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King Jeongjo’s innovations recreated through art: Celebrated royal is honored in exhibit of his contributions

July 30,2019
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“Seobuk Gongsimdon” by Kim Kyoung-tae [SIMA]
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Top left: Works by Ahn Sang-soo are on display at the Suwon IPark Museum of Art’s “SEONG: Fantastic City,” a new exhibit about King Jeongjo and the Hwaseong Fortress. Above left: “King Jeongjo and the Construction of Hwaseong Fortress” (left) and “Hwaseong Paldalmun” (right) by Suh Yong-sun. Right: Pillars that explain how King Jeongjo’s name was changed to “Yi Sheong” greet visitors at the exhibit’s entrance.[SIMA]
The fascinating story of King Jeongjo (1752-1800) of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) has served as inspiration for countless films, dramas and books that dramatize the life of the celebrated ruler, hailed for his progressive social reforms and landmark projects like the Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, Gyeonggi, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Last week, the Suwon IPark Museum of Art (SIMA) in Gyeonggi unveiled its new exhibition “SEONG: Fantastic City” to honor the lauded royal through art. The location couldn’t have been more appropriate - the museum, opened just in 2015, sits at the mouth of the Hwaseong Haenggung Palace, within the walls of the fortress. King Jeongjo used the palace as a war shelter and resting place during visits to his father’s tomb, which was the main reason he built the fortress.

“For this exhibition, we chose to focus on the two ‘seong’ that symbolize Suwon - the Hwaseong Fortress and King Jeongjo, who is said to have changed his name to ‘Yi Sheong’ from the more commonly known ‘Yi San,’” explained curator Shin Eun-young at a press briefing ahead of the exhibition’s opening last Tuesday.

“The Hwaseong Fortress is widely recognized as an architectural milestone of the 18th century, but we thought it would be more meaningful to focus on Jeongjo’s innovative mind and reflect on the lessons we can take from him today.”

“SEONG: Fantastic City” showcases brand new paintings, installations and video works by 10 Korean artists - Kim Kyoungtae, Kim Dohee, Kim Sung Bae, Na Hyun, Min Joung-ki, Park Geun-yong, Suh Yongsun, Ahn Sang-soo, Lee Lee Nam and Choi Sun. Kim Sung Bae and Park Geun-yong were both raised in Suwon.

The museum chose to present the show in the style of a royal tomb of the Joseon Dynasty, dimming the lights to create a solemn yet mystical aura. Exhibition spaces were divided to correspond with actual sections that made up the tomb.

The first section, which represents the tomb’s entrance space that “signifies the worldly space occupied by the living,” focuses on “King Jeongjo’s life and the ideology held in the Suwon Hwaseong Fortress.”

Min Joung-ki, the artist behind the famous “Mount Bukhan” painting that hung behind President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during last year’s historic inter-Korean summit, chose to capture how King Jeongjo’s legacy continues to shape the landscapes of modern-day Suwon through his signature oil paintings. Suh Yongsun travels back in time to the late 1700s and shows King Jeongjo overseeing the construction of the Hwaseong Fortress, for which he was commended for not only the architectural feat but for his treatment of laborers and use of technology.

According to historic records, laborers were fairly compensated and given innovative machines to work with, cutting the estimated construction time of the fortress from a decade to just around two years. “The Records of Hwaseong Fortress Construction” lays out the wage of laborers, costs of materials, equipment, techniques and illustrations in meticulous detail and served as an invaluable reference during its restoration from the 1970s following damages incurred during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The second section resembles “a national memorial service space where the living and dead meet” and features works that reflect King Jeongjo’s innovative thinking as a “reformation monarch.”

True to the theme, the works in this section are experimental.

“Yungneung for All People” by Kim Dohee is an artful display of hundreds of tiny soil mounds that the artist stacked up with her bare hands.

Beside it sits Choi Sun’s “Sheet Castle,” a recreation of Mount Paldal in Suwon using white bedsheets previously owned by various people. Choi also created “Butterflies,” which features a giant canvas covered with blue ink blown into different shapes. His works emerged from the desire to “remember each and every individual involved in building this large fortress.”

The final section represents the “sacred space of consecrated grounds,” hosting works that take King Jeongjo’s goals and ideals into consideration as Korea continues to move forward. Works in this section include the video project “Reborn Light” by Lee Lee Nam, which juxtaposes past and present images of the Hwaseong Fortress.

“Many people know a lot about the Hwaseong Fortress, but I think we have an important task to interpret its significance today beyond its superficial meaning,” said museum director Kim Chan-dong. “I hope visitors will be able to observe how Jeongjo’s innovation and its materialization through the Hwaseong Fortress continue to transform the present and create hopes for the future.”

BY KIM EUN-JIN [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]


“SEONG: Fantastic City” runs through Nov. 3. Tickets are priced at 4,000 won ($3.40) for adults with additional discounts for Suwon residents. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. except Mondays. For more information, visit sima.suwon.go.kr