Luxurious green pine trees are densely planted on rocky hills outside a tall apartment building in Seoul. They are similar to South Korea’s famous Dodamsambong Peaks, but they are only a fraction of the size.
This aesthetic trend, known as “jingyeong sansu”, seeks to recreate the country’s most famous mountain – on a much smaller scale – outside of luxury apartment complexes and private villas.
Artificial mountains were built by real estate developers in the hope of improving feng shui buildings – and market value. Some residents also believe they bring the healing power of nature to their front doors.
The rock structure looks similar to the famous Dodamsambong Peaks tops in South Korea, but it’s a small fraction of the size. credit: Seunggu Kim
After spending 20 years working on construction sites, Kim was often among the first people to witness the process of reproducing the best known mountains in the country for months.
He said that workers first build the basic styrofoam template, which is secured in or around the apartment building. Then cover it with soil, before planting flowers and trees.
Structures are often accompanied by reliefs describing the positive energy that each mountain is believed to bring, from fertility and ambition to peace of mind.
South Korean photographer Seunggu Kim has been capturing the artificial mountains of Seoul for nearly a decade. Scroll through the gallery to see more of his photos. credit: Seunggu Kim
“I realized this is not just an artificial landscape, but a new environment that combines tradition and philosophy,” Kim said in a telephone interview. “It is interesting to see how capitalism became.”
The exorbitant price of mountains – up to $ 2 million for a design up to 20 meters long – means that they are usually found in luxury apartment complexes. Only high-quality materials are used, including expensive rocks and bonsai, and each mountain is serviced by a team of experts.
The mountains cover about 70% of the Korean peninsula and are an integral part of the Korean identity. The legendary story of the Korean establishment begins in the Taipei mountain range.
According to Korean legend, Hwan Aung descended from heaven and approached a bear who wanted to be a woman. Hwan Ong told the bear to eat garlic and herbs for 100 days in a cave. She succeeds, the bears later married to Hwan-ung and gave birth to Dangun, who founded the kingdom in 2333 BC.
Today, mountains on both sides of the North and South Korea border are believed to bring fortune and wealth. The two countries celebrate the founding of Korea – the day the heavens were opened for Hwan-ong – on October 3 of each year.
Kim said, “There is a positive and shameful belief about the mountains in Korea, so it is like compressing them and returning them to a city that lacks nature.” “My job is to discover the Korean landscapes that still exist in modern society.”
Kim filmed a 4-meter park of Mount Kumgang in the apartment complex. credit: Seunggu Kim
Some of the most popular designs are Seurak Mountain, the Taebaek Mountain Range in Gangwon Province, and Haile Jeju Island, the country’s tallest mountain.
Mount Kumgang in North Korea is also common, as South Korean tourists have been unable to visit the real thing since 2008, due to political tensions.
Return to nature
The popularity of artificial landscapes indicates that residents are trying to strengthen their ties with nature after decades of rapid urbanization. It is the reconnection attempt that Kim seeks to capture in his photos, according to Haeni Park technical values.
“(The fake mountains) is an alternative scene that city dwellers had to accept,” says Kim. credit: Seunggu Kim
For Kim, this natural analogy comes as a surprise, given the country’s topographical limitations.
“South Korea has developed a compact culture,” Kim said. “We have a relatively good amount of resources, but there is not enough time and space to spend these resources.” (The fake mountains) represent alternative landscapes that the city’s residents had to accept.
Kim has photographed the same structures over many years to notice seasonal changes in their shape and color. He initially saw Kitch landscape design as a symptom of South Korea’s rapid economic growth. But he has since grown to appreciate the beauty of the mountains and the “healing” effect they have, he says.
“Sometimes when I’m there to photograph the fake hills, the old residents come to me and explain the importance of the mountain with great pride, as if they are real and own it,” the photographer remembers. “I found this feeling of ownership very unique.”
Today, people have had to find alternative ways to enjoy nature and relax, Kim said. It is called “instant culture”, and is the broadest topic of his lifelong attempt to capture how South Korean city dwellers cope with their “relentless desire to find joy in the most difficult times.”
His other ongoing series on life in South Korean cities displays pictures of citizens trying to hold onto their recreation spaces – no matter what happens as well – like a man walking his dog next to a flooded garden and a crowded pool. Gathered in the center of Seoul.
Kim filmed a crowded swimming pool next to the city’s Han River in 2016. credit: Seunggu Kim
Kim sees himself as an observer or recorder, not as an artist. He hopes his photos will provide a realistic picture of the capitalist society of South Korea.
“I want to reveal the identity of modern Korea – a cynical, optimistic, joyful, and crooked consumer culture of a Korean society.”