A colossal performing-arts space in South Korea hopes to establish the East as the centre of the cultural world.
One evening this September in Gwangju, South Korea, some 125 people watched Tishani Doshi and Shaji John slip into what seemed like a trance and demonstrate Chandralekha’s theories about “the geometry of the body.” The production, appropriately titled Sharira, showcased parts of the body in ways they almost never are in Indian dance – taut cords of the neck, ridges of back muscles rising from a valley of spine, the underside of the foot. The late dancer-choreographer said, in a 2003 documentary, “My concern is constantly about the body and its enigmatic nature… Its secrets… In the body, there is no difference between sensuality, sexuality, spirituality.” The latter was manifest in the composition sung by the Gundecha brothers, invoking jagat janani, Mother Goddess, begetter of the universe. As for sexuality, the German theatre critic seated next to me later quipped that given the preponderance of sexual imagery around us, she couldn’t help regarding some of the “positions” as pornography. Somewhere, Chandralekha must be smiling.
Sharira was the only Indian work featured in the three-week-long festival that inaugurated the Asia Cultural Center (ACC) Theater in Gwangju, and when I asked Artistic Director Seong Hee Kim why she chose the production, she said, “Chandralekha is often spoken of in the same breath as Pina Bausch, but she is not as well-known. I wanted to show her work to a whole new audience.” Part of the ACC’s agenda is to bring Eastern works to Western eyes, and to bring those Western eyes to South Korea. “If a Korean artist comes up with something, he first wants to present it in the West. With ACC, he no longer has to.” There’s something else. “In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Europe and America were the centres of the world. Now, it’s all changing.” The Economist agrees. This June, they noted, “For the first time in modern history, Asia is now richer than Europe.”
Kim, in other words, is talking about a revolution – and it seems only right that the ACC Theater should reside in Gwangju, home to the “Korean Tiananmen” and the birthplace of democracy in Korea. Take a stroll around the complex, and you’ll find the cradle – a blue fountain, around which swarms of impassioned protestors gathered and brought about what has now come to be called the May 1980 uprising. A few meters from the fountain is the May 18 Clock Tower, which Jürgen Hinzpeter described as “a memorial for freedom and a sign of a start of democracy in Korea.” Hinzpeter was a reporter for NDR (North German Broadcasting), and his telecasts took the first images of the protests to the world. Today, only a few barren trees speak of those times, through bullets lodged in their trunks. The fountain has no water, no visitors. A ten-storey residential building across the road is graffitied with the exhortation “LOVE LIFE.”
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Kim told me a less romantic story of how the ACC Theater came to be in Gwangju, and it has to do with former President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), who belonged to the left-leaning Uri Party. He wanted to do something for Gwangju, a city that had always supported him. Previous governments had focused on industries, but Roh felt that the future belonged to culture. Instead of building another factory, he decided to build an art complex. The proposal to make Gwangju a “hub city of Asian culture” – the single largest cultural project in the history of the nation – was presented in 2003. A government press release hinted at a mission as gargantuan as the project: “to establish a forum of exchange with the various countries of Asia.”
The ACC Theater, which is an integral part of the project, joins other vast spaces devoted to the performing arts in Asia – The Esplanade in Singapore, the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. It is expected to serve as a stage to “showcase the creative energies of Asians in the sphere of arts and culture… preserve the traditional cultures of Asia and, at the same time, play an important role in the creation, distribution, and commercialisation of a wide variety of cultures.”
Hence the performance of Sharira. Hence the play about a Russian grandmother and her confused Uzbek grandson, whose roots are in the USSR but whose passport says Uzbekistan. Hence the invitation extended to Kyong Park, professor of Public Culture in the department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. I spoke to Park one evening, and he said he would be bringing to Gwangju an exhibit titled Imagining a New Eurasia. “It reexamines the identity of Eurasia, which has been one single continent with a shared history, an idea that’s re-emerging today.” The exhibit will be housed in a large pavilion and feature 360-degree panoramic projections of images and videos, many of them of maps – not quite what one expects to see in a space earmarked for the performing arts.
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“The Theater allows for a changing boundary between indoor and outdoor space,” said Kyu Sung Woo, the architect who designed the facility. “The performance venue can be configured to be open to the elements or remain completely enclosed.” The capacity is similarly flexible. The Theater can transform from a single large performance space, able to fit 1800 people, to three smaller theatres. “The brief called for flexibility in the design to accommodate a variety of media and art forms, and encourage experimental modes of performance – especially, various forms of Asian performance styles. The movable floors and adjustable partitions allow for different arrangements, changing the relationship between audience and performer.”
Sharira was staged inside a space as cavernous as an airport hangar – the audience sat outside, under the stars. For About Kazuo Uno – a Butoh-style performance by Kawaguchi Takao – we stood in a circle around the main lobby as Takao plugged into the style’s “unrefined” aesthetics with ropes, tubes and plastic bags. The “venue” kept shifting as we followed the dancer –we watched the closing portions seated on a flight of stairs. For Baling, we crowded into a room where the “seats” were mats on the floor, arranged in two concentric circles. A screen outside the circles projected a series of maps, depicting the transformation of British Malaya to present-day Malaysia. The play, based on publicly available transcripts, was a reconstruction of the 1955 Baling Talks, which attempted to resolve the Malayan Emergency. Two walls were plastered with sheets of paper, representing the transcripts. The performers ripped out sheets, one by one, and read out their lines, literally bringing alive pages from history.
“I usually don’t do such straightforward work,” Kim said later, about Baling. She was talking about how she selected the pieces for the opening festival. “I went to many countries – not just one trip, but repeatedly, in order to get to know the cities, the people, what’s going on. The performers in Baling sit between activist and artist, but you can understand why they do that. I met young people in Malaysia. They really want to talk about this, and I felt it was necessary to share what they felt. The sophistication of form became secondary.” Kim’s strong feelings for the play may also have had something to do with her strong feelings about her homeland. “Korea was the Number One country in Asia in terms of freedom of speech. We never had any problem with nudity, or with airing political or religious views. Unfortunately, it’s all going down. We are becoming increasingly conservative.”
The Idiotic Machine, from Buenos Aires, was also relatively conventional. The play, about a group of unsuccessful actors rehearsing Hamlet, was staged on a… stage. As was Of Ivory and Flesh, a “ball for petrified statues” from Lisbon that coursed between the extremes of choreographic state – stillness and frenzied movement. When I asked Kim about the inclusion of these non-Asian productions, she said, “The shows are seventy per cent Asian, but as an international festival, we have to look at other continents.” By “international,” she was alluding to the inclusiveness of a film festival – like the one in Busan, South Korea, which has burgeoned into one of Asia’s top international festivals (“a must-stop,” as Kim put it). She hopes the ACC Theater will do the same for art. And for Gwangju.
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