Jul 14 2017

Rehearsals from the Korean Avant-Garde Performance Archive

by Ned Carter Miles

A Happening with a Vinyl Umbrella and a Candle, Union Exhibition of Young Artists, Seoul, 1967. Courtesy the artists.

LEE SEUNG-TAEKTied Stone, 1957, stone and wire. Courtesy the artists and Korean Cultural Centre UK, London.

On December 14, 1967, at the “United Exhibition of Korean Young Artists,” Kwang-Soo Oh’s Happening with a Vinyl Umbrella—the first performance piece in Korean art history—was enacted. The happening, projected on a central screen at “Rehearsals from the Korean Avant-garde Performance Archive,” featured performers parading around an umbrella topped with burning candles while singing “Bird, Bird, Bluebird”—a song from the Donghak Peasant Revolution. It was understood by some to be political, although Oh stated he had wanted only to explore Dadaist contingencies. Later, as Park Chung-Hee introduced martial law in 1972 and his Yushin regime grew increasingly repressive of citizens’ minds and bodies, the development of Korean performance art became unequivocally political simply for its avant-garde approach to physicality.

“Rehearsals from the Korean Avant-Garde Performance Archive,” both an exhibition and a stage for live happenings, distilled the many moments that constituted this youthful rebellion into a potent tincture that still appeals in its political flavour to young artists who have the bitter aftertaste of the country’s recent upheavals in their mouths today.

The exhibition abounded with archival material, including photographs of past performances, props and products of notable events and objects of significance from this period in Korean art history. Versions of Seung-Taek Lee’s Tied Stone (1957), for example, could be found throughout the gallery. The work directly references the stone tools traditionally used in Korea to create handcrafted mats, and situated the exhibition firmly in a national context.

Installation view of “Rehearsals from the Korean Avant-Garde Performance Archive” at Korean Cultural Centre UK, London, 2017. Courtesy the artists and KCCUK.

There were also television sets and projections that displayed video works and performances. Ku Lim Kim’s The Meaning of 1/24 Seconds (1969), the first documented video work to come out of South Koreacaptured many moments of contemporary life. Shots lasting one second (or 24 frames) show people, products, buildings and all manner of modern phenomena in a format reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), but uniquely Korean in its concerns.

Another notable video documented Lee Bul’s Abortion (1989). In the harrowing performance, the artist was suspended upside down, naked, for up to three hours daily, at the end of which she writhed and screamed in discomfort. The piece is itself a rebellious comment on the subjugation of the female body and its sexuality. However, not all artists working in this area were as critical of these issues. In a video interview presented elsewhere, an interviewee describes the process of coercing a female artist to participate in a performance titled “Sex on a Piano. Concerning itself instead with the Dadaist approach to music, the idea was that the couple would create sounds on the piano as they had sex. After several artists dropped out, he found a potential participant and “tried every possible means to get her to do it.”

LEE KUN-YONG performing The Method of Drawing 76-2 at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, London. Courtesy the artist.
LEE KUN-YONG performing The Method of Drawing 76-2 at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, London. Courtesy the artist.

LEE KUN-YONG performing Snail’s Gallop at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, London, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

The opening night saw the now-septuagenarian Kun-Yong Lee enact The Method of Drawing 76-2 (1970s– ) where the artist stood against a large black canvas and painted an outline of his shower-capped head, making broad, ovular strokes on the surface behind him. Lee explores the body’s limitations and its relationship to the canvas through the amount of space he is able to mark with his repetitive curves, leaving his own silhouette as a point of reference. While painting, he explained that he was wearing his son-in-law’s shirt because it was old, and that he was concerned the lines behind him did not look correct. The narration, which was funny and tender, revealed the rarely glimpsed doubt and vulnerability in both art and artist. In Snail’s Gallop (1979), Lee drew line after line on a long strip of white paper and erased parts of them with his feet as he inched forward, exploring the body’s role in mark-making and thus the limitations of physically manifesting artistic, social and political thought.

Presented at a time when young South Koreans are facing fresh political problems of their own, the exhibition included newly conceived pieces by other artists, such as Zadie Xa’s The Sea Child, Octopus and Brass Bell (2017), and Hyun Joon Chang’s A Conversation Between Generations Deprived of Generations A Conversation Without a Counterpart (2017). Bridging this gap in history and contributing to what is a significant wealth of material, contemporary Korean performance art may prove as radical as its forebears.

Rehearsals from the Korean Avant-Garde Performance Archive” is on view at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, London until August 19, 2017.

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