Art, Night, and Norebang: 48 Hours in Seoul

 

Perhaps one of life’s greatest pleasures, other than long, extended journeys through distant and mysterious places (and poetry, and Miles Davis, and cambozola cheese), is the weekend trip.  Put me in a car, or a boat, or a high-speed train, with one packed duffel and an extra pair of shoes.  Give me a cabin on an island off the coast of Canada or a couch in a city in Asia.  Give me a map.  Give me a couple insider tips and a loose list of ideas.  Give me 48 hours.  Give me a partner in crime. 

The weekend trip, due to its inherent compression of time, evokes both a touch of mischief and the immediate desire to inject each moment with a little extra energy and enthusiasm.  I’ve been lucky enough to experience a few of these excursions with some key people throughout my twenties (Seattle with Shumka, Tofino with Gaeli, Whistler with Melissa, Galiano with Abbas–hello, all!) and after each one, I returned home wishing I had longer, of course, but also feeling reignited with my life, and reinspired to live in such a way that allows for time to play. 

So, with summer in Korea approaching its inevitable end, plans for a weekend trip took shape.  The month was September.  The destination was Seoul.  The theme, after concurring with my close Busan friend and designated co-tripper Leah, was art.  Galleries, museums–Seoul has the stuff in droves and we were on a mission to see it.  Of course, Leah and I also like to partake in the odd night out or two, so the theme quickly evolved to one part art, one part, well, Seoul night life.

The day before we left, an insider tip also emerged.  An old friend of my close Vancouver buds Mike and Lori–a Canadian dude called Robb who lives in Seoul and who I had not yet met–replied to my facebook message with an invitation to pop into Club Answer, where Netherlands DJ Laidback Luke was playing and where Robb would be hanging out until somewhere around 3 a.m.  So after eight hours of teaching on a Friday, Leah and I caught the KTX train to Seoul, and three subways to Gangnam–a spiffy neighbourhood on the southeast side of the city–where we greeted our couch surfing hosts John and Wendy, dropped our bags, changed, and hailed a cab that is now on my top-five-scariest-high-speed-car-rides-ever list to the club. 

Not gonna lie, it was a hassle getting in.  Club Answer is high end, and the  Korean guys at the door barely acknowledged us, claiming the guest list had finished at midnight.  But after that kind of trek, we were determined.  Finally, following a lengthy wait during which we watched countless clusters of beautiful Korean girls skip the line and head on in,  a woman on staff gave us the nod and two purple wristbands and let us slip through.

We were stoked.

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When you’re this far from home, meeting a friend of your friends means a lot.  Especially when he’s a chill guy like Robb, who we  found upstairs in the VIP lounge.  It was a pretty sweet spot to sip on a gin and tonic and view the crowd from, until we ventured back downstairs, only to discover the purple wristbands didn’t allow us back up.  VIP’s we were not. 

(Hello Mike and Lori–this pic’s for you!)

No matter, we danced it up on the main floor…

And pushed our way to the front of the stage for a brief and sweaty sway to Laidback Luke’s beats, which were a mix of house and mainstream, and which the crowd was digging big time.  (He’s apparently been voted one of the top 50 DJ’s in the world.)  I have no photo of the man but I can tell you he was smiling a hell of a lot and exuded the kind of energy of someone who loves what they do.

Back on our host’s living-room mattress, we managed to nab six hours of sleep before a Mexican breakfast lunch in Gangnam and a multi-subway hike to the Leeum Museum

which, I’m not exaggerating, was phenomenal.  After wandering through pristine displays of Joseon Dynasty porcelain and metal works, we came upon this staircase, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botto.

 

I’ve never seen anything like it.  It rose up through several floors, and at the top, opened to a glass-enclosed skylight, which, under the blue of the afternoon light, painted silhouettes on the tall white walls.

In Leeum’s contemporary “Museum 2,” flamingo wings cast shadows in a dim red glow…

while a futuristic family stood guard at the window.

