I live in Seoul, and whenever I’m back in the West, I hear the same question over and over: what’s Gangnam like? Presumably Westerners wouldn’t have had anything to ask me before the virality of “Gangnam Style,” and specifically of the music video satirizing the image of that part of the Korean capital. In Korean, “Gangnam” literally means “south of the river,” the waterway in question being the Han River, which runs through modern Seoul much as the Thames and the Seine run through London and Paris. Developed in the main only since the 1970s, after Korea’s unprecedentedly rapid industrialization had begun, Gangnam looks and feels quite different from the old city north of the Han. In the financial center of Gangnam, everything’s bigger, taller, and more expensive — all of it meant to impress.
With Psy’s novelty song a thing of the distant past — in internet years, at least — the world now thrills again to another glimpse of Gangnam style: a digital screen that looks like a giant water tank, full of waves perpetually crashing against its walls. When video of this high-tech optical illusion went viral, it looked even more uncanny to me than it did to most viewers, since I recognized it from real life.
Though I happen to live in Gangbuk (“north of the river”), whenever I go to Gangnam, I usually come out of the Samsung subway station, right across the street from COEX. A convention-center complex embedded in a set of difficult-to-navigate malls, COEX also includes SM Town COEX Artium, a flashy temple of K‑pop run by music company SM Entertainment. Announcing SM Town’s presence, this colossal wraparound display, the largest of its kind in the country, usually offers up either fresh-faced pop stars or ads for Korean-made cars.
Occasionally the SM Town screen’s programming gets more creative, and “#1_WAVE with Anamorphic illusion” has made the most striking use of its shape and dimensions yet. Designed by Gangnam’s own d’strict, this piece of public video art “serves as a sweet escape and brings comfort and relaxation to people” — or so says d’strict’s Sean Lee in an interview with Bored Panda’s Robertas Lisickis. It’s even impressed Seoulites, accustomed though they’ve grown to large-scale video screens clamoring for their attention. Even up in Gangbuk, the LED-covered facade of the building right across from Seoul Station has turned into a “Digital Canvas” every night for nearly a decade. Though that artistic installation never displays advertising, most of the increasingly large screens of Seoul are used for more overtly commercial purposes. There may be something dystopian about this scale of digital advertisement technology in public space — but as every Blade Runner fan knows, there’s something sublime about it as well.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.