November 5, 2018
Dr Penny Burnett representing Tasmania in the inaugural Arts Tasmania Jeju International Residency Program
link to press release below
Impressions and experiences… Jeju 27/9/18
It’s a big ask in some ways to articulate so early what the experience is like of being immersed into a totally different place, climate, cuisine, toilets, language and different expectations. Disorientating obviously, but after a while you begin to see it’s also same- same… but different.
Jeju is a tiny island (1,845.60 km2) in comparison to Tasmanian (68,401 km2) but it is crammed full of amazing and diverse nature. It has a site-specific and rich culture with a deeply mythological origin, coinciding with a more recent 20th-Century traumatic and transformative history. I found the people (and of course I generalise) to be resilient, hard working, gentle and generous. Central to the island as well as central to the culture is Mount Hallasan. At I,950 meters above sea level Mount Hallasan is the highest of Korea’s three “Soul Mountains”. Mount Hallasan is visible from all aspects of the island, a dominating presence and influence.
The residency caused me to reconsider the concept of what constitutes natural or indigenous to place, versus what is exotic, and how that difference is determined. In Jeju I focussed on the many gardens and nature trails, and underpinning this is the volcanic origins and structure of the island. It’s been strange to walk on mountain trails that are hemmed with hydrangeas and royal azaleas which give the appearance to be more like parklands than a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. This is because my measure of natural and exotic is founded is Tasmania not Korea. Here I’m the outsider, and my perception is limited and dare I say superficial. It’s only when I dig a little deeper I found that these natural cycles, such as the deep-red royal azaleas blanketing Mt Hallasan, are key to understanding the local culture and people.
Once upon a time there lived Seolmundae Halmang, a huge creation goddess of unimaginable strength. This mystical grandmother shovelled huge mounds of earth and in only seven tosses of her shovel created Mt. Halla. Jeju’s 368 oreum were formed with the dirt that fell through her tattered skirt.
Seolmundae Halmang had 500 sons and one day, while all her sons were out hunting, she accidentally fell into a gigantic pot of soup she was making to feed her family. When the sons returned home, they hurriedly ate the soup, not knowing what had happened to their mother. Upon realising they had eaten her, they cried bitter tears of grief and were petrified into rock. Their blood and tears imbues the deep red of the blooming royal azaleas every spring.
This is just one of the many layers of understanding of place I’m just catching a glimpse of. The depth of connection with Jeju as a Place is not one I can grasp in 6 weeks. The other artists in the residency program, who became my home away from home family, are all there for a minimum of 3 months, most are there for 6 months, and IAa’s first residency program was a full year. I can understand now the need for that quantity of time, yet time is a privileged and costly investment.
In Jeju I am constantly reminded that I’m the outsider, every time I ordered a meal it’s a new adventure, I point to symbols on a wall, hopefully in my price range. Something sizzling is usually brought out 10 minutes later accompanied with soybean paste, kimchi, maybe a clear soup, seaweed, salty dried little fish, chillies and raw onion.
I still have very limited understanding but my initial feeling or impression is that there is a slow burning optimism weathered with sorrow and great appreciation of nature here. The environment and caring for the island is a high priority for the Jeju Special Self-Governing Provence. The rubbish system, although somewhat daunting at first, is amazing. They don’t service household rubbish bins but instead have rubbish collections stations, one in about every third street. Opening between 3pm to 4 am daily the public self-sorts into different categories of rubbish (Plastic/Paper and non-burnable items/Paper and Plastic wrapper) that can be thrown on certain days of the week.
Glass bottles, metals (cans) and styrofoam can be thrown out any day and they have separate bins. The tricky thing is kitchen scraps, they are quite specific about what can go in these bins as they go to some giant composting centre so no meat or bones etc. This you take out in a little plastic bag and it gets weighed, you pay by the weight very minimal charges. Burnable rubbish goes in a special blue and white bag and I think you can take that out any day, I haven’t tried that yet.
The long and the short of it is they have dramatically reduced the general waste of the island and increased the recycling levels; the streets are relatively clean and there is a real consciousness of environmental impact. Admittedly there is a bit of tension with the blatant waste the tourists and developers generate, so this is an area still being addressed, but overall the amount of landfill has been dramatically reduced since this program was introduced.
On a creative level its hard to say what the impact of this time in Jeju will have. I know on a personal level it has been huge. I’ve never done a residency before – let alone one that is so culturally different and difficult to communicate. This has really opened my eyes and my heart to the marginalised and the outsiders within our own communities. I have such a new respect for our international students, refugees and even tourists, and empathise with their challenges and now recognise how brave they are. There are so many things until now that I have taken for granted, like reading a menu or knowing what you are purchasing in a supermarket. So, I’m thinking about how comfortable I am: comfortable with my own culture, my own environment and how can I make that more inclusive to the ‘other’ or ‘the outsider’ who is unfamiliar with our societal nuances.
I’m also thinking about how this new empathy affects the way I paint. After years of research and specialisation I have become very narrow in some respects in my painterly language. Admittedly that’s part of the development, but I wonder if I have become so immersed in my own culture I have alienated. I realise I’m being a bit philosophical but I think that’s the beauty of a residency, it’s a pressure cooker where all these things get thrown together and you have a moment to disrupt the norm, re-evaluate, question and try and work out what on earth you are going to eat for dinner.
 Viewed 27/9/18 http://m.jejuweekly.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=5104
“This project was assisted through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for the Arts”.