Plush green pine trees are densely planted on rocky hills in front of a towering apartment building in Seoul. They are similar to the famous Dodamsambun peaks in South Korea, but are only part of the size.
This beauty trend, known as “jingyeong sansu”, seeks to recreate the country’s most famous mountains – on a much smaller scale – outside of luxury apartment complexes and private villas.
The artificial mountains were built by real estate developers in hopes of improving the feng shui of buildings and market value. Some residents also believe that they carry the healing power of nature to their front doors.
The rocky structure resembles the famous Dodamsambun peaks in South Korea, but is a fraction of the size. Credit: Seunggu Kim
Spending 20 years on construction sites, Kim was often among the first to witness the monthly process of reproducing the country’s most famous mountains.
Workers first build a basic styrofoam mold that is mounted on or around the apartment block, he said. Then cover it with soil before planting flowers and trees.
The structures are often accompanied by engravings describing the positive energy that each mountain carries, fertility and the pursuit of tranquility.
South Korean photographer Seunggu Kim has been photographing Seoul’s artificial mountains for almost a decade. Scroll the gallery to see more images of it. Credit: Seunggu Kim
“I realized that this is not just an artificial landscape, but a new environment that combines tradition and philosophy,” Kim said in a telephone interview. “It’s interesting to see how capitalist it has become.”
The extravagant price of the mountains – up to $ 2 million for a design up to 20 meters high – means they are usually located in luxury apartment complexes. Only high quality materials are used, including expensive rocks and bonsai, and each mountain is maintained by a team of experts.
The mountains cover about 70% of the Korean Peninsula and are an integral part of Korean identity. The mythical story of the founding of Korea begins in the Taebek mountain range.
According to Korean legend, Hwang-ung came down from the sky and approached from a bear who wanted to be a woman. Hwang-ung told the bear to eat garlic and herbs for 100 days in a cave. This worked, and later the female bear married Hwang-ung and gave birth to Dangong, who founded the kingdom in 2333 BC.
Today, the mountains on both sides of the border between North and South Korea are believed to bring good luck and wealth. Both countries celebrate the founding of Korea – the day the skies open to Huang Ung – on October 3 each year.
“There is a positive and shamanic belief in the mountains in Korea, so it’s like compressing it and bringing it back to a city that lacks nature,” Kim said. “My job is to discover Korean landscapes that still exist in modern society.”
Kim is filming a 4-meter vacation on Kumang Peak in the residential complex. Credit: Seunggu Kim
Some of the more popular designs are Mount Seorak, in the Taebek mountain range in Gangwon province, and Halla on Jeju Island, the highest mountain in the country.
Mount Kumgan in North Korea is also popular, as South Korean tourists have not been able to visit the real thing since 2008 due to political tensions.
Back to nature
The popularity of artificial landscapes suggests that residents are trying to strengthen their connection with nature after decades of rapid urbanization. It’s an attempt to reconnect that Kim is striving to capture in her photos, according to curator Haeni Park.
“The False Mountains are an alternative landscape that city dwellers had to accept,” Kim said. Credit: Seunggu Kim
For Kim, this nature simulator is the most surprising, given the country’s topographic constraints.
“South Korea has developed a compressed culture of disposal because we have a relatively good amount of resources, but there is not enough time and space to spend them,” Kim said. “(False Mountains) is an alternative landscape that city dwellers had to accept.”
Kim has photographed the same structures for many years to observe the seasonal changes in their shape and color. He initially saw “kitsch” landscape design as one of the symptoms of South Korea’s rapid economic growth. But it has since grown to appreciate the beauty of the mountain and the “healing” effect they have, he said.
“Sometimes, when I’m out, I take pictures of fake hills, elderly people approach me and explain the meaning of the mountain with as much pride as if they were real and they own it,” the photographer recalled. “I found the sense of ownership very unique.”
Kim said that today people need to find alternative ways to enjoy nature and relax. He calls it “instant culture,” and this is the broader theme of his lifelong experience of capturing how South Korean urban planners cope with their “relentless desire to find joy in the most difficult times.”
His other ongoing series on life in South Korean cities includes images of citizens trying to cling to their leisure spaces – no matter what else – as a man walking his dog to a flooded park and swimming in a cute pool in the middle of Seoul.
Kim photographed a full pool by the Han River in the city in 2016. Credit: Seunggu Kim
Kim sees herself as an observer or a record holder, not an artist. He hopes his photos offer a realistic picture of South Korea’s capitalist society.
“I want to reveal the identity of modern Korea – an ironic, optimistic and joyful Korean society and its distorted consumer culture.”