GWANGJU - Hwang Ji-hae, an environmental artist, said that if she were an alien looking at the Earth to find the most beautiful place, she would pick the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas.
Speaking in her studio in the southwestern city of Gwangju, Hwang, 35, explained how the strip of land that separates South and North Korea has all the conceptual qualities of a garden.
"It is a result of a war but now it serves to block war. It is a paradoxical place that contains both conflict and peace", she told The Korea Times.
Hwang was the gold-medal winner at the 2011 Chelsea Flower Show, one of the most prestigious horticultural events in the world hosted by the London-based Royal Horticultural Society every May. She turned a traditional Korean bathroom into a garden titled woo-so" (Emptying One's Mind), for the Artisan Garden section.
Hwang's recreation of the DMZ titled "Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden" will enter for the 2012 show. She chose the DMZ as her inspiration because its existence tells one of the most significant stories in the history of Korea.
"I started to search for the painful roots of our history and arrived at the demilitarized zone", she said. She then became fascinated by how the formation of the zone corresponds with that of an ordinary garden.
Created by human intentions, the DMZ fosters a number of organisms and serves as a quiet space that allows for reflection.
Her work will display three main features: a memorial chair, a guard post, and a wire fence. Together, they will create a garden that serves as a memorial site for the war and a showcase of the silent beauty of the unclaimed territory.
The memorial chair, which will be located at the entrance and decorated with military dog tags, was inspired by her meeting with the British Korean War Veterans Association in London. At The Guard Post, the visitors will be able to climb up and get a view of the garden, just like the soldiers of the two Koreas who look over the DMZ.
The wire barrier that divides the two Koreas will be transformed into a garden fence. Hwang will hang cans and bottles on the fence, inspired by how soldiers use sounds of empty cans to detect movement.
She will also gather handwritten letters from families separated by the Korean War (1950-1953) in January and plans to display them along the fence.
There are additional installments such as buttons that will pave a walkway in the garden, to represent the souls of the soldiers who fought in the war. In addition, she will install a stream to flow across the garden, delivering the message that even if humans have separated the country, they cannot stop water from flowing from a higher point to a lower one.
Hwang will also plant organisms only found in the DMZ. She explained there are various mutations and crossover breeds of plants between the northern and the southern biospheres. These unique plants will cover the fake land mines she will scatter across the garden, symbolizing the healing of the scars of war by nature.
Though garden art is not very popular in Korea, Hwang said it is very similar to other visual arts like painting and photography; she uses colors and shapes and creates a perspective to complete a work.
Hwang prefers somber and mysterious green hues over colorful flowers. So she occupies only twenty percent of her garden work with flowers to add colors other than green. Visual effects play a big role in garden art. Last year's "Hae-woo-so" appeared much bigger than its actual size because she incorporated an S-shaped path in the garden which has an enlarging effect. Similar to the use of perspective, Hwang can also generate depth by differentiating the elevation of various points of her space.
However, nature can give her a hard time. She said the most difficult part of building the garden for the Chelsea Flower Show is getting the plants to flower on time. "It requires a lot of techniques. We use a nursery, much like an incubator, to host the flowers at certain temperatures to time their blossoming", Hwang explained.
While the show only requires a viewing period of around five days, if one is to create a garden for someone to live in, the artist must consider time.
"It requires the artists to look ahead at least 10 years to plan the final picture. You must plant a tree and imagine how the branches will grow in time and build around it accordingly", she said.
Though she studied environmental arts, Hwang did not start with garden art. "I started out with painting murals which required an understanding of the surface, a wall. So I started building the walls themselves. Then I started creating an environment surrounding the walls".
Gardening, a process of intentionally taming and manipulating nature, hasn't been a significant part of Korean culture. But Hwang believes our dislike of anything unnatural, the seeming indifference, will be reflected in the beauty of a Korean garden.
Above all, she believes that garden can offer stillness and balance we need.
"If the Earth is to crumble today, I think it will be all in blocks of concrete", Hwang said on the need for incorporating nature into our daily lives.
By Noh Hyun-gi
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