Who hasn’t wished for a map of life? El Mapa de la Vida (2014) is an attempt to chart these strange waters by the architect, illustrator, and writer Oh YoungWook (who also goes by the name Ogisa). His previous publications include travel essays and sketches Ogisa, Off to Barcelona in Search of Happiness (2006), Ogisa Sketches his Travels (2008), Still, I Like Seoul (2012) and A Proposal: For You I’ll Skip Work on Sundays (2013) on traveling and love based on his relationship and marriage with the film actress Um Jiwon.
El Mapa de la Vida is another travel log, but about an entirely intangible terrain. The meticulously hand-drawn footpaths on the continent Nihirbahn take readers to different stages and pages of the atlas in a choose-your-own-adventure sort of way. One would guess the final destination is determined from birth, but it’s just as possible to follow the labyrinth forever. Fortunately there are plenty of distractions along the way, with curious landmarks, structures, and characters that invite travelers to stay and linger until the next moment of choice at each fork in the road. The captions—left by fellow travellers—help readers face the thrills and perils of choice. On the left-hand side are pithy aphorisms, at times humorous and surprisingly conversational in tone. The format might present itself to have universal application, but that’s up to the readers to judge. Non-Korean readers might detect a certain Korean (or Asian) sense of resignation and practicality.
Below are some pages of the map with translated excerpts, followed by an interview with the author translated into English. The interview was conducted through emails exchanged in Korean over the course of several weeks. We discussed the writing and composition process, and his thoughts on architecture, travel, life and play.
Map 12: Sensitive to Hairstyles Village
A conflict that cannot reach a compromise
just wears out everyone’s soul.
So unless you can take on the fight for the win
or you really can’t stand avoiding confrontation despite guaranteed defeat,
it’s better to just accept and give in.
Map 26: Nihirban University
Political doctrine births confrontation and nurtures loathing.
Everyone talks about reconciliation but nobody means it.
What they need are slaves to conviction.
Implanting political doctrine into as many people as possible
Is the true motive and substance of the enormous invisible power structure.
Map 43: Sunflower Prison
Always remember the saying that success is the best form of revenge.
Anger is the grief of those who cannot take revenge.
Map 89: Women’s Farm and Men’s Fishery
Men & Women
Relationships between men and women
are perfected not by understanding, but by memorization.
What they must memorize
corresponds to the way a father sees his daughter
or the way a mother sees her son.
But lovers have yet to bear children
and the married no longer have time to work on their relationships.
So men and women have no choice but to be stuck in imperfect relationships forever.
OH YOUNGWOOK: Hello. Pleasure to meet you. Wish my English could have been better! Appreciate your accommodating me so we can talk in Korean. To answer your question, like everyone else I have a desire to express myself. I think it’s the same with most people, even if the extent differs. There are various ways of doing it. And I had to make some objective decisions about what I’m good at, and what I’m not.
I’m not very good at: singing, dancing, memorizing, socializing, and speaking. But I am good at drawing (doodling), writing, traveling (for fun), and thinking. But once I decided to become an architect in college I started having doubts. There is no established path to a career in architecture, and I found out that becoming a good architect requires charm and public speaking skills, neither of which are my forte.
That’s when I started traveling, to sketch architecture and write out my impressions. I’d already decided to specialize in architecture, and I wanted to do the next best thing and take responsibility for my decision. I’d decided to like architecture, and I wanted to see about aligning my skills with that decision.
So I cannot say which one’s a higher priority right now—architecture or traveling, writing or drawing. I feel that they’re basically no different to each other. But if I had to choose one as more important, then it would be architecture. Architecture was the impetus that brought everything else together.
I hadn’t thought about how speaking skills were part of being an architect…
And you decided to like architecture because you had chosen it. It’s pretty unusual to say that an element of will is involved in liking a career or a field.
Well, it wasn’t all that bad when I first chose it.
Once there’s a chance of liking something, you have to put in some kind of effort.
The reason I decided to live in Spain for a while was pretty much “just because”. I was on a 15-month trip and Barcelona made me think, “I want to try living here”. While I was there I enrolled in school (to get a visa) and saw some wonderful architectural heritage.
I don’t have any traveling rules, as such, but I do rely heavily on coincidence. I end up at places by chance, and do things by chance. And just like with architecture I try to accept whatever happens (with travel destination, lodging, time, budget, etc.) and enjoy the moment.
India, Peru and Australia were a bit different. My wife and I started a project we call Happenchance Backpackers, to invite others into our travels. We offer young people who are short on budget a chance to travel overseas for the first time. Once a year we select three or four people and I join them on the travels. I leave up to them all the planning for the destination and itineraries. India, Peru and Australia were the destinations they picked.
Is it possible to see El Mapa de la Vida as another kind of travel essay? When I first read the book it made me feel as if I were on a journey. I imagine the creative process was a kind of journey too. What was the impetus behind this piece of work?
I never actually thought about what to call the book. It didn’t really come out of a specific plan. I was on a plane (I think I’m at my most creative in planes) reading a story about crossroads. It dawned on me that I wanted to make a collection of crossroads using maps, which are some of my favorite things.
The only plan I had was a rough sketch of the structure of the map. It was the size of my fist, and I drew it right there in the plane.
I was on my way back from Japan, and as soon I arrived I went to an art supply shop, bought a large sheet of paper, and just started drawing. So the origin of the book and the specific crossroads in it were basically improvised.
So though it was improvisational, it did need what you might call a “plan”, unlike other drawings I had done. First I had to select 108 keywords. I picked out this and that keyword from the things I was doing and thinking in my life, and again just improvising, laid them out on grid paper. Then I sketched out the general outline of the continent with a pencil and just started drawing.
