Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why travel?

Nami Island, South Korea  (clockwise from top left): children's library,
cow sculpture, decorating a vase in the calligraphy studio
My latest Canberra Times column looks at travel. In 'An inquiring mind essential kit for travellers', I argue that travel is, at least in part, best characterised as a prompt for thought. It offers experiences--the important thing is what we do with these. A sample:
What travel usually occasions is the opportunity for questions, not easy certainties. I recently flew to Asia for Australian Writers' Week. One of the highlights was Nami Island in South Korea, a cultural precinct north-east of Seoul. 
Nami is brimming with artistic venues, archives and goods. It hosts rock 'n' roll and rare musical instrument museums, several performance stages, a ceramics kiln, calligraphy studio, sculptures (often made from recycled soju bottles). It hosts an international children's book fair, sponsors the Hans Christian Anderson Award for children's literature and illustration, and has a sublime library of kids' books: a wall, some three metres high, of vibrant covers. There are rabbits, peacocks and, surprisingly, emus. The famous Metasequoia Lane, with its avenue of tall conifers, surpasses its own ubiquitous publicity. 
The range of cultural events and objects on Nami is incredible, and it makes their playful secession – declaring themselves an independent republic, complete with flag and passport – all the more understandable. 
The question for me is how this marvellous ferment squares with the portrait of South Korea as a capitalist wasteland. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in Trouble in Paradise, declares that the nation is fully digitised, atomised, commodified. It was, Žižek argues, essentially razed by conflict, ripe for a new regime of precarious work and rapid consumption, with no traditions left to resist the transformation of people into well-fed but lonely, anxious workers. 
It is, writes Žižek, "a place deprived of its history, a wordless place". In his eyes, the hugely popular Gangnam Style track becomes a ritual of communal ideology, promoting a kind of thrilled disgust. It offers no escape from zombie existence, except defeated irony. 
Does this make Nami merely a comforting museum? A way to keep alive the illusion of authenticity, before returning to the office on Monday? Or might its promotion of arts, scholarship and play provide the occasional break from ideology, and allow for reflection if not revolution?

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