A Recycling Center on One Afternoon in June

Sunghui Lee

On one afternoon in June, the cool sounds of the water in Hongjecheon stream comes from beyond the lift that travels between the first and second floors in the Seodaemun-gu recycling center. While I am wandering around the lift to find a cool breeze in the middle of the day, a whistle is heard, mixing with the sound of the stream. As even time is drooping from the hot June sun, the repeated notes of a short whistled children’s song mix subtly with the ambient sound and disappear into space.

Leaving behind the water sound and passing through the closely arranged furniture, my eyes move to the animals on many heavy silver television screens on a metal display stand. These televisions are showing a lion, not moving, drooping as if it has lost its beastly nature; a zebra facing a wall, standing in a position it may hold forever; and a watusi bent under the great weight of its heavy horns. After a little while, there is an elephant, walking slowly, an African porcupine, and a hamadryas baboon. It seems to be an unfamiliar scene in which penguins, standing still under the mid-summer sun, jump into the water altogether after the zookeeper throws food. Animals that are moved from their habitat to the zoo seem to lose the vitality of their nature, as animated as faded television color bars. However, it is just a drowsy time for animals and not important to people who come to buy a television.

I sit on a chair in front of a heavy wooden table, its table cloth fluttering. The drum of a washing machine, turning around and around, is transformed into a rocket. Come to think of it, have we ever imagined, in childhood, that dolls are alive and walking around the house or that things are moving in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep? When the family is asleep a washing machine transforms into a rocket and a television running all night sits on a chair, unable to sleep. At this moment things have emotions and move as they will. And when morning comes, they hold their breath, stop moving, and return to the periphery of the human world. So, besides a pillar, a white woolen pile chair seems warm and friendly like a toy bear but the white woolen pile stops all injuries and all breathing of the chair.Thus, cruelty is disguised as warmth.

Before I know it, my steps incline to the other side of the recycling center which is crowded with dressers and wardrobes. There is a pointed church steeple, a small rooftop building with a TV antenna, and a water tank, giving the impression of walking in a district in a city. Therefore I become a giant walking in a forest of buildings. It is a reminder of a closed, desolate city street. From furniture to vast cities, man-made things resemble each other in their aspect of accumulation.

In the accumulated macroscopic world, people’s inner stories are hidden by layers. Opening doors and drawers of furniture, one finally finds a folded slip of paper. At the moment, my heart flutters as when opening a love letter. At dawn, someone unable to sleep wrote a letter and drew a picture. I imagine the dawn at which this carefully folded slip of paper was made. And I think about the destiny of the unfound slips of paper and the people who will find them.

I find a table set on pieces of vinyl linoleum on the landing in the middle of the stairs. On the surface of the vinyl floor cover, wood grain is carved in the shape of the shadow of the furniture. Originally wood grain belonged to wood but for a long time, there have been cheap imitation wood-grain sheets. We are not aware of it because we live in the world where the essence of things can be disguised and replaced by cheap trickery.

Is it funny, if it is said that the fate of furniture is migration? Furniture delivered on one day stays in one place for a long time, but it can’t avoid human events, changing their residence. On moving day, we sometimes find things lost under a wardrobe or behind a bookcase. Moving briefly to the time and space beyond memory, we are reminded of the memories which the furniture brings.

In childhood, our largest possession might be a desk. I remember that I put all kinds of things in the desk drawers and also hid my most prized things in its corners. The desk was more of a place than an object. I put a note of my beliefs above the desk and I sat for a time at the desk with a wounded heart when I was hurt by my friends or family. In the recycling center, I find the desk which was with me in that part of my life. And I find the time of my childhood in the drawer.

People who come to buy furniture open wardrobes and drawers and carefully check inside. It is obvious that the furniture which was filled with someone’s clothing, books, and collections is now empty. However, a wardrobe where a light comes through the doors catches my eye. And when I curiously open the door, the light goes out. “When the doors are closed, the light is on.” Therefore there is no way to ascertain the existence of the light by opening the door. But clearly, the light filled the inside of the wardrobe. Our lives are riddled with elusive moments like this. The audience tries to check the light by opening and closing the door many times, so like their desires, our lives involve pointless repeated actions.

As the light fills the inside of the furniture, politics fills our society but it is neither touchable nor visible. However, its existence is obvious. A signboard of one political party, hanging on a metal beam on the third floor of the recycling center, doesn’t attract people’s attention, because it is hidden by tall furniture. The name of that political party has gone to history due to a renovation of the party. But the way of renovating Korean political parties is only to change the name and to do endless self-recycling. It is not unusual for social organizations to use the survival method of self- recycling. Many organizations impose new activities and slogans following the stream of time, but in many cases, they are changed in appearance only. It is the survival method of ideologies of past regimes even though the government is changed.

From material things to spiritual things and to the political realm, the conditions of our life are constantly being recycled. The artists who participated in the exhibition “A Cabinet in the Washing Machine” in Seodaemun-gu recycling center, used the concept of recycling as their method of observing the conditions of life without limiting it to objects or personal memories. It makes us look back at things that we overlooked or were unaware of because of sensual satisfaction.

Leaving the recycling center, walking beside Hongjecheon at midday, I stop in front of an ‘artificial’ waterfall. The sound of cool water gives me satisfaction. “As good as it gets.”