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French Lascaux cave paintings add sparkle to hidden gem Gwangmyeong Cave

April 29, 2016 - 16:00 By 이우영

GWANGMYEONG, Gyeonggi Province (Yonhap) -- The fate of Gwangmyeong Cave has fluctuated with the various happenings in the wild Korean modern history.

During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), it was abused for precious metals like gold and copper for the Japanese. When the specter of exploitation had finally gone, it became a shelter for Korean refugees during the Korean War (1950-1953). In peacetime, the abandoned gold mine served as a storage for salted shrimp.

Now, the beautifully transformed cave in the city, some 14 kilometers southwest of Seoul, is holding an exhibition of French artwork from some 20,000 years ago. The event is part of many cultural exchanges to commemorate the 130th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

A replica of the Lascaux cave paintings is on display inside the exhibition hall at Gwangmyeong Cave in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

The prehistoric cave paintings were accidentally found on the walls of the Lascaux cave in southwestern France in 1940. In 1963, the cave was closed for fear of damage, and in 1979, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

While the elaborate replicas of the paintings have been exhibited previously in a few countries, it is the first time the relics from the Old Stone Age are on display in an Asian country and, more meaningfully, near an actual cave.

In front of the entrance to the massive Gwangmyeong Cave stands a gallery built with dozens of containers. White dynamic horse drawings from the Lascaux cave stand out in stark contrast to the gallery‘s black exterior.

Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the 863-square-meter gallery was built with 62 containers, aimed at giving new life to otherwise useless material.

“We wanted to exhibit the drawings inside the cave but had to give up because it was impossible to get the huge replicas through the small entrance,” Gwangmyeong City Mayor Yang Ki-dae said on April 15 in a joint press briefing with former French Culture and Communications Minister Fleur Pellerin.

“I think our exhibition will be quite different from previous ones because this time it takes place near an actual cave, not in a museum,” said Mayor Yang.

Stepping inside the rectangular containers, visitors immediately feel as if they are in a dense forest. Some 130 beam projectors shoot photographic images taken in the Lascaux area, creating camouflage patterns on the walls and the ceiling. The life-size reproduction of the Paleolithic drawings, displayed in the dimly lit hall, is so sophisticated that visitors become completely lost in time and space.

Along with the replicas, the gallery tells the historical background and stories behind the rigorous restoration and reproduction process through a documentary, interview clips with historians and actual devices used for the restoration.

While the exhibit of the treasured historic paintings is definitely worth a visit, Gwangmyeong Cave alone offers enough of a reason to travel to the city.

Standing at the entrance to the cave, a cool breeze blowing from deep within the Earth jolts visitors as they stare down a long hallway decorated with colorful lights, wondering what may lie at the end.

The cave, spanning 7.9 km in length and reaching 275 meters in depth, oozes history and mystery.

The seven-level cave brings up decades-old stories about Korea’s tough history to chew on while plunging people into their childhood fantasies with a frighteningly deep, crystal-clear underground lake. The installation of a mystical dragon, “The Lord of the Cave,” and fanciful underwater creatures add to its magical charm.

The 41-meter-long, 800 kilogram dragon is the creation of Weta Workshop, the New Zealand special effects company well-known for its work on “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies.

Since 2014, the city and the company have held the Gwangmyeong International Fantasy Conceptual Design Competition to nurture future talent in fantasy design and special effects. The winner has the honor of being invited to the company, some 9,000 km away from Korea, for a monthlong internship to learn first-hand from experienced technicians.

After passing the mystical creature and Gollum, a popular character from “The Lord of the Rings,” and climbing endless wooden stairs, visitors arrive at the section that memorializes and honors the blood, sweat and tears shed by Korean miners.

Until 1972, the cave was the biggest metal mine in the metropolitan area. Various metals, including gold, silver, copper and zinc, were mined from the tunnels that stretch 78 km. In its prime, the daily production amounted to well over 250 tons, with 500 miners working at a time.

More recently, the abandoned mine was used to store salted shrimp -- an ingredient used by people in the Seoul metropolitan area when they make kimchi. The consistent cool temperature of around 12 degrees Celsius made the cave a perfect place to preserve the food.

In 2011, the city bought the privately owned cave to turn it into a tourist attraction. After years of restoration and development, the cave was transformed into a theme park, fitted with an aquarium, a concert hall, a wine cellar and a restaurant, opening to the public in April last year. For the past year, the remodeled cave was visited by nearly 1.2 million people.

Park Se-in, a 32-year-old Gwangmeyong native, said she was pleasantly surprised by its sheer size and the cultural offerings inside the cave.

“I feel sorry that people still don‘t know much about the cave. But I am sure the cave will be the place to go when more people hear about it,” she said.

With the rare exhibition that “displays human life and touches people’s hearts,” as the former French culture minister said last week, the cave is surely to become a must-visit travel destination in Korea in no time.