We would all like to live in utopia, the imaginary society of perfect qualities described in the eponymous book written by Thomas More in 1516. Seogwipo, the bustling but serene town in the southernmost resort island of Jeju, is confident enough to name one of its newest tourist destinations "Utopia-ro," which translates as Utopia road.
Utopia-ro is an arts and leisure cluster currently in development by local officials, who are looking to create an atmosphere that is stunning, vibrant but also carefree and tranquil.
It's up for visitors to decide whether Utopia-ro lives up to the weight of its name. But the first impression from The Korea Times after a tour was rather convincing. As a word, utopia is said to come from a combination of the Greek syllables "ou," which means "no," and "topos," which means place. Some would argue that the word can also mean "good place" as the prefix "eu" means "good."
Well, yes, there is no place quite like Jeju, and "good" could be an understatement.
"Flow" by Boo Ji-hyun
Arts cluster breahes new life into Seogwipo
By Yun Suh-young
The building of Utopia-ro is part of the 1.45 billion won "Town Arts Project" pushed jointly by Seogwipo City and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Ten other Korean cities are involved in the project introduced by the central government in 2009, but Seogwipo clearly seems to be the most desired site by tourists.
The project began at the start of March last year and is scheduled to continue until the end of this month, aiming to build a beautiful neighborhood where visitors can tour what used to be empty, deserted houses but now installed with modern artwork.
Seogwipo holds a special place in the heritage of Korean art. Its most famous resident artist was Lee Jung-seop, who arrived at the island in 1951 fleeing to escape from the Korean War that ripped through the mainland. He stayed in Seogwipo for a year and produced some of his key art works, some of them now featured in his own museum in the city.
"Horse" by Lee Jae-hyung and Choi In-kyung
Seogwipo has long been cherished for its natural beauty that inspired imagination. Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi of China's Qin Dynasty (246 BC-221 BC) dispatched his envoy Seobok to Segowipo in search of a plant believed as the elixir of life, so as legend goes. King Sejong (1418 BC-1450 BC) of Korea's Joseon Kingdom once described Seogwipo as the "land of eternity.'' Perhaps, the title of Utopia-ro isn't too flattering after all.
Utopia-ro is a circular road that stretches 4.3 kilometers with the Lee Jung-seop Art Museum at is mouth. The road used to be the 4.9-kilometer "Artists' Promenade,'' but planners excluded the Seobok Exhibition Hall and the Jeongbang Waterfall.
"The idea of the whole project is to sublimate old villages and historic sites into public art and help flourish the field of installation art," said Choi Moon-soo, team manager of the 2012 Town Arts Project.
"Happiness Studio" by Ahn Sung-hee
"The project will discover talented artists from Jeju and create more opportunities for them to find jobs as well as shed light on marginalized regions and invigorate the regional economy. We hope the region becomes a public cultural space for residents to enjoy."
Already a batch of artists selected during the first half of last year completed installing their works in the project cluster. The 22 teams of artists finished up their installation last year and the second batch of artists, a total of 19 new teams, are expected to finish up their work in designated sites in the cluster by the end of February or early March by the latest.
Starting from March, visitors to Seogwipo may be able to enjoy the dreamy artwork set up at the hidden corners of the art cluster.
A little walk away from Gidang Art Museum is the Chilsipli Poetry Park next to the Cheonjiyeon Waterfall where the installation art, "Between the Borders," is set up in the pond.
"Chair to Enjoy on My Own" by Choi Mi-kyung
On the pond, there are stepping stones installed across the pond with an automatic mirror door in the middle. Those crossing the pond may not realize from a distance that the person that they see far away is actually a reflection of themselves. Only until they approach the mirror up close will they be surprised to see a mirror door opening up making way for them to walk on to the other side.
Walking through the mirror door is a bizarre experience, especially on a rainy day when the color of the sky and the pond concords making it hard to distinguish where the boundaries are between the sky and the water.
The art has a profound meaning.
"I tried to portray that the walk to the mirror door was an illusion and the walk from then on was full of hopes and dreams. The walk until the mirror door is a reflection of my past and the walk out from the door is an unexpected twist that still leads to another path," said Jeon Jong-cheol, an installation artist. "The work reflects my life which has seen a reversal since I came to Jeju."
"Between the Borders" by Jeon Jong-cheol
Also in the park are colorful stone chairs set up along the path. On the "Chair to Enjoy on My Own" by Choi Mi-kyung, colored water makes patterns on the chairs to symbolize waterfalls and the ocean.
"Breath" by Kim Baek-ki is the theme of several works installed inside a house next to the pond. This installation artist tried to portray the island as a breathing human by creating manlike figures using materials from nature.
A little walk away in another empty house, there's "Flow" by Boo Ji-hyun which symbolizes the flowing waters of Jeju. The work consisting of light bulbs is installed in a dark, empty one-room house and is lit up with blue lights, creating a mystical atmosphere.
"Horse" by Lee Jae-hyung and Choi In-kyung is another piece set up inside an empty house ― this time in one that looks like a stable. The horse figure emits various patterns in digital LED lights from its body, making it look like a creature from a fantasy novel.
On one of the roadsides of the project cluster lies a shabby old photo studio-turned-gallery showing pictures of couples who visited the island during the 1970s through 90s on their honey moon. It would be interesting to see photos of newly-wed couples in the old days at this gallery dubbed "Happiness Studio" as the island used to be a major honey moon destination back in the days.
Along the seashore of the Jaguri Coast stands a large hand drawing a picture. This work, dubbed "Drawing the Crabs and Children" by Jung Mi-jin, is a reproduction of artist Lee Jung-seop's drawing of the same title, except the hand represents Lee's to commemorate the late artist.
While visiting Seogwipo to see works of these new artists, it may be also inspiring to stop by galleries of renowned artists such as fine artist Lee Jung-seop and photographer Kim Young-gap who both passed away but left their legacies on the island.