Photographer Seunggu Kim captures artificial ‘mountains’ of Seoul

Written by Stella Ko, CNN

Plush green pine trees are heavily planted on rocky hills outside an apartment building rising in Seoul. They look like South Korea’s famous Dodamsambong Hills, but only part of its size.

This beautification trend, known as “Jingyeong sansu”, aims to recreate the country’s most famous mountains – on a much smaller scale – outside luxury apartment complexes and private villas.

Artificial mountains were built by real estate developers hoping to improve the feng shui and market value of buildings. Some residents also believe that they bring the healing power of nature to their front doors.

Seoul based photographer Seunggu Kim Since then, he has visited nearly 30 apartment complexes, equipped with majestic rock gardens and tree-covered hills.
The rocky structure resembles South Korea's famous Dodamsambong Hills, but part of its size.

The rocky structure resembles South Korea’s famous Dodamsambong Hills, but part of its size. Credit: Seunggu Kim

Kim, who spent his 20s working on construction sites, was among the first to witness the process of producing the best known mountains of the country, which lasted for months.

Workers first build a basic Styrofoam formwork fixed on or around the apartment block. Then they cover with soil before planting flowers and trees.

Structures are often accompanied by engravings that describe the positive energy that each mountain is thought to bring to the peace of mind from fertility and willingness.

“I realized that this is not just an artificial sight, but a new environment that combines tradition and philosophy.” “It’s interesting to see how capitalist it is.”

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The exaggerated price tag of the mountains – up to $ 2 million for a design up to 20 meters – means that they are often found in luxury apartment complexes. Only high-quality materials are used, including expensive rocks and bonsai, and each mountain is protected by a team of experts.

Unique Korean

The mountains cover about 70% of the Korean peninsula and are an integral part of Korean identity. The legendary story of Korea’s founding begins in the Taebaek mountain range.

According to the Korean legend, Hwan-ung descended from heaven and approached with a bear who wanted to become a woman. Hwan-ung told the bear to eat garlic and herbs for 100 days in a cave. He worked and the bear woman later married Hwan-ung and gave birth to Dangun, who founded the kingdom in 2333 BC.

While many saw the legend as a legend, North Korean archaeologists claimed that they found Dangun’s grave at the foot of Taebaek mountain near the North Korean capital Pyongyang and built a shrine at the facility. 1994 to respect him.

Today, it is believed that the mountains on both sides of the border between North and South Korea bring luck and fortune. Both countries celebrate Korea’s foundation every day on October 3 – the day when the skies open to Hwan-ung.

Kim said, “There is a positive and shamanistic belief in the mountains in Korea, so it’s like compressing it and bringing it back to a city where nature is lacking.” Said. “My job is to explore the sights of Korea that still exist in modern society.”

Some of the more popular designs are Seorak Mountain in Taebaek mountain range of Gangwon province and Jeju Island Halla, the country’s highest mountain.

Mount Kumgang in North Korea is also popular because South Korean tourists have been unable to visit the real thing since 2008 due to political tensions.

Return to nature

The popularity of artificial landscapes shows that residents try to strengthen their ties with nature after decades of rapid urbanization. According to Curator Haeni Park, this reconnection attempt that Kim intends to capture in his photographs.

“Thanks to his work, Kim reveals the understanding of people in cities who can be quite gloomy about the reality of our society, in which for a moment, they are actually coincidental with colorful artificial structures. Statement Kim’s 2015 exhibition for “Landscapes List”.

Kim (fake mountains) represents an alternative sight that city dwellers should accept. Credit: Seunggu Kim

For whom, this simulation of nature is very surprising given the country’s topographic limitations.

“South Korea has developed a compressed scrap culture because we have a relatively good amount of resources but not enough time and space to spend (them),” Kim said. “(Fake mountains) represent an alternative sight that city dwellers should accept.”

Find joy

Kim photographed the same structures for many years to observe seasonal changes in their shape and color. Initially, he saw the “kitsch” landscape design as one of the signs of rapid economic growth in South Korea. But since then he has grown to appreciate the beauty of the mountains and the “healing” effect they have.

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“Sometimes when I photograph the fake hills outside, the old residents come to me and proudly explain the importance of the mountain as if it were real and what they have,” the photographer recalled. “I found this sense of ownership very unique.”

Kim said that today people have to find alternative ways to enjoy nature and relax. He calls it “ready-made culture,” and is the broader theme of lifelong attempts by South Korean citizens to address their “relentless desire to find joy in the most difficult times.”

His other series, which continues to live in the cities of South Korea, includes footage of a man walking his dog next to a flooded park and citizens trying to cling to leisure areas such as cramped swimming. pool in the middle.

In 2016, Kim photographed a packaged swimming pool on the city's bank of the Han river.

In 2016, Kim photographed a packaged swimming pool on the city’s bank of the Han river. Credit: Seunggu Kim

Kim sees herself as an observer or recorder rather than an artist. He hopes that his photographs will provide a realistic depiction of South Korea’s capitalist society.

“I want to reveal the identity of modern Korea – an ironic, optimistic and cheerful Korean society and its distorted consumer culture.”

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