Incheon’s monster male organ
I was in the front seat of the airport coach, just behind the driver, as we departed Incheon International Airport and headed for Seoul. These limousine buses have broad windscreens, meaning the view from the front seat is almost cinematic as the road unfolds towards you.
The bus pulled out of the airport forecourt and glided smoothly along the access road to the highway.
That is when I saw it.
Involuntarily, I jerked backward in my seat, for there, standing semi-erect beside the road and aiming directly at me, loomed an enormous silver male genital.
A frisson of half horror, half delight, electrified me.
Horror? Naturally: Who would not feel violated as he surged inexorably towards a rampant sexual appendage?
Delight? Certainly: I have no unhealthy interest in a giant sexual organ, but who could deny that this was something daringly different?
As we passed it, I looked left to ensure that what I had seen was not a figment of jet-lagged imagination. Seen side-on, the thing was not a penis per se: It was an approximately five-meter long, cigar-shaped object, mounted upon a sphere.
Perhaps it was inspired by some sort of zeppelin or airship, its upward angle representing take-off from the globe? If so, it would be appropriately symbolic for an airport. But viewed head-on, the cigar-shaped object could easily be taken for a mammoth male organ, the sphere for its scrotum.
Either way ― or both ― the thing was a work of public art.
As anyone who has wandered Seoul will know, there is plenty of this around, most of it parked in front of commercial buildings: City regulations demand that buildings of a certain size emplace works of art, usually sculpture, outside.
And this is not a bad regulation, because Seoul desperately needs visual attractions. There are two key reasons for this.
On the one hand, the city’s tangible heritage, in the form of old residences, has been bulldozed. Few islands of historical architectural remain.
On the other, Seoul is a modern, commercial city, but office block design is soulless, square, blocky and ugly. Admittedly, there are a growing number of creative new constructions, but these flagships can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Let’s talk design. There are three basic elements: Color, size, and shape.
Alas for those who favor brightness, commercial properties want to look ``serious,” hence the preponderance of gray.
As for shape, the incorporation of striking design elements ― a curved or octagonal building, say, or one with a gap in it ― is economically unsound. Square or rectangular buildings are more efficient for usage, so generating optimal income. While there is brand cachet in a striking-looking headquarters, at present, most Korean companies don’t prioritize this (judging by the dearth of design-centric commercial buildings).
Finally, there is size, and here change is underway: Seoul is awash with plans for gigantic, 100-plus story skyscrapers. Size is power! But while big buildings may be impressive, they are not necessarily attractive, and are, anyway, well above the eye levels of most pedestrians and drivers.
Hence art is one way to visually upgrade the city at street-level. Problem: Just as building owners seem uninterested in differentiated designs, they appear equally conservative when it comes to acquiring differentiated public artworks. This means most abstract sculptures outside buildings are innocuous and unremarkable.
Granted, there are standouts. The explosive blossom of scrap metal standing outside POSCO’s Gangnam headquarters is both striking and appropriate to the corporate brand, and the giant black figure with his moving hammer guarding the Heungkuk Life Insurance Building is a landmark himself.
But these are rarities. The majority of artworks fade into the dull background of the cityscape, making them largely pointless.
So I commend whoever it was who designed and erected Incheon’s remarkable sculpture.
For millions of visitors to this country, the first sight they will see upon while leaving the airport is a representation of manliness and virility, a monster shot of artistic Viagra that rams home a powerful message about Korea’s economy.
However, I like it for different reasons: It is daring, provocative and fun. Those elements differentiate it from 99 percent of public sculptures, for in addition to a trend toward conformity, there is a strong prudish tendency in South Korea, a country which moreover, tends to take itself ― and portray itself ― rather seriously.
Incheon’s monster genital defies conservative restraints, conventional attitudes and artistic norms. When it comes to public art, Korea needs more bold works like this.
Still, there is one criticism. Air passengers entering Korea may consider their welcoming object to be overly masculine. To equalize matters, therefore, let me suggest a different piece of art to greet visitors to that other national gateway, Incheon Seaport. What is called for is a symbol of allure, fertility and fecundity, but one that is feminine in nature.
Dare I suggest a lovingly sculpted pair of gigantic silver breasts?
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. He can be reached at email@example.com.