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8 Jun 2014

Weta Workshop Fantasy Exhibition – And another month of silence goes by—but I finally have a good excuse for breaking that silence. Last Thursday, a new exhibition from Weta Workshop opened at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (site in Korean). The opening reception for the exhibit was invitation-only, but HJ has connections in the New Zealand Embassy (she teaches or has taught a number of NZ diplomats), so we were lucky enough to receive invitations.

“The meat of the exhibition consists of art works that are not related to Weta’s film work—in other words, you will be seeing a lot of fantastic stuff you’ve never seen before.”

The reception consisted of three speeches by various VIPs. The first of these VIPs was the New Zealand ambassador to Korea, a gentleman (and I mean this in the most positive sense of the word) named Patrick. This was followed by a speech from a vice-president of KBS media. Both of these speeches were nice (meaning that they were relatively short and to the point), but the real draw of the evening was the third VIP: Sir Richard Taylor, co-founder and high wizard of Weta Workshop. He went up on stage with two young artists whose work is featured heavily in the exhibition, Lee Cross and Johnny Fraser-Allen. To be honest, when HJ asked me if I wanted to go, all I had to hear was that Richard Taylor was going to be speaking and I was on board.

After the speeches there was a short concert by a Maori performing group, which ended, of course, with a haka. The vice-ambassador, John (one of HJ’s former students), who had been the emcee for the evening (switching back and forth between Korean and English), got up on stage with them and gave an impressive and enthusiastic performance that everyone in the audience enjoyed quite a bit. During our trip to New Zealand this past winter (more on this eventually, when I finish writing up my travel journal), I had the chance to try my hand at the haka as well. Let’s just say I would need a lot more practice before I tried to do what John did.

At the end of the opening ceremony, John suggested that some of the audience stick around in the hall to have something to eat and drink, as the exhibition would be a bit crowded if everyone went in at once. So HJ and I decided to hit the food first—there was New Zealand wine (of course) and a wide selection of sweets. And, truth be told, we had arrived about twenty minutes early and already had a quick peek around the exhibit, so we decided to let others go first. By the time we had finished stuffing our faces with pies, cookies, and cakes, the crowd seemed to have thinned out a bit, and we went in for our second, more complete tour of the exhibit. Richard Taylor was standing near the entrance, but he was surrounded by media bigwigs, so we decided to go through the exhibition first and hopefully catch him later.

The first room you enter as you head left into the exhibition contains the Tolkien-inspired works most people will be familiar with. The first sculptures you see are the huge trolls from The Hobbit. A number of people posed under this angry troll (I believe this is Bert, if I’m not mistaken), and I decided to take a turn as well. A New Zealand embassy official who was with us complimented me on my convincing fear expression, and I had to confess that it is a lot easier to look distressed when your back is aching from trying to hold a very awkward pose. In addition to the trolls, there were also Gandalf, Azog the Destroyer, a bronze statue of Gollum, and a mounted nazgûl.

But if you came just to see Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit sculptures, you might end up being a little disappointed; what I listed above is pretty much all there is as far as Tolkienesque sculptures go. This hall of trolls acts as an introduction to the exhibition, a foyer of familiar faces, but the meat of the exhibition consists of art works that are not related to Weta’s film work—in other words, you will be seeing a lot of fantastic stuff you’ve never seen before. These sculptures, paintings, and sketches are instead expressions of artistic creativity by Weta artists.

The large hall beyond the trolls is where you get the first glimpse of these pieces from Richard Taylor’s personal collection. This long, bright room contains pieces that Richard purchased from many different artists. Beyond this, we move into the world of Johnny Fraser-Allen and sculptures from his upcoming series of books, “The Gloaming Trilogy.” They range from tiny, detailed figurines to the huge, lazy dragon above. As I told Johnny later, I loved the mood of his figurines: fantastical and fairy-like, but characterized by a levity and whimsy that is not common in this age of dark fantasy (“It’s how I overcome the darkness inside of me,” he laughed in reply).

Beyond the rooms featuring the creatures from “The Gloaming Trilogy” is the exhibition for “The Wandering Woods,” which features work by both Johnny and Lee Cross; the creature above is one of Lee’s creations. As we moved through the exhibition, Lee was wandering around with a puppet, an adorable birdlike creature named Sheila that she had made by hand from recycled materials and found objects. The eyes, for example, were made from ping pong balls, and the headscarf was made from a pair of men’s pants.

