Koen Taselaar in Seoul

Back in Rotterdam we talked to visual artist Koen Taselaar about his residency at MMCA Changdong in Korea, where he had the opportunity to stay from April till July 2018. We had a chat with him about the visual impact of Seoul, daily life in Korea and cultural differences between Korean and Dutch people. This interview is accompanied by a range of images that Koen Taselaar took during his many explorations around the city. His residency at MMCA is made possible by Mondrian Fund.

Welcome home Koen! Are there things you will miss from your time in Seoul?
Thank you! There will be quite a few things I think I am going to miss. Of course the feeling of being in a new city where you have the time to explore everything gives a fantastic energy and excitement.

The art and graphic design scene also felt very open and exciting. Maybe especially the graphic design. I’m speaking as a visitor of course, but it felt like there was a lot of formal experiment in communication of the art institutions, which was interesting to see. During my stay I made many friends and plans for future collaborations so it really felt as things were happening and it was strange to leave so sudden.

I will really miss the mountains in particular. I am very used to the flatness of the Netherlands and being in a city surrounded by mountains is fantastic. I climbed many of them. And of course the food is something I am missing a lot, especially at this moment since I am quite hungry. 

In the summer of 2017 you already travelled to Korea to visit your wife – half of Team Thursday – who also participated in a residency at MMCA back then. What made you decide to return to Seoul and participate in a residency yourself?

Simone had a fantastic time in Seoul last year and she had the opportunity to work on some nice projects. So going back was something we kept talking and fantasizing about. 

When the open call of the Mondrian Fund came around I wrote an application and a working plan of what I wanted to do in Seoul. Having been there before helped me a lot to get an idea about what was possible and what I wanted to do there. I’ve been on residencies before (at EKWC Oisterwijk and CARF Calcutta) and one of the things I really like about it, is the feeling of being ‘dropped’ in an environment, having to react on it ‘in situ’. I don’t prepare too much or make strict plans for myself – I like to see what happens. Also, for me going on a residency is not necessarily about leaving The Netherlands, but about visiting a certain place. I want to have a specific interest in the place I’m visiting.

In my work, one of the things I am very interested in is when letters start to become more abstracted images. The Korean script, Hangul, is very pictorial and Korean graphic design is very bold and heavy on the use of cartoonish characters. I am not able to read Hangul without the use of the Google translate app. So most of the time I had to focus purely on the visual information the city gave me. With this strong interest in the daily visual culture of Korea, I made many explorations, walking around and interacting with the city. This shows in the works I have been making during the residency.

To give you an example, the drawing Imaginary Band #199 Soomin and Hoon that is showing at Mini Galerie right now, spells out the Korean names of me and Simone. We were on a night out with friends, talking about the English names that many Koreans take on when studying abroad. Then the conversation turned into a name game where our friends decided to give us Korean names instead.

Following your Instagram account and your blog Kuhnothercellar you have taken lots of images during your stay in Seoul while walking around town. How did you go about getting to know the city? What was your day-to-day routine? And what inspired you the most?

The climate in Korea is quite intense, the summers are really, really warm and when it rains it would rain the whole day. So when I had the chance I would go out exploring some part of the city or one of the surrounding cities and see what would happen. I was sleeping at my studio so almost all the time when I was home I would be working or looking at what I was working on. That was actually an interesting combination for at the time. Going out to not work.

Also I have a horrible sense of direction so I always get lost, and that’s fine because in this way I ended up in new places. For me that was a really good way to learn about the city and find places that were interesting for me. Like the ‘verzamelgebouwen’; greyish buildings that host many different shops over a number of floors. Each shop has really bold advertising on the outside, I really enjoyed the visual anarchy of these buildings. So I would be looking for things like that. 

When I just arrived I bought a skateboard to get around. Skateboarding in Seoul was a fantastic way to see the city. I always enjoy searching for skate spots since it gives me a reason to look for benches / places in a certain way, slopes in front of a building or a metal strip on the outside of a curb. Making places that would seem a bit boring very interesting. And giving me a reason to go exploring everywhere.

Compared to your first visit to Seoul, did your perception of Korean culture change during this longer stay in the city? And what did you feel as the biggest cultural differences between Dutch and Korean people?

Very generally speaking one of the biggest differences is that in Korea being polite is very highly regarded while the Dutch are quite proud of there directness in communication. It took me some time to notice that when I say ‘maybe’, I mean ‘maybe, probably yes’ and when a Korean person says ‘maybe’ they mean ‘no’.

What really surprised me is how many jokes people were making all the time. Quite different from the stereotype most media show from the country, which focus more on the political situation, high work stress, plastic surgery and things like that. 

Many people told me my sense of humour was that of a typical old Korean man, which I’m still not sure was meant as a compliment.

At MMCA you have created a large neon sign titled Toen Kaselaar, which will be on show in your upcoming overview exhibition at Roodkapje in Rotterdam. How did this work come about?

Sadly enough the work is broken, a friend of mine was helping me carry everything to my studio and tripped while walking on the stairs with the neon sign.

Actually it’s the title of the exhibition that just opened at Roodkapje in Rotterdam. It’s a solo exhibition and in my work playing with words and language are quite important ingredients. So calling it Toen Kaselaar seemed very fitting.

While in The Netherlands neon is a very much specialised and expensive craft, in Seoul there are still many neon signs and neon sign makers, especially in the Euljiro 3 neighbourhood – the ‘makers neighbourhood’. So I visited a few with some Korean friends to help with translation and a couple of days later the sign was finished. That was very fitting with one of the first words I learned ‘Pali Pali’ meaning ‘quick quick’. It was unbelievable for me how quick things can be made in Korea. 

The ‘Imaginary Band’ drawings that you presented in your latest solo exhibition Tofu Feelings at Mini Galerie were created during your summer stay in Seoul in 2017. During your residency at the MMCA you have made a new set of drawings. How do they relate to the first set drawings created in Seoul?

Not that much actually, its an ongoing series that slowly transforms. I see the Imaginary Band drawings as a format to think and work with ideas or imagery that I am interested in. As a first step, almost a ‘sketch’, that I might continue working on and create new works from. 

With every new drawing I’m trying to make an image I haven’t made before. The fact that the drawings are quite labour intensive makes it a very good way to think while moving my hands at the same time. When in Seoul there were good moments to reflect on the city and my dwellings in it, while drawing. It’s sometimes almost quite meditative, in Dutch I would call it ‘niet zweverig zen’. 

Is there anything else you would like to share with us about your stay in Seoul?

I am from Rotterdam and to me Seoul feels like the Rotterdam of East Asia. Not the most pretty city to look at and a city that needs some exploring before I started appreciating it. But when I was there for a bit longer time people were very friendly and open to newcomers. And there seems to be a lot of space for new ideas and experiments. I imagine it can be a tough city to live in permanently but in the four months I was there I really fell a bit in love with it.

Do you have any plans to go back to Seoul, participate in another residency or travel to another part of the world?

Nothing concrete, I have some things coming up the next coming months here in the Netherlands first. This september there is a group exhibition about drawing at Boan1942. But I would really like to go back since it feels a little bit like a second home.

Photography by Koen Taselaar