On the next floor I found a double-necked guitar…

and rooms and walls of other strange and striking modern works–pieces by Korean contemporary artists such as Lee Jeong-seop, Byeon Kwan-sik, and Nam June Paik, and 20th century foreign artists (Rothko! Richter! Warhol! Alberto Giacometti!) which I was politely told by staff I couldn’t photograph. 

Ah, some sights are perhaps best left resonating in the mind’s eye.  Though I started clicking the shutter again once we stepped outside, starting with Tsang Kin-Wah’s glass wall of sentences that frames the museum’s entrance…

 

and then the blue sky, and the bronze spider by Louise Bourgeois, and the smooth wooden planks.

Spider close-up taken by Leah

Inside the Leeum, you could be anywhere in the world…back out, the bamboo reminds you–Asia!

 

The weather was really on our side.  It was the last hot day of summer…

 

and we soaked it up on a sidewalk stroll, until descending back underground. 

Oh, Seoul subways…the unavoidable third theme of our weekend sojourn.  Miles of walking to transfer from one train to the next,  an intricate system of bodies and motion…

which whisks you all over the city, including Insadong–our next stop.

Galleries abound here– in interlocking alleys connected through one long and bustling main street that’s jammed with shops and teahouses.  Our late start to the day meant we had a hopeful hour left to catch a few before closing time.

My favourite was the Insa Art Centre, which is free, has seven floors, and featured these wooden women sitting, standing, and suspended with wings…

In my post-late night, long afternoon, subway-induced weary state, I failed to note the artist’s name (apologies!) but isn’t their work something kind of special?

After, we were hungry. 

and in desperate need of a nap.  Where can you nap in Insadong? 

Well…

 

in a pinch, this concrete bench in the middle of the main road will do.

“We’re just two people in a city of ten million,” I said…”Who’s gonna care?” 

We actually managed to doze off for a few minutes, which proved to be a necessary recharge, as the next item on the agenda was drinks with Peter, a Canadian guy I met at a wedding two years back who recently moved to Seoul.  (To be precise, he’s the brother of my best friend’s sister’s husband.) 

Turns out, Peter is hysterically funny.  He brought along a couple friends, including Geoff who was visiting from Daegu, and, at the subway exit in Hongdae, suggested we head to a hookah bar he knew.

The place was called Great.

It was pretty great.

Leah, Geoff, and Peter broke the ice over a couple icy buckets.

Instant buds, and the night was young…

Hongdae–the sprawling area surrounding Seoul’s Hongik University–became the evening’s playground.  It’s easily one of the most vibrant, invigorating, dynamic, and stimulating big-city districts I’ve ever absorbed.  Masses of people, bars, restaurants, cafes, street stalls, lights, sounds, and smells converge in a shock of energy that is at turns overwhelming and deeply soothing.  We picked up a few folks along the way… 

 

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And stopped in at a couple watering holes, before making our way to a park that seemed to sit in the center of it all, crammed with students and artists, musicians and foreigners, people sipping tall cans of Cass and green bottles of soju that grew warm in their hands in the still-summer air, standing in light that shone from nearby neon, talking loud above the Hongdae din, hours past midnight with hours to go. 

It was here that Peter, Geoff, and our new friend Devang‘s desire to sing–a sentiment expressed earlier on– grew persistent, which led to…

Norebang.

at 4 a.m. 

It was an epic end…

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to an epic day–the stuff that weekend trips are made of.

Seoul–I will be back!

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Get To:

Club Answer

Take line #7  to Chung Dam Station, exit #3.  Turn left at Hotel Rivera.  Answer is across the street from the Hotel Prima. 

Leeum Samsung Museum of Art

Take Line #6 to Hangangjin Station, exit #1.  Head 100 metres towards Itaewon, turn right at the first alley, and walk another five minutes to the hill.

Hours: Daily 10:30-6 p.m. (Thursday until 9 p.m.)

Insa Art Centre

Take line #3 to Anguk Station, exit #6.  Insa’s about a five minute walk up the main road on the right hand side.

Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closes early Tuesdays, opens late Wednesdays)

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Twelve Hours in Shanghai with Jets Overhead

 

When I found out Canadian band Jets Overhead would be perfoming in China last July, I decided that flying from Busan to Shanghai to see them, catch their show, and write an article on the experience was a necessary mission to undertake.  Korea’s next door, and the flight’s just over 90 minutes long–it would be like skipping from Victoria to Vancouver for the night to watch one of your favourite bands play, right?  (Minus the visa.  And the flight.  And customs…) 

Timing and logistics meant I arrived at Jets’ hotel at 11 a.m. on a Saturday and departed Shanghai at 2 p.m. Sunday–a whirlwind brush with a highly skilled group who describe their sound as “road trip” music.  I’d like to expand the genre to include “Asian country jet-setting…”

(View article below.)

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Twelve Hours in Shanghai with Jets Overhead 

By Courtney Tait

Published in Eloquence Magazine, September 2010

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11:30 – Somewhere Around 2 p.m.

Behind a dark wooden table in a teahouse called Huxington, a young Chinese woman pours water into a clear glass pot.  The tincture is called Double Dragon, named after two white flowers that shoot up in elegant swirls from the bottom of the pot.  The man who ordered it—Adam Kittredge, lead vocalist of Canadian indie five-piece Jets Overhead—is sweating through his t-shirt; it’s July, and Shanghai is hot.

Two nights earlier, Jets kicked off an 11-day China tour on Expo 2010’s Great Hall stage.  The gig was an expenses-paid invite from Canada’s circus-art veterans Cirque-du-Soleil, who designed the Canadian Pavilion, and who were charged with hiring innovative Canadian talent to represent the country.  The show—a brew of textured, harmony-rich songs from the band’s Juno-nominated debut album Bridges and 2009 release No Nations—got the 2000-strong crowd fired up, Kittredge says, though performing for a politician-heavy audience that included Canada’s Governor General felt “like playing for the starship federation on the starship enterprise.” 

Outside, fists of rain plunge into the lake from which the teahouse rises. We’re in Old Town, and monsoon has arrived.  Beside Kittredge, Jets’ drummer Luke Renshaw leans his head into his left palm; the band’s jet lag has only started to burn off.  Number 10 on the tea menu: an energy boost, agreed to by the long-haired, sultry-voiced Antonia Freybe-Smith—keyboardist, co-vocalist and Kittredge’s wife; the pair were married in Mexico in February of ’09. 

“I’m oozing,” she says, fanning herself with a red and yellow hand fan that spells Sophie MX.  Thunder booms. 

“Dudes,” says Kittredge, “we’re in a full-blown typhoon here.”  

Twenty minutes later, the rain eases. 

“Power moves!” Kittredge says, hustling us inside a cab.  It’s an expression he shouts often throughout the day, inspiring rapid, assertive movement in an effort to accomplish something.  We’ve got under an hour to find lunch and get back to the Sofitel, a luxury hotel where the band is being hosted by Cirque, and has been requested by the manager to give an afternoon photo shoot.  The driver honks, threading his way through the throbbing streets, quick and jerky on the pedal, jostling every other Shanghai man behind a wheel.

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7:30 p.m. – Showtime

During the second round of Tsingtao beer at Shanghai’s Charmant restaurant, conversation turns to good, inexpensive wine.  And Knoxville, Tennessee.  And transvestites.  (As the story goes, guitarist Piers Henwood was hit on one, at a bar, on the band’s first night in Shanghai.)  Jets has been joined—post sound-check for the night’s scheduled gig at Yuyintang Bar—by an eclectic crew of 10, including British promoter Archie Hamilton, the founder of Shanghai-based company Split Works, who organized the remaining eight shows of their China tour.

Heaping plates of spicy tofu, beans, and broccoli are passed along the tables from hand to hand, and another round of Tsingtaos appears.  Midway down the seats, American folk singer and banjoist Abigail Washburn and her band the Sparrow Quartet take part; they, like Jets, are headed to the city of Hangzhou following performances in Shanghai.