Lee controlled the puppet with both hands—one hand went into a glove that acted as one of Sheila’s hands, and the other went into the head, where wires allow her to control the movements of the face. I was amazed at how lifelike the puppet and the movement was—it was easy to just slip into believing that you were seeing a real creature in front of you. Even more amazing is the fact that this is only the second puppet Lee has created (the first was a prototype she created to figure out how things worked).

The last room in the exhibition only contains two sculptures: two massive riders, one on an elk and one on a horse, both bearing lances. I would attempt to describe them, but you should probably just refer to the picture above. These were designed in New Zealand and later cast in Hong Kong; Fred Tang, Richard’s business partner and the man who oversaw the casting, showed me photos of the process on his phone later on, and it looked like a monumental task. Which is fitting, I suppose, since the sculptures are indeed monuments.

There is actually one more room: the small shop at the end of the exhibition. There are some figures for sale on a shelf to one side, but the table in the center of the room holds copies of two books that contain photos of both “The Gloaming Trilogy” and “The Wandering Woods” sculptures, and this was what drew my attention. I bought a copy of “The Wandering Woods”—I was surprised to discover that it was only 10,000 won, as exhibition books, being printed in full color, are usually quite expensive—and immediately went back to where Lee was sitting with Sheila and had her sign it.

When we came back out to the exhibition lobby, Richard Taylor was still there, but there weren’t quite as many people around him. In fact, there were only two people talking to him: Patrick (the NZ ambassador) and another embassy employee. HJ walked over to say hi to Patrick, and I introduced myself as well. I had actually met Patrick very briefly at the premiere of the play The Arrival, and when I mentioned this to him he apologized profusely for not remembering me, but I just laughed because it really had been a very fleeting encounter. I also mentioned that I was hoping to get a chance to talk to Richard, and he immediately tapped Richard on the arm and said, “Oh, you can talk to the embassy people whenever you want.” The embassy official left, and there I was with Richard Taylor.

I had been mentally preparing myself for the moment, and I took a deep breath. It may seem a little silly, because he’s not a rock star or an actor (although he did have a cameo in Return of the King, so I guess technically he is an actor), but when it comes to art and design... well, the man is a rock star. So I was very concerned that I should appropriately express my admiration but not go full-on fan boy. I don’t really remember what I said in greeting—something to the effect of: “It’s such a pleasure to meet you! I really admire all the work you and your team do at Weta.” I do, however, remember his reply: “Oh, thank you so much!” And then he immediately asked me, “So what do you do here in Korea?” And just like that I was telling him about my life. He seemed particularly fascinated by the fact that I was teaching Korean literature in Korea. And the kicker of it all was that he was genuinely interested in what I did and asked a number of questions—he wasn’t just feigning interest. It kind of felt like I was just talking to someone I had met at a party.

I think the fact that I saw so much of him on the LOTR DVDs—where he comes across as a really approachable guy—gave me a certain sense of familiarity, so much so that I had to remind myself, “Hey, you’re not just chatting at a party. This is Richard Taylor—tell him about your NZ trip before the staff come along and drag you away!” So I did, mentioning that we made the pilgrimage to Weta Workshop in Miramar, Wellington.

“It’s too bad we didn’t meet you before you went,” Richard said. “We could have shown you around the workshop.”

“Ah, well, we did do the ‘Window on the Workshop’ tour, which was great!”

“Yeah, but that’s just a small corner of the workshop—we could have taken you on the grand tour!”

HJ later said that he said that just to be polite, but I believe he would have done it—so much so that a small corner of my brain was screaming at me: “Tell him that you’re thinking about going back this coming winter! Tell him you’ll take him out for dinner at the Roxy afterward!” But I did not... and a part of me regrets that, to be honest.

I also mentioned that we visited Hobbiton during our trip. That was not a Weta project, but Richard had of course been there as well. I told him how I had tried to prepare myself for the visit: “‘OK, remember, it’s just a movie set. Don’t get too excited about it or you’re just going to be disappointed.’ But then I got there and I thought—”

I paused, trying to find the words, and Richard took them right out of mouth: “Holy s***! It’s real!” We laughed, and I realized right then why Richard Taylor comes across as such an interesting person on the DVDs, and why he’s such a cool guy in real life: because he’s a fan just like the rest of us. True, he’s also an incredibly talented artist and a very passionate patron of the arts, but at heart he does this because he loves it. I’m sure he realizes the sort of presence he has in the world of art and design, but none of that has gone to his head. You can tell just by talking with him that he considers himself a regular guy—very fortunate, of course, but regular.

