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Deep in the woods, a natural home for the arts: Between Seoul and Pyeongchang, Museum SAN is a perfect respite

Nov 20,2017
WONJU, Gangwon - Korea is busy sweeping and scrubbing the country to get ready to host the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games that is set to kick off next February. The government and the Olympic organizing committee insist that the country take this time as an opportunity to showcase Korean culture while foreign guests are here.

As such, a number of quality performing arts events usually only found in the capital city of Seoul, are being staged in Pyeongchang, located 230 kilometers (143 miles) east of the nation’s most populous area. But, while the events showcase the best in Korean arts and culture, it is hard to dismiss that there’s no decent museum or art gallery in the area.

Although slightly more than an hour-long drive from Pyeongchang, and about an hour and a half from Seoul, Wonju in Gangwon is attempting to attract visitors to its renowned art space called Museum SAN, since it is located in between Seoul and Pyeongchang.

“The new Gangwon KTX line, slated to open next month, will make a stop in Wonju,” said an official from the museum. “From the new Wonju station, it will only take 10 to 15 minutes to reach the museum, making it a perfect stop if you are traveling to Pyeongchang from Seoul or to Seoul from Pyeongchang.”

Known for its picturesque setting, Museum SAN was established by the Hansol Group’s foundation, famous for producing quality paper products, as part of its art patronage program.

“Since 1997, Hansol Group wanted to establish an art museum, but we could only fulfil that dream in 2013 as Hansol went through numerous twists and turns, facing financial difficulties and more,” said Choi Yong-june, chief curator of the museum. “We wanted to place the museum inside the Oak Valley resort that belongs to the group, but since it’s an hour and half drive from Seoul, we were quite worried that nobody would come to the museum.”

That is why the group turned to Japanese architect Tadao Ando, known for his masterful use of concrete, thinking that he was the perfect architect to make full use of the natural surroundings of this vast 70,000-square-meter (17-acre) site.

“We were confident that he would turn this vast natural landscape into an attractive museum that city dwellers would love to come, relax and enjoy art and architecture,” added Choi.

Indeed, the museum was quite crowded on a recent Thursday, full of couples, families and groups of older women, who were busy using their cameras to capture not only what was inside the museum but the environment outside as well.

Visitors can first encounter the Paper Gallery showcasing the history of paper. Here, visitors can see a chamber pot that was made using paper.

“It used to be a tradition in Korea that a mother hand-makes this kind of chamber pot using paper and varnishing with lacquer for her daughter to carry it with her inside a carriage on her way to her husband’s house after the wedding ceremony,” explained Choi.

“Since the journey can take days, the newly wedded bride had to carry a chamber pot, and for etiquette, the mothers preferred their daughters to use paper-made pots so that it didn’t make the tinkling sound.”

So far, the museum has been somewhat focused on the beauty of hanji, or traditional Korean paper handmade from mulberry trees, but this latest exhibition, according to Oh Kwang-su, the museum’s director, is not limited to the tradition Korean paper, and instead attempts to show how papers have also been actively used for artists to create their works of art.

“With the development of technology, paper began to slowly lose its value, overtaken by digital gadgets that [can be used instead of] paper,” explained Choi.

“Now, in this era of the fourth industrial revolution, the future of paper looks stark. But we found a new possibility for paper, which is used as a major material for many of contemporary artists’ works. We wanted to show that possibility by showcasing great works done with paper for this exhibition.”

Besides the Paper Gallery, showcasing the history of paper, and the famous James Turrell exhibition that provides a unique light and space experience, the museum has organized a special exhibition titled “Paper Taking Shape, Paper Sculpture” which kicked off on Sept. 22. The exhibition runs until March 4, 2018.

Some 26 artists who use paper for their sculpture works, have pieces on display at the exhibition.

On display, there are paper artworks like “The Island of Loss,” by artist Jo Yun-guk, depicting a collection of similar-looking buildings which are made of corrugated paper to “reveal the nature of a capitalist society, where buildings get constructed when there’s need then pulled down when there’s no need,” explained Choi.

Artist Lee Jong-han’s “Nowhere,” is also on display, which he created by mixing dissolved hanji with dyes and then recreating them to make shapes of small houses of a neighborhood.

Choi suggests it takes about three to four hours to take a good look at the museum as well as enjoy a cup of coffee at the museum’s terrace cafe.

When is the best time to visit Museum SAN?

Choi says he can’t pick out just one but three - on the third or fourth week of April to enjoy good sunshine; the end of May or early June to see the full blossom of the flowers; and lastly, the third or fourth week of October to enjoy the autumn foliage - to enjoy the museum to the fullest.

“If you like winter, it’s great to see the museum when it’s covered in snow,” Choi added. “The best time for that is, when you hear the news that there’s been a heavy snow in east Gangwon, the amount of snow will be just right here in Wonju.”

Entrance tickets to Museum SAN costs 15,000 won ($13.68). To include the James Turrell exhibition, the ticket price goes up to 28,000 won. The museum opens from 10 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m., while the James Turrell exhibition opens at 10:30 a.m. and closes at 4:30 p.m. For more information, call (033) 730-9000 or visit www.museumsan.org.