Last Tuesday, the 8th, I was sitting upstairs in MMMG cafe, hunched over at my laptop working through some revisions when my e-mail sounded a new incoming message. The little red email icon bounced in the dock, but I ignored it as I concentrated on the project at hand.
Finally, I took a break from work to sip my coffee and check my e-mails. When my eyes fell on the message from Doug, the first words made me catch my breath. “I got a call today that Emil has passed away.” My heart was in my throat when I called Doug to confirm, hoping fervently that this was some crazy mistake. The next several hours and the next several days proved heartbreakingly that it wasn’t so. It was a heart attack that took him, too young at the age of 43, on the morning of September 7 only 4 days after the opening of a group show he was in.
This past week I’ve read numerous eulogies of Emil online. Eulogies from his inner circle friends who’ve known him much better and for much longer. I pondered for a while whether I should, could or would add my own thoughts, as I’d only known him for a short while. Normally I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, nor am I comfortable sharing my emotions online. But online is precisely where I met Emil, and although he may not have known it, he played a huge part in shaping how I came to see Seoul, my home away from home. I think the best testament to a human being’s legacy is how he or she affected the people and the planet left behind, so I thought I should record this: things I learned about life and about how to see things, from Emil…
Not long after I arrived in Korea, I noticed another Flickr member posting photos of Seoul. His Flickr name was Superlocal. Superlocal had an eye for the delightful and beautiful aspects of everyday things. He snapped photos of people sleeping on the subway, people with funny hats or mismatched shoes, the odd details of modern life with a fondness for the everyday, the more mundane the better. We had a common interest in food and design, and we were both living in Seoul, so I casually made him a Flickr contact so as to keep up on his observations about my newly adopted city.
He was such a prolific poster, that it got to the point where it was hard to walk down a street in Seoul without spotting something and saying to Gavin, “Oh, right, Superlocal posted a photo of that last week!” After following his photostream for a bit, I realized that we shared a common Southern Chinese ancestry, a background not often found in Korea. We started trading comments and e-mails back and forth, becoming Flickr friends: lamenting the lack of Hong Kong style dim sum in Korea, celebrating the discovery of some delicious buckwheat noodles in a back-alley in Jongno, bemoaning our poor Korean-speaking ability and our fruitless efforts to acquire it…. always trading travel and restaurant tips and noticing how we always seemed to “just miss” each other at exhibitions or cafes. On one occasion, I found myself eating patbingsu at MMMG at the same exact moment that he uploaded a photo of the same patbingsu he had eaten not long before.
If I was ever feeling momentarily down about living far away from family in a foreign country, I only needed to take a peek at one of his funny photographic observations to set my brain on a more positive course. How silly to dwell on the negative. There was so much awesomeness in this city! There was so much awesomeness… everywhere! Get out onto the street and look for it!
Emil was a bottomless fount of information and was always eager to trade recommendations: for iPhone apps and YouTube videos; quick to send links about the delicious deep fried bun he had in Fukuoka or to ask where he might find a passable Vietnamese banh mi in Seoul (Sorry, Emil, I don’t know of any). Though obviously well-composed and carefully color-balanced, his almost daily photographic notes were prosaic in tone. I noticed with bemusement that in his written descriptions, he almost never used the word “I,” preferring instead to be an anonymous “eye,” giving his mostly international viewers the feeling that they had somehow been teleported into the heart of Seoul from abroad, with an instant zoom-lens view of snacks sold on the streets and sneaker trends on the subway. Actually, it’s quite unusual for me to have online friends, but “Super” aka “Emil” was a stellar online communicator, shooting off e-mails and comments with a regularity that belied the busy-ness of his offline life.
So when I finally met Emil Goh face to face early this year — it was a chance encounter at a gathering of some design-folk in Gangnam, the sort of thing I almost never go to — it felt as if we were picking up in the middle of an ongoing conversation. I think with anyone else it would have been strange or awkward — online and offline personas sometimes don’t match — but Emil was apparently exactly the same in real life as he was online — constantly upbeat, constantly noticing quirky things, constantly snapping photos, gushing about his favorite finds, and always always on the go. Eager to share his passions: design, creativity, modern and vintage ephemera, the industrial shops along the Cheongyecheon, camera and print shops in Chungmuro, and food! Always, he was in search of deliciousness!
