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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Border Pong: A Trip to the DMZ

"In Front of Them All"  -- guards at the DMZ
There's something ridiculous about ping-pong, even when it’s played by Olympic athletes; all that skill and training employed in paddling a weightless, worthless plastic ball across a toy tennis court.  At this year’s Gwangju Biennale, visitors were invited to play ping-pong on stainless steel tables in the courtyard, with double dividers for nets, installed by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.   The table tops were polished to a mirror-like sheen, so that players could see themselves and their surroundings as they jumped around, whacking the ball at friends, relatives or strangers across the divide.    

It felt ridiculous, in a fun way.  But it was also a symbol of Korea today – where armies face off across a barrier that divides a homogeneous nation into two hostile camps, trading shots and threats in a game that has no meaning or raison d’etre outside of politics.   Inspired by the exhibit, a few days later we took a bus from Seoul 50 miles to the border, for a guided tour of the DMZ.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Christie and the KTX

-- by Tom Phillips

Traveling in Korea last week we took a ride on the KTX, the new high-speed rail service that carries more than 100 thousand passengers a day all over South Korea.   We rode from Mokpo at the southern tip of the country to Seoul, nearly 200 miles, in just over three hours.  There were no hitches, no delays, barely a rattle at speeds up to 175 miles an hour.  Best of all it was eminently affordable – less than 40 dollars one-way.  And the service is reliable:  KTX actually offers full refunds for any train that’s more than one hour late.   Naturally, I found myself wondering why we can’t do this in America. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Gangnam Style and Gwangju Biennale: Subversive Art in Korea

By Tom Phillips

Art and protest are inseparable at the Gwangju Biennale, a unique and celebrated arts festival in South Korea.  It commemorates the Gwangju  Uprising of 1980, when students here led a revolt against a military coup.  The uprising ended with a military crackdown and the massacre of hundreds of civilians.  But it did not end the movement for democracy, which culminated in 1997 with the election of the once-imprisoned opposition leader, Kim Dae-Jung. 

The Ninth Biennale now underway in Gwangju is a playful, audience-friendly show that sprawls through five huge galleries and spills out into the courtyard, where passersby are invited to play ping-pong on 14 stainless steel tables with mirror-like surfaces.  The exhibition has many themes, but running through all of them is the subversion of power.  The purpose of art here is to undermine all forms of oppression, and it does this best through the subtle, irresistible force of entertainment.