At the other end of the table, Kittredge and Freybe-Smith listen intently to a man in a black button-down shirt.  His name is Ashley Capps, and he’s the founder of U.S. promotion company AC Entertainment, which puts on annual 4-day festival Bonnaroo, a sold-out gathering catering to 80,000-odd music lovers each year in Manchester, Tennessee.  Jets performed at Bonnaroo in June of 2009, shortly following their first China tour—where No Nations was debuted live on Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen stages. 

When asked how this trip feels in comparison to the band’s ’09 China visit, Freybe-Smith says, “That tour was our first time playing the songs off of No Nations.  It was hard.  It’s so different rehearsing a song to suddenly playing it in front of people.  It’s a whole different world.” 

Since then, the band has performed the album—described by American industry guru Bob Lefsetz as a “throwback” to an era when songs were “mind-expanding”—at not only Bonnaroo, but U.S. festivals South by Southwest,    Coachella, and Sasquatch, as well as at Neil Young’s Bridge School Concert and the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Live at Yuyintang: 10:30 to Midnight

Beside the blue-trimmed doorway to Yuyintang’s stage, Jets’ bassist Jocelyn Greenwood glances out to the park spreading beyond the bar’s back patio.   Mistaken directions from Charmant have waylaid drummer Renshaw and two sound technicians, delaying start time.  Despite night replacing day, the heat is relentless; if anything Shanghai just feels hotter.  Karl and Max, Californian expats, wander in from outside to check the room; a crowd has gathered, and Greenwood assures them the show will begin soon.  Yuyintang, Karl explains, is one of about four Shanghai clubs that feature international alternative music, a scene which, in China, is “just starting to open up.”

Minutes later all five band members take their places on the small, spot-lit stage.  Each is dressed in black, the only exception a red pair of sneakers on Kittredge’s feet.  They open with ‘Sun, Sun, Sun’—a soaring rock anthem that permeates the room with lilting chorus vocals.  The audience—a mix of Chinese and foreigners, stands in concentration, heads tilted to the stage, absorbing thick layers of guitar, drums, keyboards, bass.  Sweat pours off of Kittredge’s face. 

“It’s so good to be back here,” he says.  “It’s just how I remember it—sweaty, with a lot of friendly faces.”

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Seoul Teaser, Eloquence Intro

 

Norebang with Leah and Peter, somewhere around 6 a.m...

Back from 48 hours in Seoul–my second trip to the city, and what a city it is.  The energy!  The crowds!  The art!  The hookah bar in Hongdae!  I saw silhouettes of flamingo wings at the Leesum Museum and danced to the beats of Laidback Luke at a club called Answer.  The weather was hot and the subway transfers long.  On Saturday night my partner in crime Leah and I rendezvoused with new pals Peter, Geoff, Devang, and a couple other after-dark prowlers, who coerced us into a norebang session that STARTED at 4 a.m.  (Trust me, I tried to protest.  Then I gave in and sang.) 

More Seoul deets and pics coming asap

But first: some of you may recall my mention of a Seoul-based magazine called Eloquence I started writing for earlier this summer.  And some of you have asked where you can read the articles.  So, in the three upcoming posts, each story will be featured in full.  I hope you enjoy…and to all of you in Korea, Happy Chuseok!

49 Minutes in Busan’s Museum of Modern Art

Back from my whirlwind one day, one night mission to Shanghai, where I caught up with Canadian band Jets Overhead on their 11-day China tour.  After performing the previous two nights at Expo’s Great Hall and America Square, they rocked the stage at Yuyintang bar, infusing the packed room with a whole lot of rich vocals and thick, layered grooves. This week I’m putting all the deets together for an upcoming story in Eloquence mag, currently titled “24 Hours in Shanghai with Jets Overhead.”  In the mornings I wake wishing I could sip coffee and write all afternoon, but the kids and the classes await, so more late-night sessions it is.  New posts to come after Saturday… 

In the meantime, if you’re in Busan (or planning to visit) and haven’t been here yet, you’ve gotta go.

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Though I suggest giving yourself a little more time than the mere 49 minutes I did. 

