Monday, October 20, 2003

Huimang Shijang: Lessons Learned

Before plunging into the thick of things, some quick side notes:

Know this: I AM A PROPHET.

Back in high school, I wrote a poem (which has since been included in Scary Spasms in Hairy Chasms) about "my purple frog." Well... here he is.

Fear me and my prestidigitational acumen!

A North Korea note: Bush rules out a formal nonaggression treaty with NK. Other, less formal, statements may be possible, but the legally binding treaty NK has been demanding is not an option. I don't think this really comes as a surprise to anyone; I think the Bush administration, despite some internal discord, has been leaning heavily in this direction the whole time, something epitomized by Bush's long-ago profession of loathing for the Dear Wiener.

Personally, I'm against any sort of concession or written reassurance to NK. I don't see what purpose it would serve when NK has repeatedly shown its disdain for promises and pacts, written or otherwise. I also admit to a certain amount of glee in imagining NK's discomfiture in dealing with a possibly-irrational, possibly-homicidal, possibly-stupid US president, and I chuckle when I think about their fear of four more years of this guy. Bloggers like Andrew Sullivan drew the Reagan parallel long ago: the Soviets weren't sure what to make of the old nutcase in the Oval Office, and one major side effect was the overspending that sent the Soviet economy over the edge and secured Reagan a more or less positive place in the history books. NK finds itself in a similar position with Bush, and it's moot as to whether Bush actually is stupid or crazy or murderous. Pray for a disastrous NK overreaction sometime in the near future (I mean something leading to internal collapse, not to a sudden push across the DMZ, obviously).

[NB: I'm aware that other Reagan-Dubya parallels are faulty. I'm restricting my comments to this particular parallel, which I think contains some substance.]


My friend Solie Choi has moved way outside the city, so it was kind of a pain for her to come today. She did so without a single grumble, despite having had to visit the hospital yesterday to treat some mysterious complaint. The poor girl is quite thin, didn't bring along a jacket, and was freezing by evening. And while we did manage to sell a couple items, I felt awfully guilty about what she went through. To top it off, she refused to accept any commission for her great help today, and then she treated me to dinner before we went our separate ways.

Our earnings totalled less than $20, but that's more than the ZILCH I earned last week. And I was lucky: you normally pay a W10,000 fee each time you set up shop at the market, but they waived my fee because we were rained out last week. Not willing to look a gift horse in the mouth, I didn't ask whether others also had their fee waived.

Solie's friend (I don't know her name) came by with her husband early in the afternoon. They bought some of my abstract calligraphy. Charles (cf. previous post) came by and bought a mid-sized Bodhidharma for a friend. And a guy who called himself "Mr. Song" came by and asked for two copies of a caricatured self-portrait I'd done in a moment of randomness (and with no real intention of selling).

Lessons learned:

1. The Huimang Shijang (Hope Market), on a good day, is crowded with young people. They're mostly young women, and mostly interested in hats, scarves, and other frills you put on your body, including jewelry. Practical items, like wallets and tee shirts, also seem to sell well. Guess what this means for folks like me, who are trying to keep some aspect of traditional Korean culture alive!

2. Having a friend along is indeed a good idea. The time passes more quickly, and if your friend is Korean, it certainly makes interaction with the customers easier. In contrast with last week, people actually stopped to talk at length. They'd start with Solie, then I'd break into the conversation (partly to indicate I understood what they were saying; partly because I don't want to be ignored at my own stall). Unfortunately, this didn't result in many sales, but it did provide some amusing moments: one woman came by with her two tiny daughters, neither of whom could have been older than five, and I let the older daughter write her own name with one of my brushes.

3. Calligraphic ink dries faster in the open air. This is great news for freshly done artwork, but it sucks major ass for your brushes, which stiffen up too quickly and often. My brushes were positively chunky by 6:30PM.

4. Diversify, diversify, diversify. As Solie herself predicted a few days before we met at the Shijang, people don't necessarily want to buy the expensive stuff, and little things sell better. Everything sold today was small-scale. I'd made it all over the past week, so I'd have small items to display along with the larger artwork. One couple said they would "think about" buying a larger piece. Maybe I'll see them next week. Mr. Song, the guy who bought two of my caricatured self-portraits (one of which he asked me to draw directly into his journal), said in a serious tone, "You better change your business model." Yes: I get the distinct feeling that young folks shopping at the Huimang Shijang don't really relate to old time Zen art, and they probably don't want to have their own culture sold back to them, even if it does represent a foreigner's reimagining of it. The youth probably want to see foreign art from a foreign artist. It was telling that the more traditional artwork was bought by (1) Solie's friends-- probably as a favor-- and (2) an American. I heard a lot of Koreans walk by my stall and say, "Oh, that's Dalma!" ("Dalma nae!") This led to precisely zero purchases. So next week I'll arrive with an armful of stuff the foreigners'll probably hate, but the Koreans might be motivated to buy. This may mean putting aside the brushes and going back to what I do best: cartooning. I'm thinking that scenes from my upcoming book, The Sanshin's Tiger, are in order.

5. You should do your artwork early in the week so that the red ink of your dojang has a chance to dry. I was up until 5:30AM doing calligraphy and making pics, then I slept until 8:30AM and packed like a madman. A constant worry was smudging: when you pack not-quite-dried artwork into the tight space of a suitcase, there's a nasty potential for ruined artwork.

6. Have a method. Today was my first "real" day at the market, and if it hadn't been for Solie's help and suggestions, I'd have wasted most of my time. She filled in for the half of my brain that was missing. I think I'll have a better act next week. Meantime, I'm taking an American friend's suggestion and snooping around Insa-dong on Monday to see about selling the brush art and calligraphy. Insa-dong sees a lot of foreigners, and shops are brimming with the kind of art I've been doing. If I can finagle a spot next to the multitalented septuagenarian Mr. Shin during the week, that might be shweet. I'd probably have to reduce prices on some items, though. Mr. Shin can churn out major art in less than two minutes, and he doesn't charge much for it. I'd look pretty arrogant charging more for rougher work while sitting next to him.

Quite a few Koreans, in talking with Solie and assuming I didn't understand them, asked her rather bluntly what the heck a foreigner was doing practicing calligraphy, learning hanja, and drawing Dalma-daesa. The frequency with which this question arose was a bit annoying, but not surprising. A blinkered cultural perspective is de rigueur in Korea. On a more positive note, none of my possessions got shat on by birds this time. I mentioned this to Solie. She replied that she and a friend of hers got massively shat on by a flock of seagulls in Australia. A passing Aussie joked that they'd been blessed-- just as we'd joke in America. Solie hinted that two Korean women covered in birdshit just don't see matters the same way.

The evening ended with a lot of shivering. Neither of us had brought sweaters or jackets, but I at least had my warm layer of blubber to keep my core temperature from dropping. The fat wasn't any help with my fingers; I suppose this means I'll have to gain another couple hundred pounds to ensure my hands stay nice and warm in low temps. Charles, who bought the mid-size Dalma-daesa, hails from Wisconsin, so if he's reading this he probably thinks I'm a big wuss from the warmer mid-Atlantic, which would be correct.

Just before we left, some idiots decided to light a slew of bottle rockets and other wild sparklers. These have recently become rather popular; I hear them going off more and more often in my neighborhood at night. Two rockets flew right at Solie but flared out before they did anything major. Yeesh.

But an interesting time was had by all, and I ended up with a little extra cash. We'll see how the Insa-dong errand goes tomorrow, and I'll give the Huimang Shijang another try next week, weather permitting.

In the name of Allah, the compassionate and merciful (lest we forget the two most ignored qualities of Allah).

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