Transforming a Desolate Marketplace through Art

By Jung-Min Shin

An “alternative exhibition space” is an unconventional venue that publicly displays artwork – it could be a warehouse, a store front, or in the case of the STONE&WATER exhibitions, a nearly abandoned marketplace. It represents a rebellion against the stereotype that art belongs to white cubicle-shaped galleries, transforming places which are typically unrelated to art into a platform for vibrant creativity and cultural engagement.

While “alternative spaces” have been popular in the United States since the 1970s, they have only gained attention in South Korea during the last decade or so. Initially, these venues were sought out by young South Korean artists who lacked the resources and reputation to display their work at well-established galleries. Recently, however, they have been used as a tool to breathe life back into bleak, deserted spaces, such as the Seoksu Marketplace in Anyang, South Korea.

Seoksu Market was established in 1979 as part of a government initiative to encourage development and economic activity in less populated parts of Anyang. It began as a wholesale produce market that consisted of 120 stores, but it downsized after failing to attract enough customers due to competition with corporate retailers and supermarkets. By 2000, only 30 stores remained in the market, and a strong odor of desolation pervaded the place.

Interestingly, however, things began to change at Seoksu Market with the entrance of a non-profit arts organization directed by Park Chan-eung in 2002. Park, an established South Korean artist who grew up in Anyang himself, recruited his colleagues and younger artists to join him in the transforming the abandoned commerce spot. Calling themselves “STONE&WATER,” the literal meaning of the market’s name, this motivated group of artists aimed to increase public access to art and discover creativity in the ordinary and mundane. To do so, STONE&WATER began by taking up several store spaces and changing them to showcase and work spaces. Its very first exhibition was the “Living Furniture & Public Furniture” show, in which the organization redesigned the interior of a store to a home-like setting that displayed a conglomeration of everyday objects made by artists, such as spoons, bookshelves, and clothes hangers. Since this initiative, STONE&WATER has hosted major public exhibitions on an annual basis, naming the series the “Seoksu Art Project (SAP).” Most recently, SAP focused on the theme of the “Black Market,” in which artists acted as vendors for their own works in a flea market setting.

Besides the SAP, STONE&WATER holds art workshops and educational programs for the local community and facilitates an international artist residency program on a routinely basis. It runs a year-round meeting and workshop space called “Babgeuleut” (rice bowl in Korean), the main avenue through which artists and locals interact with each other. Here, the arts organization invites experts in the arts and humanities fields to hold lectures, operates a mini radio station where locals can run their own broadcasts, and offers various conveniences to nearby merchants, such as electric massagers. As for the residency program, STONE&WATER hosts artists from all over the world to live in Anyang and utilize its exhibition and work spaces, offering them opportunities to partake in the SAP. Artists from various countries, such as Germany, Bangladesh, and New Zealand, as well as diverse fields, like performance art, photography, and craft, have participated in the program.

While initially skeptical of the successfulness and profitability of STONE&WATER’s projects, the Anyang local community is not only the biggest audience for the organization’s endeavors but also its firm supporters today. The activities of STONE&WATER over the last dozen-years have allowed the market to gather increasingly more visitors and media attention, reviving its sense of presence in the city. Slowly but steadily, Seoksu Market has become one of the most unique alternative art spaces in South Korea, and it offers great possibilities for creative developments in the future as well.

Notably, this genuine and powerful renewal of the Seoksu Market would not have been possible if not for STONE&WATER’s long-term dedication to the area. Unlike “guerilla artists,” who exhibit their work on a pop-up basis, moving from one space to the next, STONE&WATER has invested in a single community for over a decade to inspire true transformation. The organization presents art that befits and blends in with the place it inhabits, instead of constructing a temporary show that would soon be forgotten. Given its success so far in attracting both visitors and artists,

STONE&WATER’s more sustainable, long-term goal driven approach seems fruitful. Perhaps, then, more arts organizations should follow in its footsteps in exploring the artistic potential of the most unusual, neglected places, an approach that truly embodies the rebellion against the conventional definition of exhibition venues.

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