Idea: 1 hour
Keyword Selection: 10 hours
Planning: 1 hour
Drawing: 5 months
I wrote out my thoughts for each keyword. And the text on the map was very spur of the moment. The aphorisms on the pages facing the drawings were written in the span of three days. I was on a business trip to and from the United States so I used the jet-lagged hours on the plane and in the hotel.
Hmm, sounds like I didn’t try that hard?!
I see it as the power of improvisation.
The aphorisms were also interesting. At times they had an air of universal eternal truth. At others, they were also funny and seemed like purely personal opinions. Perhaps the most particular is the most universal? It makes me wonder if people from other cultural contexts might have said things in the same way. What did you want to express through the aphorisms?
It all started out very personal.
“Vida”… that’s a grandiose title. But it wasn’t like I realized some universal truth or acquired special powers of insight into the lives of others.
A society is a collection of individuals, and perhaps each individual life is a microcosm of the universal, as you said. (Not that I had these grandiose concepts in mind at the time!)
In any case, pictures are not the best medium to express specific ideas. But ideas (even when improvised) can give shape to some kind of structure and form.
This might have nothing directly to do with the project (because the words didn’t come before the pictures; the pictures were drawn first, then the ideas were just pulled from keywords) but I wrote out the aphorisms to organize some thoughts I was having while I was drawing, and as a kind of resolution for my own future.
You summed up my ramblings nicely!
Oceans, ponds, forests, and mountains could mark natural boundaries between places, so I arranged the landscapes where I needed some kind of border. The landmarks represent time, space, or persons that serve as boundaries between one element of life and another.
If there is any distinctly Korean character to the pictures, it might be because I’ve never personally seen a forest that wasn’t on a mountain. That shows in the maps. Maybe that’s what seems Asian. In Korea, culturally and geographically, all the plains have been cultivated into fields, so I naturally thought that forests belong on mountains. But in other countries there are plenty of forests on plains. I assume forests on plains feel very different from forests on mountains.
So drawing most of the forests as mountains might have made the pictures seem Asian (or Korean). (Though I did draw a few forests on plains).
Now that you explain it, it’s true that wooded forests generally seem to happen on mountains here. I’m picturing the low, rounded hills in Korea.
In this map there is an imaginary continent called Nihirbahn. Could you explain the name? Is this continent in everyone’s life, or is everyone inhabiting this one continent but taking different paths? Or do we all have different continents with corresponding different maps?
Nihilism, Nirvana, and Bahn—which means railway in German—these words just came to mind simultaneously and I combined them. Perhaps these terms express the way I understand and approach life.
The way I set it up is like this: Everyone in this world lives in Nihirbahn and each person takes their own path. But the secret is that actually there are as many Nihirbahn continents as the number of people in the world. And each continent looks similar but there are slightly different paths.
There’s also a special way of navigating through the book. It’s not a linear path that readers can control or predict, and it is difficult to know how far I am into the journey. And there’s a slight tension because you never know when you’ll reach the end of this “life”. How does this labyrinthine structure relate to the theme or the message of the book?
I wanted to keep the readers unaware of how far they are in the journey, or where their destination is in relation to the whole land. Of course, this is an imaginary concept and a tiny world created by one person. So I was able to include a map of the whole continent that you can consult whenever you want. But I suppose I hoped that, at least before you look at the entire map, the reading experience itself would be an imitation of our life.
You wrote in the prologue, “The purpose of life is defined as ‘bringing happiness to the people you love’. Seeing my loved ones are happy will naturally make me happy. So the purpose of life, which I have taken so many words to define, actually comes down to the pursuit of individual happiness.” How did you reach this conclusion?
And it was interesting that you wrote that boredom is the opposite of happiness. Why is boredom the antonym of happiness, rather than the usual sadness or despair?
From the many possibilities I could imagine as being the purpose of life, I was able to eliminate this, and then that, narrowing it down to just a few. And accepting that none of them might be the ultimate Truth, I decided to pick just one. And that was happiness.
I consider sadness or despair as the basic elements that make up life. They’re not something we acquire or avoid by effort. Happiness, on the other hand, is not absolute in the same way—it’s something we work to attain. Boredom is on the opposite end of the spectrum. I see it as the single biggest cause of unhappiness and we can choose to avoid it. (Sadness and despair are caused by other people or relationships with other people. Boredom, like happiness, comes from ourselves. Of course there are people who mourn existence itself, but I see them as exceptions.)
I majored in architecture. Among the various kinds of modern architecture, I’m especially interested in artistic architecture, which takes a more conservative approach. Beyond the simply utilitarian and rational architecture, I figure there’s an aspect about space that inspires the human heart, just like literature or art. I hope to discover and create it.
To do this (and this might sound strange) I think it’s crucial to have fun. You can think of fun things and create something once you’ve played hard and as often as possible. I plan on traveling and having a lot of fun for the next year or two.
I’m not very good at playing hard. For me having fun simply means escaping from the daily grind. So one way I have fun is simply taking a short trip out of the city.
I’m preparing for the fourth year of “Happenchance Backpackers”.
I don’t like talking much, so when I want to express myself, I write. I could assemble those words into a book. I’ve been having fun, idling away a bit, and there are already some stories I’m thinking of. I’m working on a film script. I don’t mind if it becomes a film or just fades into obscurity.
Recently I gave a talk, and someone in the audience asked what my dream was. It’s a common enough question but no one had asked me before. I said I want to keep on living as I do now, enjoying life to the fullest.