Ten million portraits

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

  • It’s a beautiful late summer Saturday in Seoul and the warm air makes for perfect conditions to browse the local arts and crafts on offer at the Hongdae weekend flea market. Set up in a playground not far from the University, the market is clearly popular with the locals who slowly wind their way around the various stalls.

    Amid the tables of hand crafted jewelery, knitted hats, ornaments, and embroidered tote bags, various artists will draw portraits for a modest fee. Among them is Haein, a pretty 20-year-old student who has embarked on an ambitious project to paint ten million portraits. I’m no mathematician, but even I can work out that will take quite some time.

    I stop and watch her complete another water-color portrait of a girl who sits motionless as if her slightest movement will somehow spoil the finished article. As Haein dabs her brush in plastic cup of murky water, I ask her what number she is up to.

    “Ah, Sorry. Englishee, I can’t Englishee,” she says, looking up at me with a smile before saying something in Korean to the girl who still doesn’t move an inch. Her comment raises smiles from the other people who are stood around watching her paint. She finishes the portrait, stamps it, then adds the unique number, one more on her long way to ten million.

    Nobody has ever painted me before. I like Haein and her ten million portraits idea, so after waiting patiently for a little while I take a seat in her portrait chair.

    Her English is certainly better than my non-existent Korean, so in tentative English she asks me what type of paper I prefer; light brown card, or white paper. I go for the white. “Ah, good choice,” she says with a smile and a little laugh.

    She picks up her pencil and leans forward slightly, furrowing her brow as she examines my face for a moment. “Where are you coming?” She asks me. “England,” I tell her, opting not to complicate things with the fact that I haven’t actually come here from the UK, but from Singapore and a rather wandering way around Asia. “Oh, so far,” she responds.

    A little comments book on her table is full of notes written in Korean by people she has painted. There is just one written in English. “Thank you for making me beautiful.” It’s signed by a girl called Emily, from California, and accompanied by a little picture of a dragon, or maybe a dog, I can’t be sure.

    I ask Haein why she picked ten million as the number of portraits she wanted to paint and she laughs. “Oh sorry please. Talk slow for Englishee.” The exchange again amuses the people gathered around watching her work. I apologise and ask again, this time much slower. She continues to sketch as she answers me “Yes, ten million.” “That’s going to take a long time,” I say. “Yes, err.. One hundred and ninety five year,” She replies with a little laugh.

    Our conversation is limited, helped in part by a girl in the crowd who translates for us when we get a little confused. I didn’t really get an answer as to why Haein picked the number ten million, or for that matter how she planned to live for another 195 years, but what I do learn is that she started the project on May 30th this year and has only been painting for three years.

    “Before I do piano.” She tells me. So I ask her why she switched to drawing and painting. “Very simple. Drawing is..” She pauses and giggles a little searching for the words in English. “Fun. Interesting.”

    Our chat is slowing things down and there are a few people standing around waiting for their turn to become one of the ten million, so I stop asking questions and allow Haein to work.

    It’s a strange feeling sitting there having someone examine your features, looking at you so carefully. I watch her dab paint to the sketch that makes me look twenty years younger, like someone of her age perhaps.

    She corrects it here and there, then reaches for her stamp and the numbers. She presses down carefully in the top right hand corner of the painting being carefully not to smudge anything, then hands it to me. I like it, I’m young again, much younger than I am in reality, but as her three hundred and fifty first portrait it’s safe to say I am a lot younger than she will be when she finally stamps that ten millionth painting.