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From Latvia to Korea: Under the Sign of the Tiger

Sunday, May 17: as I wake up in Kaltene on the Baltic Sea, little do I imagine that the rest of the day will usher me to one of the most extravagant journeys of my lifetime. Between Latvia (2 million people) and Korea (50 million people), between Riga (700,000 people) and Seoul (22 million people), the demographic differences are extreme but in both countries, people have become resilient after enduring centuries of domination from powerful neighbors. What I am really eager to discover, though, is how the Korean audience will react to the traveling Rothko exhibition coming from the collection of the National Gallery in Washington DC, which has already been displayed in Warsaw (June 2013) and The Hague (September 2014-February 2015) with immense success. The French Embassy team has organized things carefully for me: visit the exhibition at the Hangaram Arts Center in Seoul, give three lectures about my book just published by Da Vinci editions and meet many local artists, intellectuals and journalists – an exciting program for my very first trip to Asia. Before leaving Latvia, I am still trying to find the right words to describe to the Korean audience the Baltic light with which Rothko grew up in the first ten years of his life.

Upon reaching the daunting metropolis of Seoul, an impressive tohu-bohu of archaic and futurist artefacts, I am immediately faced with a series of surprises: my publisher disappeared, my book vanished, an interview with Yonhap News TV was cancelled, and even the journalist who has come to interview me never received the book: all in all, the program seems to take a somewhat different course than what was originally planed! Before joining the dinner organized by my friend Terri Kim (born in Seoul, now a specialist in trans-cultural higher education in London), we stop at Kyobo (the biggest bookstore in Seoul) to buy some copies of the book. Quite an adventure to find it in row B 10, but with N°7, Orange and Chocolate, 1957 stuck on a label, in the indented center of the cloth hardcover, with the words MARK ROTHKO engraved in red, with the elegant Korean letters printed in black, it looks simple and stunning. My very first feeling -being torn between ordeal and delight-, will repeat itself non-stop during the following days in Seoul.

In the restaurant room, hidden in the back of a nice oriental garden, Professor KIM sets things straight right away: he is very proud of his two daughters’ professionalism, of his mother’s work as a noted sculptor, of his grand-father, the first Korean Methodist bishop, and has always been critical of the Confucian hierarchy. Without delay, I am then introduced to some more friends: Soo-Bok Cheong and his wife Miran Chang, two sociologists who studied at the EHESS in the mid-eighties, wrote their Ph D with Alain Touraine and Serge Moscovici and that I seem to have known all my life. From there, I am convinced that I stepped into the right group of people, one in which individuals are not afraid to express their opinions, even if highly critical. I do not take long to explain my unpleasant surprises to them. Not more than two minutes for Soo-Bok to stand up and give a few phone calls from outside: he needs to know what happened; he needs to embark on a true field investigation. Little by little, the mystery starts to unveil itself and, step by step, I am going to learn some interesting, key elements about Korea much faster than I ever expected. The words “opacity,” “mafia,” “hierarchy,” “commercial profit,” “monopoly,” “power games” are pronounced and the questions remain: Why has the book vanished? Why has my editor disappeared? Why has the TV interview been cancelled?

At the end of the dinner, Professor Kim pulls out a few presents for me. Among them, a small box inside of which I find a tiny business cards holder with a representation of Brave Tiger, a traditional Korean painting from the National Museum. This tiger, one of the symbols of Korean culture, is both elegant and strong. I learn that it is considered both as guardian that drives away evil spirits and as sacred creature that brings good luck. Armed with this little object that will become my talisman during my stay in Seoul, I am ready to confront everything. The program for tomorrow includes visiting the Rothko exhibition in the Hangaram Arts Center, and my conference at Yonsei University. But it is decided on the spot that, under the sign of BraveTiger, the whole extended Kim family will join me! Seoul looks more and more daunting in the night, with its thousands of tiny colored lanterns celebrating Bouddha along every single street and I can’t wait to discover how Rothko’s paintings have been presented…

par Annie Cohen-Solal