Now instead of e-mails I got text messages, brief but almost always about snacking…
“at mmmg this afternoon want a cuppa?”
“i’m having fried mantou u hungry?”
“fave tempura place in hongdae 죽촌!!! “
After a couple of meals with Emil, I noticed that he had a million friends. He could spot them from across the room or from a block away. He introduced everybody to everybody — and then reintroduced you, if you happened to forget that he had introduced you before — yet never made anyone feel like they were unimportant or forgotten. The unique aspect of Emil’s style of socializing was that instead of being a social butterfly, flitting from friend to friend in search of someone more important, everyone just gravitated to him. There was surely some kind of electromagnetic or metaphysical force that caused friends and acquaintances to cross the street, turn a corner and suddenly bump into him, wherever he happened to be.
Emil was relentlessly positive. I never heard a bad word about anyone or anything out of him, although goodness knows he must have faced the same difficulties that any traveler faces in a foreign country. He also didn’t seem to forget things or people — he retained names, faces, obscure details and references — and he almost always followed up loose conversational threads with emails and texts peppered with exclamation marks and sounding just like he spoke: “that iPhone app I talked about!” followed by a link and then a half-dozen more. “thanks a gerzillion!” “ace!!!!” He always seemed to be bouncing in his seat whenever we met for a “cuppa” and I imagined that he was even bouncing in his seat when he tapped out these short messages. Though Emil obsessively acquired Apple, MMMG, and Muji objects, he didn’t buy these things so much to increase his coolness factor — actually, I think it might have been the other way around — but because he was endlessly curious about things. He had to play with a zillion gadgets figure out how they worked, had to examine every item’s form and function, reveling in their individual charms with a sense of wonderment and joy. He could obsess about anything from a rubber band to his beloved iPhone (which can’t even work in Korea), and he loved to share his discoveries with friends and… well anyone. He just loved to share.
For all his generosity of spirit, I realized after his passing that I just didn’t know that many personal details about him. We talked about design and art, and we connected (as he did with so many of his friends) over a shared love of food, but he closely guarded matters of the heart. He was simply one of those rare people who could endlessly give to others, without asking for very much in return. I found it rare to meet an artist who was so humble, who spent so little time self-promoting (or so much time promoting others) or even talking about his own art projects. I know he must have shared this aspect of himself with many others who were connected with him in the art world, but I honestly didn’t realize he was such a well-known artist until after he died. Possibly, he was too busy living to even bother having his own health checked out. To me, Emil was simply the first person I thought of whenever Gavin and I found a delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurant tucked in some forgotten neighborhood of Seoul. “I had some awesome naengmyeon today in Gyeongdong Market! I’ll post it when I develop the film…” I emailed him a month ago. “naengmyeon sounds great! can’ t wait!!!” he responded, all lower case with exclamation points in a hurry as usual. So, Emil… I’m sorry I’m rather late…
On Friday, I went to his funeral at St. Francis of Assisi Chapel in Hannam-dong. In one eulogy, a friend read a poem describing him as “secret agent” from outer space, whose special mission “to save everything humble and every event miscellaneous from the destiny to be perished on Earth,” a description that I found exactly right. I do think that Emil is somewhere out there in the ether, he’s moved on from Earth to find better food, cooler and funnier object-things, fantastic intergalactic details of design, in some other galaxy or universe. He’s already found a million new friends, they’re sharing an absolutely awesome, space-age version of a shaved ice frozen dessert! And all the while, he’s snapping photos, observing and sharing, like some superhappy ethnographer, just like he was here on Earth.
Rest, Emil — but keep on going. You keep inspiring me.
More memories of Emil via artlifedouglaswillis, usccharles, arduino, legsup, poketojasonglewis, yourboyhood, jythings, westwoodMan, chungwoo… Emil Goh on Seoul, published here and here. Art here and here.