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Hwang Chi Woo is heading the Korean delegation at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. He hopes that the exposure his country is getting in Europe will lead to a better understanding of Korea's 5000 year cultural tradition, in which feeling is more important than seeing.


Please touch!

Poet Hwang Chi Woo on the difference between Western and Korean understandings of beauty

Ten years ago, I looked at the dome in Florence for the first time and was overwhelmed by its grandiose splendour. Anyone looking at it must feel that way. The dome doesn't look like a stone building but like an inner harmony of perfect musical composition. What obsession drove the people of Trecento, who didn't even have enough to survive daily life, to build such a superb building? I teach at a Korean university, and refer to "Kultur der Renaissance in Italien" (English version) by Jacob Burckhardt and "Renaissance und Barock" by Heinrich Wölfflin, but still, I was overcome by emotion at the sight of so many monumental marble buildings in one city. I felt small, pathetic, weighted down. I left the Palazzo Pitti in a rush, feeling dizzy. What was that then?

Wherever you go in Europe, you encounter numerous buildings that appear to be totally convinced of their own significance. Whether in Barcelona, Paris, Berlin or Prague, they draw the observer's attention and demand admiration. These buildings seemed to me like great masters who, after finishing their work, take a step back, cross their arms and ask confidently: "Aren't you surprised?"

They demand unconditional praise. The Changkyong Palace, the south gate in Seoul and the Tempel Bulkuksa in Kyong-Chu go through my mind, all buildings that represent Korean culture. I compare Europe's and Korea's monuments and feel unwell.

Because South Korea is the honoured guest at the Book Fair in Frankfurt, many European journalists have come to Korea to research Korean writers and the country's culture. I help to connect them with the authors, find translators, rent cars. And they always ask, "How should one regard Korean culture?" To that I have to say: "You can't see Korean culture, you have to touch it." And I describe how pathetic I felt as I waded through European culture for the first time as a backpack tourist.

I visited Prague in 1999. It was actually Kafka that drew me there but the city, as seen from the Charles Bridge, seemed to be something unreal. It was beautiful, no question. Irritated, but at the same time impressed, I meandered through the narrow lanes and arrived by chance at a museum. There were all the instruments of torture that have been used in Europe since the Middle Ages, beautifully displayed, row on row. They looked like anatomical tools, constructed with great inventiveness and calculation, designed to subject the human body to the worst pain imaginable. As I left the museum, I had the feeling that I understood why Kafka had represented this city as a nightmare. Of course the wonderful Charles Bridge and the stately castle have no direct connection to the instruments of torture. But everywhere in the world, power hides behind beauty and horror lurks in the shadows of monuments. I was unexpectedly reassured by recalling Walter Benjamin's saying: "the assets of culture are not only a document of culture without being at the same time a document of barbarity".

If you consider Korean cultural buildings using European aesthetic categories like "the beautiful" or "the sublime", you won't be able to comprehend them, because they are inconspicuous and look almost squalid. They are simple in design and form, modest in size and proportion and unspectacular in their colour. Monumentality, grandeur, and attention to detail are not characteristics of Korean architecture. It is better described with the term "gozol", which means "inconspicuous, plain, simple and modest but also elegant and gracious". Koreans didn't build pyramids, nor the Great Wall of China, nor the Dome in Florence. They have not erected anything like the stately and commanding defensive castles of the Japanese. Let us recall Benjamin's saying. Korean culture insists that the absence of European artistic characteristics be viewed positively. There's a difference between a culture that can't afford something and one that doesn't want something and therefore tries to avoid it.

The rooms of the Palazzo Pitti are full of Renaissance masterpieces and Baroque paintings by the likes of Raffael and Rubens, which I only knew from books. The decor in the inner rooms is majestic; the brilliantly coloured frescoes on the ceilings look down on the visitor. Nothing is left to chance, everything is planned and decorated, right down to the last detail. At the same time, each of the many paintings demands all your attention. I was so overwhelmed, I thought I might have to throw up. It was a new, unfamiliar feeling for me and it took me utterly by surprise. Because there I was, beholding works of art that represent the height of human culture, that I had been longing to see forever. Why I reacted so strongly must have something to do with a Korean cultural pattern that I have internalised, consciously or not, that is awake and responsive in me.

Korean architecture is more an object of touch than of visual perception, which is why Korean buildings – unlike the castles or old European cities, which were built into the heights – do not look commanding or impressive from a distance. Traditional Korean houses are built in inconspicuous places and in dimensions that are intended to correspond to the human body. Koreans are more likely to sit or lie on a floor, which Europeans walk on with their shoes. The buildings come into contact with the body in a much more intense way and therefore there are parallels between them. As a whole, they seem to be kept upright, to be carried by the breath of the people that live inside them. A traditional Korean house breathes in a very natural way. Air passes in and out through the door which is covered with rice paper and the loam walls. They are built without any nails, from wood and loam alone, they decay slowly and, after a few generations, return to nature, like the human body. The form, however, remains unchanged and the wood and earth finds life anew.

Buildings in Korea – whether they be palaces, institutions or aristocratic homes – are not spectacular in size. Koreans used to believe that big buildings made their inhabitants ill. Traditionally, one took the average size of a person as a point of reference and used dimensions that corresponded to this. Today, one wonders at the smallness of the rooms in the old houses of Korean aristocrats. It seems that they adopted a very particular world-view: they took a step back, reduced the space they occupied in order to make the outside world larger. Monumentality remains foreign to Korean architecture.

It is often said that architecture is art's womb. When one considers the patterns that repeat themselves in Korean architecture, one notes that a particularly Korean ideal of beauty is unconsciously at work. It is also to be found in painting, music and poetry. Art should serve to empty out content and draw silence into the void. Such art possesses a certain incompletion and openness, and this is the link between architecture on the one hand and poetry and painting on the other. In their houses, Koreans do not aspire to great detail, too much consistency, too perfect proportions, excessive ornamentation or luxury. They prefer things that look awkward and unfinished, that are not smooth to the touch, but rather a bit coarse, raw and dry; colours that are not oily and shiny but matt. The terms "simplicity" and "grace" characterise Korean aesthetics, and these distinguish Korean from Japanese or Chinese art.

In the European consciousness, Korea is a far away, unknown country on the eastern edge of Asia. It falls in the shadow of China and Japan. But it's a country with a culture of 5,000 years. Koreans have reflected on life in their own language and looked at the world through their own lenses and they still do today. Korean culture, which cannot be adequately understood with European aesthetic categories, hopes to be understood by Europeans as something unto itself and calls out: "Don't look, please touch!" The Book Fair will play the role of a telescope that zooms into Korean culture, enlarges it, makes it visible. Will that make it touchable?


Hwang Chi Woo, born in 1952, published his first poems in 1980. He teaches at the Korean Academy of the Arts in Seoul and is director of the Korean presence at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

This article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on October 15, 2005.

Translation: nb - let's talk european