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Saturday, September 18, 2010

500 Generals Gallery

Sept. 18 (Jeju Weekly) A passing rainstorm at the commencement of opening celebrations for the Obaekjanggun (500 Generals) Gallery on Sept. 9 failed to dampen spirits. Members of the traditional Folk Culture Group from the Seoul Institute of the Arts had a wet start to the day of entertainment but the skies quickly cleared, allowing guests to enjoy the Bongsan mask dance and a white tiger mask dance in comfort before the official speeches.

The gallery is the latest stage to open at Jeju Stone Park, an ecological culture park on more than 300 hectares of land at Gyorae-ri in Jocheon. The park’s main theme is based on the legend of Seolmundae Halmang, the giant goddess credited with creating Jeju Island, and her sons, known in local mythology as the 500 generals.

One legend of Seolmundae Halmang tells that when her sons were out hunting, she made a cauldron of soup for their return but accidentally fell into the pot and died. The sons, oblivious to this, returned hungry and ate the soup, only realizing when the youngest son saw her bones at the bottom of the pot that they had eaten their own mother.

He wept bitterly and went to the west of Jeju where he turned into a solitary stone just off the coast known as Oedeolgae, or the Lone Stone. The other brothers also turned to stone on Mt. Halla and formed rock columns on Halla’s Yeongsil Trail called the Obaekjanggun. It is for them that the gallery is named.

Park founder and director Baek Un Chol first learned the legend more than 40 years ago and it has remained with him throughout his education, military service on Korea’s mainland and his return to Jeju. He said Jeju Stone Park had taken 40 years for him to conceive but he felt it had been part of him from a previous life. “I believe I was born for this project,” he said. “My entire life and Jeju Stone Park has been dedicated to actualizing this myth in concrete form.”

Construction of the gallery began in July 2006 and has cost more than 18 billion won. (Financing for the park has come equally from the national and Jeju provincial governments, Baek said.) The three-story building has an area of 6,830 square meters (larger than an American football field) and includes space for permanent and temporary exhibitions, a state-of-the-art performance hall and a cafeteria.

Jeju Stone Park has been created using five primary materials – stone, soil, trees, iron and water – and these are also the themes of the permanent and inaugural exhibitions. The permanent exhibition comprises the roots and remnants of Jeju’s Jorok tree, which Baek said is unique because it burns at very high temperatures and only grows at altitudes higher than 700 meters above sea level. Trees are also the origin of Lee Eun Hee’s preferred material.

The Jeju-born artist uses paper to create her works, and said the theme of her exhibition in the Obaek-janggun Gallery is “the co-existence of human beings going back to our origins.” Her pieces illustrate a cycle of rebirth merging into deep forest imagery, before humankind leaves the forest to go to heaven. “My mindset during the creation of these artworks was the desperate devotion contained within the Seolmun-dae Halmang myth,” she said.

Kang Tae Kil’s exhibit represents stone in a series of photographs of Jeju. The artist settled on the island in 1986 and writes that photographing the stones, hills (oreum) and forests of Jeju was “a process of finding out the layers of my life.” Media artist Kim Hyung Soo portrays water in projected images of the sea, running water, carp and dance movements, both in video and computer graphics. Lee Seung Soo’s material and theme is iron but his subject matter also embraces the importance of the sea to Jeju life. A bronze sculpture of a haenyeo (diving woman) stands on a stone in one corner of the room as iron mesh sculptures of her colleagues hang suspended from the ceiling, appearing to swim through the space. Ko Won Jong’s ceramic pieces complete the thematic quintet, as the artist uses soil, in this case clay, as his medium.

Despite Jeju Stone Park’s firm place on the tour map of the island, director Baek is adamant that it is not a tourist attraction. “The main purpose of this park is to preserve and display Jeju’s traditional culture and hand it down to descendants,” he said. “People cannot move forward without knowing their history or their culture. In order for Korea to move forward, there is a need for us to understand our culture and history.” The gallery is an important part of this process, he said, and is the only such venue on the east side of the Jeju Island.

Still to be built at Jeju Stone Park, Baek said, is the Seolmundae Halmang Auditorium, for which construction is tentatively scheduled to begin next year and be completed in 2020. That is also the year that Baek’s contract to oversee the park will end, but he has no intention of leaving. “I plan to work as a janitor here after that,” he said. “I will die here.”


  1. Great article. I met Mr Baek myself in May this year, but my interpreter wasn't being too helpful. Your article has helped me make sense of my scrawled notes!

  2. Thank you! He is an amazing man