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While researching for my residency project on climate change, I came across a dialogue between Emma Maris, environmental writer and reporter,  and Erle Ellis, Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems, in which they discuss a very thought-provoking question, “Is the Anthropocene…Beautiful?”

Because of the apocalyptic nature of my project, when I think of the Anthropocene, it’s hard not to be a curmudgeon. It’s hard not to dislike our species. But on the other hand, there is no question that our species can make beautiful things, although I suppose the notion of beauty is subjective.

I think back on Seoul43, which is the project that made me want to do this, my first intentionally environmental project. I remember the ones with physical evidence of Korea’s history—the eunuch cemetery, the fortress, the centuries-old temple. But these are human interventions that are seen through rose-colored glasses because of their age. As one who hiked past them all, I found it interesting to trek through these unwitting museums of a country’s past. If they were to be built today, perhaps they will be met with resistance. But because they are relics from the past, they are instead seen as something to be preserved. From personal experience, I found the centuries-old fortress on one mountain to be charming, but the modern apartment building on another to be jarring—the former contributed to my experience while the latter hindered it. I wonder if, centuries from now, if someone from the future encounters this present-day apartment and sees it as a relic of architecture?

Watch the video below:

Seoul43 has given me a lot of moments to reflect on the impact of humanity on nature. This, of course, was not my initial intention. I wanted to climb all these mountains as a personal challenge. A city with mountains—how wonderful! I still believe it is one of the reasons that I found Seoul to be a clean city, compared to the other capitals I have been to. Before Korea, I had hiked only one mountain in the Philippines. It was a disastrous and traumatic experience—I nearly fell off of the peak, slipped many times on our descent, and slowed everyone down. I was, in chemistry terms, our group’s limiting reagent.

44 - Bukhansan

My second intention was to get people to share my experience. This is why I brought the soil from these mountains so that people can plant with them and then bring them back. “Borrowing” instead of “taking” the soil was an important part. It has always been my view that no one is exempt from environmental responsibility, artists/scientists/explorers/designers included. The tasks I asked people to do were also deliberately chosen. I wanted to ensure that this project had some positive environmental and cultural impact.

What I didn’t expect, aside from the extreme fatigue, were my unique experiences for each mountain. Many pushed me to my limits, some nearly killed me, others were places I found so fascinating that I want to revisit them. A number disappointed me for their smallness (This is it? Really?) while others made me ask a lot of questions.

As these are mountains in a bustling capital, one thing I found consistent about them was human activity. If Seoul’s mountains were a system that ensured the coexistence of nature and humanity, then it was determined by these parts:

First, there were the modern city officials, or whoever governing bodies that mandated which trails should be open to the public and what was allowed to be done. They were the ones who permitted the landscaping and gardening of these mountains, who added trails, tennis courts, exercise machines, trail signs, and other things that make them “usable” to the public.

exercise ajumma - Ansan

Second, there were the citizens and tourists, both young and old, who use these mountains everyday. Hiking is an everyday activity for many Seoulites. Although I always hiked alone (which was a stupid idea, but I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to come with me), I was never really alone—there were always groups of ajusshi, ajumma, or young people who were also on the trails and giving me a hand. For the smaller mountains that served as neighborhood parks, it was the residents’ way of getting away from urban noise. Indeed, I could not help but think of these mountains as refuge in a city whose aging population is affected greatly by Korea’s rapid change.

lonely old man - Achasan

Finally, and no less importantly, are the people from Seoul’s past—the historical figures who added fortresses, cemeteries, and many a Buddhist temple to these mountains, turning them into rich canvasses that illustrate a city’s past and provide interesting questions as to how they fit into contemporary culture.

temple - Suraksan

The historical and cultural value that these manmade structures add undoubtedly “elevates” the status of a  mountain to something more than just a park. The exercise machines and other sports amenities added in recent years add utilitarian value for the citizens who make physical fitness a priority. These make me pause to think, because as a naturalist, one would balk at mankind altering nature, and yet, adding something of historical and utilitarian value perhaps encourages the city to preserve it better.

Because Korea is a very mountainous country and one that rapidly urbanized, I observed that: 1) Many mountains that used to be bigger have been “broken” into smaller ones because of apartment buildings, schools, etc. that found their homes in the lower areas, and 2) Some mountains seem to have all but disappeared because the buildings were right on top of them. Is it alright to do this to make room for city dwellers and businesses, as the country has so many? Indeed, as the official list I obtained from Korea’s Forest Service dates back to 2006-2007, I think that 43 will not be the number once they review the list once more. It will be interesting to see how the face of a city changes and how modernization affects these natural structures that are as old as time.

