Korean mythology and remain important to Korean shamanism.
The integration of cherished landscapes into city settings is not a new sensation, and artificial waterfalls and mountains have been commonplace additions to parks, arboreta, and restaurants throughout the urban expansion of Seoul. However, in 2008, Kim began to notice the phenomenon of especially elaborate replica mountains erected within the grounds of luxury apartment complexes. Many of Korea’s famous mountains are associated with particular energies, and property developers have capitalized on this by advertising distinctive varieties of feng shui as part of their residential offer; for example, “Mount Buaak is a new kingdom of creeping dreams,” or “Mount Hoengak will ward off misfortune.” In fact, this practice has become so widespread that one South Korean landscaping company involved in building the simulated mountain structures has even patented the term “Jingyeong Sansu".
Kim spent almost a decade photographing these scenes, battling hostile security guards who challenged his right to access the sites as a non-resident. In this, Kim uncovered a paradox: Layers of ownership are assigned to the replicas, whose origins lie not only in natural sites beyond individual ownership, but in core parts of a collective psyche. However, the substantial cost associated with bringing these mountain tributes into city spaces—each structure requires an estimated $1.6 million and months of labor time—is offset by the exclusivity of the community that enjoys them. In a sense, this mimics the exclusivity of mountainous terrain, although in the case of the replicas, access is won not by physical endurance, but by financial means. Kim’s work draws attention to the ways that valued aspects of the cultural past are translated to function in modern settings.
The impressively precise replicas raise questions about the relationships between artifice and nature, and myth and reality, in contemporary cultures. For while these structures actually comprise polystyrene cores covered with real rock fragments and living plants, their spiritual evocation is of the monumental natural world. This contradiction is emphasized through Kim’s process of photographing the scenes. Using a Large-format camera, Kim reflects the laborious detail that goes into constructing the facsimile mountains. In turn, Kim’s consistent, attentive approach mirrors the sincerity of original "Jingyeong Sansu" painting, encouraging viewers of his work to consider what Kim has described as “the essence of the modern natural landscape”. Scholars of the eighteenth century recognized that while "Jingyeong Sansuhwa" should “originate from nature and exclude artificial consciousness,” it was also representative of “exemplary and most ideal” Korean landscapes.2) In the same way, Kim recognizes the deeper spiritual relevance of these manufactured simulacra, interrogating their wider social and cultural significance through his images.
Kim’s methodical approach has produced a taxonomic body of work that provides insight into Korean mountain mythology. The photographs also comment on the ongoing role of these “mountains” in social life; embedded into cityscapes, they signal a break from the rapid metropolitan pace and offer a moment for repose, play, or rest. While the urban backdrops change and light transforms from day to night, the artificial-natural constructs remain constant visual references in Kim’s images, evoking the endurance of mountainous forms in an increasingly changeable landscape. There is an acute sensitivity to the photographs, yet also an irony that emerges from the confusing juxtapositions of scale and the buttressing of urban and alpine scenes.
In this work, it can be observed that the past has taken an essential role in shaping the present, in terms of both visual culture and social behavior. “Through this landscape,” Kim said, “I have discovered how the spirit of the past lives in the modern city.”
By Catherine Troiano (National Photography Collections, London)
1) Lee, Soyoung, “Mountain and Water: Korean Landscape Painting, 1400–1800,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–).
2) Kim, Jae-suk, “Reading Traditional Artistic Sensibilities through the Concept of Jin-gyeong,” Korea Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4 (2002):187–217.