My recent intentions of a leisurely Sunday afternoon wandering the three-story, wood-floored, high-ceilinged expanse of modern works were foiled by a 3:30 a.m. U.S. vs Ghana World Cup game viewed the night before from a booth at a crowded bar in Seomyeong called Metal City.  I’d joined in a show of support for the usual suspects, my American friends Dianna, Bryan, and Leah, and since Korea lost to Uruguay earlier in the evening, I had a real itch to see a win.  The U.S. lost.  Ghana whooped them in overtime, and as we wandered defeatedly into the daylit alley around 6 a.m., I wondered if the museum was a Sunday dream I should forget.

But waking at 3:30 in the afternoon is no reason to feel the day has disappeared, right?  At least that’s what I decided.  Subway card in hand, I hopped onto line 1, transferred to 3, and then to 2, riding it all the way to the stop called “Busan Museum of Modern Art.”

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I had no idea what exhibition was showing, until I saw this sign…

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The front-desk man took a quick glance at the clock when I approached.  It was 5:11.  Entry, he said, would be free.  (This may be the first time arriving late for something has saved me money.)  The usual fee is only 700 won for adults, mind you (for my Canadian readers, that’s the equivalent of 60 cents), but still, there’s something mildy exuberant about a surprise waive of the passage of coin.

I had the place almost entirely to myself.  The floors were a light, warm wood.  The ceilings rose up higher than I could have hoped and in the middle, four metal-framed staircases stepped up and down, inviting me and my camera to venture.

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On the 2nd floor stood a single canvas painted blue…

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which reminded me of my friend Abbas Akhavan, an Iranian-Canadian artist who for years has hung a similar albeit much smaller work on the walls of his various bedrooms. 

Photographs of Japanese streets appeared through a doorway on the right…

 

and through another, figures in red…

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and a self-portrait of this man, from China, whose name was Datong DaZhang

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and who commited suicide in the year 2000, calling it his “last work of art.”

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Close by, images of a curious room hung…

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with a fitting title beside.

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And back on the first floor, “Conversion of Water, Body, and Earth” re-arranged the roomscape with 600 cans, water, and sand.

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Realizing I still had 10 minutes before closing time, I zipped up to the top floor, where “Big Candy from Grandma” by Ahn Tae Young appeared to burst from the walls…

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and Kim Do Hee’s  “Document for the beasts’ meeting” blared human-made animal sounds and expressions through four single-channel, wall-size videos.

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The final room showed shapes of an urban sensibility…

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and a figure and his shadow suspended.

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After, you can roam through the museum’s outdoor sculpture park and check out a collection of grey blocks carved with facial features, or the giant metal hand with what look likes a canon growing out of it. 

Or just lie down on a bench for a few minutes, gaze up through the leaves of thin-branched tree, and relax.  After all, it’s a museum.  No need to rush!

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You can still catch “Contemporary Art of China and Japan” this weekend: the exhibit runs until 6pm on Sunday, July 11, along with the Houei Collection, showcasing 100 modern works from Vietnam.  I recommend.

Note: Some of the pieces shown here are part of exhibits other than the two mentioned above. 

Busan Museum of Art Hours:

10 a.m.- 6 pm (Fridays 10 a.m.-8p.m.)  Closed Mondays

The Route: Take subway line 2 to the stop called “Busan Museum of Modern Art”, and follow the signs. (Two stops before Haeundae)  Enjoy!

Coco Shanghai

This is the kind of thing that really gets me stoked.

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Especially when it lets me into a country where a band like this awaits.

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Canadian Indie rockers Jets Overhead are currently powering through an 11-day, eight-show tour of China, kicking it off with three performances on the Expo 2010 stages.  The band will be blowing out Shanghai with a finale at a club called Yuyintang, where, following an early rise, two taxis, one plane, and a high speed train, I’ll be soaking up the melodies and taking notes for an upcoming feature in Eloquence Magazine.  

All this means I should have been asleep two hours ago.  Back Sunday…updates to come!