Art Radar interviews curator Je Yun Moon from the London-based Korean Cultural Centre UK about the exhibition “Rehearsals from the Korean Avant-Garde Performance Archive”.
Featuring the work of Lee Bul, Hyun Joon Chang, Kang-Ja Jung, Christine Sun Kim, Ku-Lim Kim, Kang-So Lee, Kun-Yong Lee, Seung-Taek Lee, Neung-Kyung Sung and Zadie Xa, the exhibition runs until 19 August 2017.
A popular folk song in Korea starts with the lyric “Birds, birds, blue birds, do not disturb the green-bean fields. The farmers will cry if the flowers are dropped and lost.” The words originate in the period of the late 19th century peasant uprising led by Bong-Joon Juhn affectionately known as Green Bean. The blue refers to the uniforms of Japanese soldiers invited by the landowners to suppress the rebellion with unforeseen consequences. The song features at the start of the current exhibition at the Korean Cultural Centre UK in London, where it was included in the formative Happening with Vinyl Umbrella and Candles (1967), in which the end of Japan’s involvement in the Korean peninsula is symbolically commemorated.
The exhibition “Rehearsals from the Korean Avant-Garde Preformance Archive” proceeds through assemblages of unusual original artefacts such as exhibition pamphlets, photographic and video documentation and contemporary interviews. These reveal both Avant-gardeism and continuity in the work. The overarching theme is, as the title “Rehersals” infers, to see this potent era of performance practice as a foundation for ongoing work with a performance agenda, both by recent Korean artists, and in the ongoing practice of artist such as Kun-Yong Lee, who has been active since the 1970s and contributed new live, as well as historic, work to the current exhibition, and Lee Bul, whose Abortion from 1989 is a video record of a painful looking performance that sees the artist naked and suspended in a net. Both of these artists address bodily endurance and the body as a site of dissent and rebellion – a sub-theme present in much of the work.
Art Radar asked the curator of the exhibition Je Yun Moon some questions about how the exhibition was conceived.
Do you feel there is a particular current resonance between the approaches and contexts of Korean performance in the 1960s and 1970s and contemporary concerns?
Last year, we witnessed what is now called “candle light revolution”, which marked the end of an era. For the first time in the history of the Republic of Korea, the democratically elected president was impeached and arrested for trials. Ten million people (almost one fifth of the population) came out to the streets to protest against Park Geun-hye’s regime. Park Geun-hye’s impeachment not only signifies her own political failure, but also the end of what I would like to call Park-Jung-heeism, a set of complex hegemonic socio-economic, political ideologies that have dominated the Republic of Korea for almost half a century. In this context, I felt it was very pertinent to think about the history of institutional critique in art. I felt that the Korean history of institutional critique cannot be completed without revisiting the history of the group of artists who articulated their practice with the term Avant-garde.
Performance is notoriously difficult to fix in an exhibition; here the memory of the works, as documented through photographs, film and ephemera, as well as through recent discussion with the key artists, is the medium. This presents a kaleidoscope of impressions. In arranging this material, what picture of these actions did you wish to evoke?
It would not be wrong to say that a common preconception of the archive exhibition is a boring one. I wanted to avoid the audience feeling disengaged by too many documents and information that they would be unable to digest within the given space and time. Therefore, I wanted to create tension by mixing art works and archive materials. In addition, I wanted to evoke cross generational dialogues by inviting the younger generation of performance artists.
Much Korean modern art that gets exposure in London belongs to the Dansaekhwa movement, such as Park Seo-Bo at White Cube last year and Ha Chong-Hyun recent show at Almine Rech. To what extent do you feel that other aspects of Korean art in the period deserve to have more exposure?
The recent interest in Dansaekhwa is welcoming, but this is just one part of Korean modern art’s rich history. During a time which has seen the resurgence of chauvinism and protectionism around the world, I felt the history of resistance and institutional critique was a particularly pertinent topic.
The work is drawn from the Asia Performance Archive at the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju. Can you tell me about this archive?
The Archive aims to be a comparative archive of the history of Asian performance art. Currently, they have Korean and Japanese archives. For this exhibition we borrowed the materials only from the Korean archive, and our co-curator Ah-Young Lee was one of the main researchers for this archive project.
The exhibition is complemented by three performances. Did you consider integrating more live experiences to bring the documented work to life?
I felt that a mixture of artworks and documents would work well within the exhibition context. For me, the newly commissioned performances by the younger generation of artists were more about creating cross-generational dialogues with this history.
How aware were the Korean performance artists in this period of Western precedents such as those of Allan Kaprow, Joseph Beuys or indeed Nam June Paik?
I found it very surprising that the artists were much more connected to the rest of the world then perhaps we thought they were. The presence of the American army since the Korean War can certainly be one of the reasons why there was much more information flow than we expected. When I interviewed Neung-kyung Sung, for instance, he told me that he of course knew Allan Kaprow from Art in America – which he bought from the black market. Plus, Ku-lim Kim staged Nam June Paik’s Sex on the Piano in 1970 at the Experimental Music Festival that he created.
To what extent were artists such as Chan-Seung Jung intending to be provocative – or where they working in an avant-garde context with its own values and codes?
Due to the limitations of our exhibition space, we were only able to present a partial history of the 1960s and 1970s. For our exhibition, we had two main story lines. One is the 1960s’ student-led institutional critique, the emergence of sub-culture and the Enfant-terrible. Another is the 1970s’ group movement such as ST, through which important meeting points were produced between artists, between artistic practice and theory, between the local artist and the international art scene.
In addition to these two main story lines, there are individual points that together reflect the complexity of the scene. For instance, there is Seung-taek Lee who does not belong to any particular group or movement, but carried on the fight against institutions on his own terms. The practice of Chan-Seung Jung can also be understood as one of these individual points, yet is also interconnected with the last of the story lines in this exhibition.
The exhibition acts as a hub for several interventions in other spaces in London. Could you tell us something about how these are coordinated and interrelated?
The exhibition is part of the UK/Korea season, the KCCUK acts as a platform for different types of cultural events taking place across the United Kingdom. The season will see multiple institutions present exhibitions, performances, residencies, workshops and public art installations of Korean artists, from 2017 to 2018. KCCUK is the lead partner of the season, supporting external projects as well as hosting exhibitions. Collaborating institutions include Art Night, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Delfina Foundation, Fact, Gasworks, Hayward Gallery, Liverpool Biennial, Locus +, spacex, Spike Island and The Showroom. The Korea/UK season runs parallel to the UK/Korea season which takes place in Korea, and is supported by the British Council. Both seasons endeavuor to strengthen the relationship between the two countries and form new cultural and creative partnerships.
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