Originally posted on the Seoul43 site.

My friend Kate Kirkpatrick, who also serves as producer of my Seoul43 project, has been working making sure that its extension project, Pyeong Chang Mobile Garden, a piece currently in the 2013 Pyeong Chang Biennale, is finished. This weekend, she reported back to me (I’m currently in Manila in transit to my next project), with these photos.

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I smiled when I saw this photo with Pyeong Chang Biennale curators, Mr. Hyunchul Lee (left) and Mr. Yoonkee Kim (right), who helped finish the job. Kamsahamnida!

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View a previous post about the installation and another piece here.

For my Seoul43 project, where I hiked all the mountains in Seoul and borrowed soil samples from each mountain, the public was invited to plant using the mountain soil. Afterwards, people were invited to go on scavenger hunts to plant the soil back to the mountains of their choice. I have held two children’s workshops where participants planted using the soil, and together we went to a nearby mountain to do the scavenger hunt.

The scavenger hunt is designed to use small tasks that will promote positive hiking habits in the participants.

1. Greet and bow to the elderly.*
2. Give candy to fellow hikers.
3. Pick up trash.
4. Arrange fallen leaves or flowers into a sculpture.
5. Recite poetry.
6. Balance rocks.**
7. Use an exercise machine.
8. Write on a postcard.
9. Read official signs.
10. Plant!

* In South Korea, it is considered polite to bow to one’s elders.
** Many Korean mountains have Buddhist temples, and rock balancing is a common sight in and around them.

In addition, some people who previously learned about this project from my participation in the International Sculpture Festa in the Hangaram Art Museum at Seoul Arts Center this May signed up to participate. During the exhibition in the National Art Studio of Korea, they came to pick up a plant and hike a mountain. They told me the mountain they wished to hike, and I gave them their task list. Later, they will email me with documentation of what they did. Participants will be featured on the Seoul43 site with their permission.

The project website will be regularly updated, but here are some photos. If you are interested in doing a scavenger hunt even after this project is finished to join a community of city hikers here in Seoul, please email me at csgyoung[@]gmail[dot]com.

Hiking in Choansan:
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After greeting an elderly lady:
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Giving candy to fellow hikers:
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Rock balancing:
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Planting:
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Planting:
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Yesterday, this sweet couple came over to pick up a plant from my installation so they can plant it to Wausan, a mountain near the lady’s school.

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It’s lovely to be reminded why I did this project. Visit the Seoul43 site here. I’m still working on the text, but I’m glad the exhibition is done and I have no more mountains to climb. And eek! Look at the shelves on the right—lots of planting going on, eh?

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Yesterday, I hiked Dobongsan, my final mountain in Seoul. I have hiked a total of 154 km (~77 miles) in 60 hours. (Perhaps this is extreme fatigue talking, but I think that cloud looks like the Ghostbusters logo, don’t you? Something to Rorsketch.) I’ve hiked all 43 mountains (and then some) of this city for a project called Seoul43. Today, I present it in our group exhibition, “Seoul Seoul Seoul” at The National Art Studio of Korea in Changdong.

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On display is a multimedia interactive piece. The main parts are jars that contain soil samples from all the mountains I hiked, which were taken at the end of each hike at the bottom of the mountains. The table in the middle has shovels, mixing bowls, small outdoor plants, and other gardening equipment. Participants are invited to plant using any mixture of soil.  When they finish planting, they can place the paper cup containing the plant with the soil, now a mixture of soil from different mountains, on the shelves on the right. On the left is a video in both English and Korean that explains the project, and an iPad showing the website that contains more photos, information about the mountains, data from the hikes, etc.

Here is my friend Kate assembling the first plant, after helping me get the entire display finished in time for the opening:

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After the exhibition, I will invite people to go to the mountains on individual scavenger hunts to return both soil and plant to the mountains, and to do fun tasks while at it.

Although I am grateful to have finished all the treks with no mishaps whatsoever, this piece is far from over. My next step is to continue with the website to add the data I have gathered during my hikes, which was recorded by the MyTracks app. I will also have to design the scavenger hunts and get enough people to participate in them.

But that’s it for now. Our opening is in two hours, and tomorrow I plan on going to a jimjilbang (Korean sauna). Because dang it, my feet are killing me.

Oh, and I made another hopscotch board for the Mondrian Hopscotch series, this time with a Korean twist (the X in the middle is how they create their boards here):

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The link to the Seoul43 site is here.