Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Last Saturday night I ventured into the Hongdae area of Seoul to experience the International Experimental Arts Project – a collection of European avant-garde artists from countries such as Germany, Finland, France, England, Switzerland, and Estonia presenting performance and multimedia works. Some of the works involved collaboration with Korean artists, including artists connected with KoPAS (Korean Performing Arts Spirit) who organise the Korea Experimental Arts Festival (KEAF) every year.
The last time I visited this funky arts area near Hongik University was in December 2005 when I was an invited performance artist for the KEAF 2005, but this time I was a merely one of the “culture vulture” spectators. In previous years the KEAF mixed local Korean and foreign artists together in one event, but this time a group of overseas foreign artists got their own separate three day “project” complete with seminar and two nights of performance art events (obviously someone has been writing some very successful funding applications!). I caught four shows in the Velvet Banana nightclub on Saturday night. It should have been six, but in typical Seoul fashion I was stuck in a traffic jam for an hour and a half!
First up was a German artist, Michael Steger who is described as a ‘conceptional’ artist in the programme booklet (is that an exceptional conceptual artist, perhaps?). Imagine if you can, a tall, thin, thirty-something man with a goatee beard prancing around in a bra, pink satin dress and black platform shoes. The performance is accompanied by free-form music played by a Korean musician on electric guitar using various pieces of cutlery. We are in an underground club, complete with all the usual black-painted exposed plumbing and steel mesh. The artist begins to ask the audience rhetorical questions (in English) about why they attend cultural events, and then moves onto the subject of why we eat meat. Later, in a Q & A session Steger answered questions about his performance: - “My performance ends with questions because we don’t have answers,” he said. He also commented that his wearing of a dress reflected the dual nature of a human being – male/female, and that he chose the pink color dress because it was like the color of meat, of ham.
Some of the other artists refused to answer such particular questions about their work, preferring instead to turn the question back to the audience “What do you think it means?” This is the essence of contemporary art – to provoke questions in the mind of the viewer rather than provide a neatly packaged answer, something that audience members unfamiliar with the genre may find uncomfortable or even unbearable. To appreciate contemporary art one must develop a high tolerance for ambiguity, and be simply prepared to think, and feel.
The following artist, Jouni Partanen from Finland, literally asked the audience to think – he distributed pieces of paper on which we were asked to write down the thing that is most precious to us, the thing we would not want to lose. After collecting the answers in a large envelope he then proceeded to pluck all the leaves from a large potted tree – like the way a lover plucks the petals from a daisy. “To care… not to care… to care… not to care…to care…” - on and on like a monotonous mantra for fifteen minutes until the last leaf came off on “not to care”. The artist walked off and that was the end of the performance, leaving the audience in a disturbing anticlimax, and the envelope of our precious dreams unopened. When asked later what would have happened if he had finished on “to care” Partanen did not make any specific comment other than that he “does care”.
Obviously artists do care about a lot of things, which is why they choose to do strange and sometimes risky things like experimental art. The last artist of the evening was a Swiss woman named Saskia Edens who presented quite a physically strenuous performance piece. On a gleaming white electric running machine she proceeded to first walk backwards, and then run faster and faster for thirty minutes. Dressed in a white dress and white stockings she maintained her cool European demeanour, even as a group of Korean video artists and musicians (Sakgayo) pounded out loud electronic music and sometimes screaming vocals to accompany the mix of live video and pre-recorded frenetic images projected onto the screen behind her.
The only thing that revealed Edens’ effort was the spreading blue and red stain on her white dress as her blue bead necklace and red disc earrings began to dissolve in her sweat about ten minutes into the performance. When the accessories had totally dissolved the artist stopped running. The process, whatever it had symbolised, was finished.
I found it interesting that the audience had watched and waited with amazing patience for thirty minutes, when they would not normally watch a person in a gym run on a running machine for more than a couple of minutes. There is something about live performance art that is real and visceral that holds our attention in a way that a video cannot do. Another German artist, Oliver Griem had shown a technically interesting video of performance art filmed in a European architectural space, however, the impact was just not the same, especially scheduled in between some very physical performance art pieces. It seemed as if the actual physical presence of the artist to press the play button for the video on his Powerbook was kind of superfluous. My definition of performance art is usually “any art form that involves the physical presence of the artist”, so I was left wondering if I should tighten up my definition a little!
The Korean part of the KEAF festival will continue in Hongdae from November 19 to 25, as a collection of performances and exhibitions by Korean artists in various nightclubs and gallery spaces. For anyone in the Seoul neighbourhood it’s well worth a look, as some of Korea’s better-known experimental artists will be presenting work. The website (sorry, only in Korean) is http://www.kopas2000.co.kr/2007keaf/index.html
Tel. 02 322 2852
The author of this blog, Penelope Thompson, is an Australian contemporary artist living in Korea who works in performance, installation and community art events. You can see her personal exhibition blog at penelopethompson.blogspot.com.