Last week in Seoul I took part in Heterotopia, a remarkable and poignant performance in the alleyways and courtyards that make up Korea's first modernist mega-structure Sewoon Mart. The building, a 1km-long building in the old heart of the city is flanked by favela-like informal structures, mazes of spontaneous electronic shops and markets stalls that are now all due for demolition.
Heterotopia is a site-specific, participatory performance directed by Hyun-Suk Seo. The magnificent Sewoon Mart, a utopian vision by the late Su-Geun Kim, now worn and soured by time, awaits us. The intention of the performance is to engage the visitors with the layered remnants of the ideal and its failure.
During the week, the alleyways are crowded with fumes and noises from small metal shops that have made up the fabric and identity of this part of the city for five decades. On Sunday afternoons, however, the area is immersed in an eerie stillness. This is the time when we spectators of Heterotopia become the protagonists, and performed a series of surreal journeys through this death row of industry, a doomed cityscape on foot.
"The Sunday idleness is adorned with piles of metal dusts, rows of tainted hand-written signs, closed shutters of unlikely tea shops and inns, and other minute details," says Hyun-Suk. "Walking becomes an act of writing. Each traveler re-writes what he sees, hears, and smells. History relives itself.
The journey began with a visit to an old-fashioned teahouse. Clusters of visitors waited at the formica tables on soft orange seats and we ordered a cup of traditional Korean tea and sat, chatting until a phone call arrived. The person on the end of the phone gave me instructions to find a tape recorder and walk out of the building and follow the signs outside.
The journey is a constant metaphor for utopia and failure. A moment of calm where a blind storyteller moves her hand over a brail book and reads aloud is countered soon afterwards by the startling sight of horse and carriage trotting around a corner, adorned in bright lights and rainbow colours. The empty streets are furnished with people; three men sitting on a step, a bright boot or coloured gloves. Metaphors of hope and time in humble and in excess. There is a glory and a tastelessness to it. The building becomes a conduit for the decaying and the hopeless. The performance uses a perpetual methodology of distraction to bring the empty building to the foreground. "The building transforms itself into "a vessel drifting in the vastness of ocean named Seoul," says Hyun-Suk, "just as the architect of the Ideal considered it to be 45 years ago. Travelers become storytellers, only to tell stories about the vastness of oblivion."
After years of plans, including a proposal by OMA, the 1km-long structure – a symbol of utility, hope and utopia in 1966 will be demolished to become commercial high rises and a banal strip of parkland. Hyun-Suk: "Not unlike the essay on 'heterotopias' abandoned by the author, Michel Foucault, the failed mega-structure was disowned by the frustrated architect, banished from the evasive 'utopian' future."
The production of Heterotopia was funded by Seoul Foundation Arts and Culture.