Exploring Korean Culture

Exploring Korean Culture

RISD recently introduced a new globally engaged off-campus program in collaboration with a longstanding partner school in Korea. Called Slice of Life: Dwelling, Thinking, Making, this spring’s pilot program is a collaboration with Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, Korea, where eight RISD students and eight Ewha students from a wide range of disciplines are working together in the studio, taking an anthropology seminar and apprenticing with RISD alumni working in Seoul. Their shared goal is to develop a deep understanding of Korea’s culture and history and how it relates to neighboring Asian nations.

Korea’s geographical position between China and Japan makes it the perfect site for developing a broader view of Asian culture, exploring how these nations have influenced each other over the centuries and how those relationships continue to evolve, explains RISD Architecture Professor Peter Tagiuri, who developed the Slice of Life program in concert with RISD Global and the division of Architecture + Design. Tagiuri is co-teaching the pilot with Professor of Anthropology Younghoon Kim, director of Ewha’s Korean Cultural Studies Research Center. “Korea has long been a transmitter of Chinese culture to Japan and vice versa,” he says. “All three countries have benefitted from and been hurt by these exchanges.”

Korea also offers a middle ground in terms of industrialization and economics, experiencing in recent years what Japan went through decades ago and perhaps shedding light on where China is headed. “Korea has gone from rags to riches since the Japanese occupation ended 60 years ago,” Tagiuri notes. “And China seems to be following suit, with a steadily rising per capita income.”

Despite his deep ties with the China Academy of Art (CAA), Tagiuri selected Korea as the host country for this pilot program in part because nearly 400 alumni currently live in Korea and in part because of his close relationship with the Suh family, whose sons Do Ho Suh 94 PT and Euiho Suh BArch 91 both graduated from RISD. “The Suh family has inspired many Korean students to apply to RISD,” he explains, “and we have a lot of alumni friends here to open doors for us. Alumni mentors are able to introduce students to deeper aspects of the local culture than I could ever expect to.”

In late March Tagiuri brought students to eastern China so that they could experience the cultural similarities and differences firsthand. But through their home base in Seoul, they're closely studying two neighborhoods this semester – Gang Nam Gu and the University District – and creating work that reveals layers of time and culture through the lenses of their own disciplines and expertise.

For example, Ewha industrial design major Ji Yeon Yoo is reflecting on the traditional Korean bridal trousseau. Gathering objects from her own dowry along with those of her mother and her grandmother, she’s building a narrative about changing cultural notions of what is critical in marriage and in life. “She’s offering a unique way of looking backward and forward at Korean culture over the course of three generations,” Tagiuri notes.

Approximately 90% of the RISD students participating in the pilot program are of Asian origin. “They’re grappling with questions of what it means to be a RISD-trained Asian artist or designer in the modern world,” Tagiuri notes. That’s where the connections with alumni are proving to be especially beneficial. “Students are learning how to move around in different cultures, how to work comfortably and productively as foreigners,” he says. And most importantly, perhaps, “they’re learning that you can bring your profession with you anywhere and use your skills as an artist or designer to look deeply at the world around you.”

Simone Solondz

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