We talked for a while longer, and at last another embassy official came up and said, “Richard, we’re going to have to move in a bit.” So I shook his hand, told him once again how great it was to meet him, and then asked him if we could get a photo. Of course, he obliged.

And that was it. He was again swarmed by people, and we made our way out of the exhibition and into the reception hall. A lot of people had gone by this point, but we found Johnny Fraser-Allen talking to the Maori troupe. I had my book at hand, and in a break in the conversation I asked him to sign it. As he took it, he said, “This is the first book I’ve signed.” I don’t know if he meant “ever” or just at this exhibition, but I did notice that some people saw him signing my book and then bought books of their own for him to sign; I felt like I had started a trend.

We hung around with Johnny and the Maori troupe (pictured above) for a little while, and then one of the performers mentioned that they hadn’t seen the exhibit yet. So Johnny said, “Oh, really? Well, let me show you guys around.” HJ and I briefly considered making a graceful exit at that point, but we have no shame, so we decided to tag along. I mean, one of the featured artists himself is going to give you a guided tour—why would you not tag along? So went on a third tour of the exhibition with Johnny as our guide. He gave us some insights into the pieces on display, such as an explanation of his sculpting process—first he sculpts in plasticine, then he makes a silicone mold of the plasticine, and finally he casts the piece in urethane, which is then painted. In the second “The Gloaming Trilogy” room, one wall is lined with his sketches, and Johnny told us how he had put on an exhibition and Richard had come in and bought the entire collection, lock, stock, and barrel, thus effectively ensuring that Johnny could focus on his artwork for several years. This is why Richard has such a huge personal collection, and why I referred to him as a “patron of the arts” above.

Johnny (in the center of the above photo, with John on the left) also explained to us the rather unique process of creating books such as “The Gloaming Trilogy” and “The Wandering Woods.” He’s not a painter, he says, so in order to create the images around which the stories are based, he (and Lee, in the case of “The Wandering Woods”) first create figures and then photograph them. I remember watching the Lord of the Rings DVDs and hearing Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, and the other designers talk about how important the miniatures were to the film—how they provided a level of realism and detail that you just couldn’t get from matte paintings, or which would take a lot of time to recreate with computer graphics. I understood this intellectually at the time, but after seeing the photographs of the sculptures on display, I think I finally got it. You can tell it’s not “real” because of the fanciful creatures, but it also has a level of detail that tells your brain that you are looking at an actual, three-dimensional object as opposed to a painting or graphic. It’s wonderful, and it really brings the fantasy to life.

Later, after our final walk through the exhibition, we were talking with the two Weta guys responsible for putting up the exhibition (which they did in the span of a day), and one of them asked me what impressed me the most about what I had seen. My first instinct was to say the riders—these were indeed impressive—but I think in the end it was the photographs that I found most impressive. It may sound like an odd thing to say, but for as awesome as all the sculptures (and Lee’s puppet) were, they were all, to some extent, expected. The photographs, though, were so outside of my expectations and experience that they really stuck in my mind.

We ended our tour with Johnny in the room with the riders, where he explained that Richard was hoping to put them at the entrance to a planned sculpture park. I remember hearing about this sculpture park when we took our tour of the tiny corner of the Weta Workshop in Wellington—at the time, our guide mentioned that they were having difficulty getting the proper permits for building the park. In retrospect, I probably should have asked Richard about this as well, but I didn’t think of it at the time.

And that wrapped up our visit to the exhibition. Including the opening ceremonies and speeches, I think we spent about two and a half hours there. I left with the signed book in my backpack and a huge grin on my face.

Richard, Lee, and Johnny are not going to be around for too long, but the exhibition will be open until mid-August. Tickets are 15,000 won (for adults), and you can find the exhibition in the M1 Design Exhibition Hall. If you’re only interested in seeing Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or other film-related works, it may not be worth the trip. But if you have any sort of interest in sculpture and fantasy art, I would highly recommend it. Granted, we were invited to the exhibition, but I would have paid the 15,000 and been happy, even if I hadn’t met Richard, Lee, Johnny, and everyone else. If you live in Seoul or are going to be in Seoul in the next couple months, you might consider a visit to the Weta Workshop Fantasy Exhibition.

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