Images from an Invisible City

Rosemarie Zens took on a considerable task when she set out to walk through the streets of Seoul with her camera. Of the world’s ravaged cities – and there is certainly no lack of them in Asia – Seoul has been affected the most visibly. The fire storm of the Korean War swept across the city three times. Until that war broke out, Seoul had been a city of wood, its sumptuous houses resembling well-built galleys, their sweeping roofs spreading out giant wings as though they were about to take off and fly away with the buildings beneath them. They almost seemed to turn into wonderfully creaking ships of the air. Seoul is situated near a wide river among hills. Its roofs, great and small and covered with black majolica tiles, used to be huddled together in an organic crush of many forms, a dense herd, and yet each an island unto itself spread protectively over hidden life. Old scroll paintings with their suggestive brush movements illuminate the magic of such cityscapes. The virtuoso reduction to the essential line in those ink drawings conjures up the soft shadows in the room where the artist would sit on the floor with his ritual equipment – the vase for the brushes, the tea pot, the surface for grinding the pigment, the tiny vessel for the droplets of water for mixing the ink – bent in meditation over the rice paper. Fire storms turned the old Seoul to ash. Nothing old any more in this city – or rather, nothing has been here for more than twenty years.

The imperial palaces are the most recent, exquisitely hand-worked reconstructions, standing strangely without foundations, bare and frosty on wide lawns. Around them tower high-rise buildings, provisionally stacked together like pallets of aluminium tins in some great warehouse. Here is nothing that is picturesque, nothing with a patina, nothing with a story, nothing whose form says anything about the uniqueness of Korea. This is dead material. The Koreans have used the empty spaces left to them by the war like a wiped blackboard to build a world radically different from the one that was destroyed. They have assembled houses without qualities from prefabricated parts, an architecture of unattractiveness, covered from top to bottom with pictures. The wall of a high-rise is primarily a canvas for images, immobile and moving. A goldfish far larger than a whale swimming among delicious-looking, bright green water plants, a skiing race sending up a spray of powder snow, faces of politicians sweep by, smiling in dark suits, with red carpet glowing at their feet. Scraps without context, as though the high-rises were restlessly slumbering, unable to find the strength for a coherent dream. Part of what has always defined images is the material from which they are made. They live from the materiality of the wooden board, the paper, the canvas, the pigments and inks, the pencils, chalks and oil paints. These images on Seoul’s high-rises have liberated themselves completely from the material that bears them. They are purely incorporeal, mirages in whose creation no fata morgana had even the slightest part. The reflection of a rainbow shine on an oily puddle possesses more corporeality than these shining, ultra-visible images. They triumph over the low-quality concrete boxes on which they dance. The void of their nothingness is testimony to a new stage of civilisation that comprehends body and spirit only as numerical values. These images can go around the world at the speed of light while the high-rises have to stay behind like empty soup tins, decaying to artefacts even while they are in use.

One can sense from Rosemarie Zens’ photographs that she has observed the city as a wall climber studies a smooth wall, for the slightest unevennesses and projections that could provide a hold. However the eye struggles with the slippery surface. The insubstantiality distilled from the catastrophe of history, paradoxically provides protection against more catastrophes. As such it is complete. Almost – but then there is a trace of human existence after all, that has managed to overcome the seemingly unsurmountable wall between historical epochs, between before the war and after the war. In this age-old, brand-new city the coldest of featureless environments the photographs of Rosemarie Zens reveal it in a group of big, bulky clay pots with green glaze. The Koreans have given up so much of their traditional lives, but there is one thing they cling to resolutely and that might resist the country’s almost suffocating dependency on technology: that is food. To this, the core of human existence and particularly to the Korean cuisine that is so completely typical and unlike any other cuisine, and in which these green-glazed vats play such a major role. In these pots Kimchi, sauerkraut seasoned with garlic and chilli, is matured. It impregnates the Korean palate from earliest youth so that nothing other than Korean food will ever taste good to it again. The Korean tradition has retreated to the kind of stimuli that only the taste buds can have access to. In the midst of a concrete waste land lacking all sensuousness, here are these green-glazed taste bombs which contain the means to ignite the senses. Just as these pictures by Rosemarie Zens, frozen, so to speak, and only infrequently inhabited by human beings, sublate and bear the encapsulated heart of the quintessence of a Korea that lives on.


© Martin Mosebach, in: Rosemarie Zens, Hidden Patterns, Berlin 2011

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