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  • Raymond Rohne

Contemporary Archeology: Preserving Public History through Hoarding?

Growing up, I lived with a hoarder, I didn’t mind it, in fact I evolved into one a bit myself. Although, there have always been others around, questioning why do you have so much junk or things you are not using? Throughout my life, I never tried to answer this question, rather just always brushed it off, as a rhetorical comment. Perhaps, I didn’t have the ability to answer, or even think being a hoarder was necessarily a bad habit. If I fast forward to now, I think I might have come to better understanding the significance of this initial question, “why do you have so much junk or things?”. As I have lived abroad and see different cultures in different ways, it is incredible how every object has a story or history behind it. Of course, this has long been the theme of reality shows, such as the American Pickers and the people encountering telling personal stories of objects in their homes, barns, and warehouses, but still hold some type of monetary value, sometimes known and others not.

A selection of radios inside of 풍물쇼핑몰. It is easy to see how pioneering media artist Paik Namjune (백남준) was so inspired.
Outside of 풍물쇼핑몰

Recently, I stumbled upon a website selling vintage goods in Yongin, South Korea, 6080추억상회 from the early 20th century to the turn of the millennium. Their inventory seemed massive, and like an interesting place to take a day trip to. A week later we decided to go there via public transportation from Seoul, on subways and a bus. When we arrived at the building, it looked like any other building in the neighborhood a 청국장(fermented soy bean paste soup) restaurant on the 1st floor, and an entrance to the building on the side with an elevator, their shop is called “풍물쇼핑몰” (Used Goods Shopping Mall).

A selection of random used objects, this represents a tiny portion of the total space.
Inside 풍물쇼핑몰

To this point, I genuinely wondered if we were in the right place, it was hard to imagine that what I had seen previously was in this building. After taking the elevator up to the 3rd floor, there were some objects scattered but it didn’t seem like they had all that much. After briefly speaking with the owner, she brought us to the warehouse just across the hall. Low and behold, wow, it was a site of contemporary archeology. It immediately brought back memories of my hoarder relatives, there was “stuff” everywhere, almost no room to walk down aisles. I was walking through 20th century Korea, every object in that warehouse had a story and they all had come together under one roof. It was very much like the perfect bowl of bibimbap (Korean mixed rice with meat, assorted vegetables, topped with an egg). What made this different from my family or American Pickers, was I had no direct personal connection to anything in that room. It was all other peoples story.

The image in the back is Yonsei University student activist Lee Han-yeol (이한열), who died on July 5, 1987, weeks after being hit by a tear gas canister fired by riot police during a rally on the campus in Seoul. The painting is by Minjung Movement artist Choi Byeong-soo(최병수), and the work is titled, "Saving the Heat", 1987.  Finally this was a car from the 1980s, and there was a similar model used in the movie "A Taxi Driver".
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea (Gwacheon), The Square: Art and Society in Korea Part 2. 1950-2019, 2020. The image in the back is Yonsei University student activist Lee Han-yeol (이한열), who died on July 5, 1987, weeks after being hit by a tear gas canister fired by riot police during a rally on the campus in Seoul. The painting is by Minjung Movement artist Choi Byeong-soo(최병수), and the work is titled, "Saving the Heat", 1987. Finally this was a car from the 1980s, and there was a similar model used in the movie "A Taxi Driver".

As I began walking around one of my favorite Korean films came to mind, A Taxi Driver (택시운전사) and an exhibition I had previously seen at The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea (Gwacheon) in 2020. Much of the story about the taxi driver Kim (the protagonist) might be fictional in the film, but the exhibition demonstrated that life itself it not, it was real people that lived through these tumultuous events. The objects they engaged with were important, from a taxi driven on the streets of Gwangju during the 1980 Democratic Movement, the signage on buildings, to the objects worn by protesters and domonstrators fighting for democracy and the basic rights of personal dignity. All of these objects were related to and had impacted a person’s life in some way, shape, or form.

Korean lunch boxes, circa 1970s.

Yet, while walking down aisle after aisle, I felt the cluster of objects was real, like I was living with all of the individuals who once used these “things”. This particularly resonated when I spotted stacks of student lunch boxes and shelves of empty soju glasses. The small lunch boxes made out of brass, were most likely with a person every day, this apparatus provided them with the fuel that kept them going. The same is true with the soju glasses, in Korean culture, drinking soju is a major element of socialization with family, friends, and for business. Each individual glass didn’t have one story but probably hundreds or thousands. Perhaps, it was a glass someone used to meet a friend, celebrate an achievement, or console during a difficult period in life. These objects certainly served their purpose for what they were created for, but what are their stories and those who actually used them?

Vintage Korean signs and an unattributed painting and calligraphy.

The more I walked around, the more I had the same feeling towards most of the objects, trying to visualize what Koreans would use the objects for, when they were in service, not an artifact. What I found most interesting was not so much the accumulation of “things” in one place, but rather that most Koreans that I know, do not live with vintage or antique goods. Although, it is very easy to see them in trendy coffee shops or even in TV dramas, movies, etc., but why don’t people generally consume them, post service state? If looking on social media, it easy to see young and older generations like taking selfies with many of these objects, perhaps for nostalgia or having a vintage feeling in everyday contemporary life. I suppose while hoarding goods might be a result of not wanting to let go of the past, how can we really remember it if people are not custodians of it? I admire those in my family that hoarded and I do now think that they in someway preserved public history, preserving objects for contemporary archaeologists in the not so far future. So the next time you encounter a hoarder, before questioning “why do you have so much stuff?” (if you do), just think that everything you are seeing was or currently still is a part of someone’s life.

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