Space Popular's 'Gate of Bright Lights' in Seoul is a portal into the digital future

The immersive video installation by the London-based studio replaces the physical gate of Deoksugung Palace with a digital one to explore the meaning of heritage in today’s time.

by Zohra Khan Published on : Jan 11, 2020

“In the 21st century, gates to the most revered places are virtual,” says London-based multi-disciplinary studio, Space Popular, as it describes the seeming reality of our lives in which interaction with the physical world is fast being taken over by digital interfaces. At the historic Deoksugung Palace in Seoul, South Korea, the studio has created a site-specific video installation, called Gate of Bright Lights that beautifully explores this transition.

The work places a screen at the central opening of the pavilion-like Gwangmyeongmun Gate – a site that once stood in all its glory within the palace to guard the sleeping residence of Korea’s King Gojong (1897-1919). As one stands in front of the gate, which features double eaves and an octagonal roof, the project takes the onlookers onto a journey of the past and the virtual gateways of the future.

The site-specific video installation at the historic Gwangmyeongmun Gate at Deoksugung Palace in Seoul | Gate of Bright Lights | Space Popular | STIRworld
The site-specific video installation at the historic Gwangmyeongmun Gate at Deoksugung Palace in Seoul Image Credit: Kyung Roh
Every time the doors of the Gate of Bright Lights shut, they reveal a different design, and every time they open, a new and stranger space is revealed. – Space Popular

The video begins with closed historic gates styled in Dancheong – a traditional Korean aesthetic characterised by decorative colouring on wooden structures. The doors open to reveal a vignette from the past. “Beginning a hundred years ago, when the palace was still occupied by the imperial family, the video shows how the red timber gates with their metal bolts slowly swing open to reveal a majestic space within,” says the studio that is spearheaded by designers Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg.

  • The screen at the central opening of the pavilion reveals 1:1 gates that open one after another to reveal interestingly complex spaces | Gate of Bright Lights | Space Popular | STIRworld
    The screen at the central opening of the pavilion reveals 1:1 gates that open one after another to reveal interestingly complex spacesImage Credit: Kyung Roh
  • The visitor is exposed to compare a physical gate of a palace with a digital one  | Gate of Bright Lights | Space Popular | STIRworld
    The visitor is exposed to compare a physical gate of a palace with a digital one Image Credit: Kyung Roh

Even before one adjusts to the view, the gates are closed, and the spectacle slowly takes a new avatar with a new set of doors. This one is a rather peculiar pair as it has a menu in the timber, with ornate details in panels framing buttons and sliders. Following this, the doors open to reveal an elaborative chat room.

  • The video begins with closed red timber gates with their metal bolts alluding to the traditional Dancheong aesthetics. | Gate of Bright Lights | Space Popular | STIRworld
    The video begins with closed red timber gates with their metal bolts alluding to the traditional Dancheong aesthetics. Image Credit: Kyung Roh
  • The transition of the doors from the traditional aesthetics to taking over elements like a menu bar, frames and sliders | Gate of Bright Lights | Space Popular | STIRworld
    The transition of the doors from the traditional aesthetics to taking over elements like a menu bar, frames and sliders Image Credit: Kyung Roh
  • At a point in the video, the doors open to a chat room  | Gate of Bright Lights | Space Popular | STIRworld
    At a point in the video, the doors open to a chat room Image Credit: Kyung Roh
Royal palaces have historically been a form of architectural mass media. - Space Popular

Positioning the installation within a setting like the Deoksugung Palace explains how hundred years ago these heavy doors of the palace were the interface between the governance and the public imagination.

With the advent of mass media, the monumental gate of the palace no longer served the divine leap between the lived and the imagined that it used to, and its open access to the general public became a means to communicate craft, beauty and heritage rather than authority. Of course, with time, the gate found a new meaning.

“In the mid-20th century, the new palace gates were the shining lights of the television screens in everybody’s homes,” the studio remarks.

01 min watch Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg of Space Popular explain the idea behind the installation | Gate of Bright Lights | Space Popular | STIRworld
Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg of Space Popular explain the idea behind the installation Video Credit: Courtesy of Space Popular

Traversing this evolution, the project replaces the physical gate of the palace with the gate of a social media palace. The doors in the video can be likened to the operating systems such as Android, IOS, or TV menus of our digital devices that open to reveal our parallel universe, i.e the world of Instagram, VrChat, Line and more.

“By tracing this revolution of access and movement, the site-specific video installation will physically block the entrance to the palace’s central doorway once more, yet giving access to the new palace, through the bright light gate of our era,” adds the studio.

01 min watch A video showing the installation of the work on site | Gate of Bright Lights | Space Popular | STIRworld
A video showing the installation of the work on site Video Credit: Courtesy of Space Popular
In contemporary South Korea, which today provides the world with ever brighter, clearer and bigger gates, or screens, the Dancheongjang (artisans) of our time paints with pixels and light instead of rare and precious pigments. - Space Popular

As today everyone is a ruler of their own palace, and their gates are always open to the public via interfaces of a digitally connected world, the installation highlights the fact that the ‘gate of bright lights’ in the 21st century fit in our pockets, as against to the tightly controlled physical gates of the past. Drawing a parallel between the two era, the video takes us through our own virtual palaces that look much like the ‘highly structured ornamental system of Dancheong, carefully ordered through icons, buttons, links, and feeds and laboriously decorated with colours, fonts, layouts and graphics.’

The rear side of the installation | Gate of Bright Lights | Space Popular | STIRworld
The rear side of the installation Image Credit: Kyung Roh

The designers have used the medium of a ‘gate’ to question the concept of architectural heritage in today’s time. Juxtaposing the heritage that is with the heritage that is to come, the ‘gate’ becomes a portal between what we have and what we desire.

Gate of Bright Lights by Space Popular is part of the exhibition, Architecture and Heritage: Unearthing Future that presents Korean cultural heritage and contemporary architecture within the old palace of Deoksugung. The exhibition includes works by Bureau Spectacular, OBBA and Obra Architects and is on view till April 5, 2020.

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About Author

Zohra Khan

Zohra Khan

A formal education in architecture combined with an avid interest in architecture journalism and design criticism led Khan to professionally venture into writing and research. She has worked in design communication for more than three years, generating content for mondo*arc india journal. When not writing, she kicks back by dabbling on social media for STIR.

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