In the past few years, we have witnessed an upsurge of political movements demanding functional democracy in different Asian countries. The question that we pose for the first two years of Scene / Asia project is: “Is democracy, as we know it today, really the best political solution in Asian countries?” Together with curated artworks from five different Asian regions, the Scene / Asia team will delve deeply into this topic.
The death of the nation’s founding father, Lee Kwan Yew, in March 2015, does not seem to have had much effect on the state of media and culture control in Singapore. Worse still, most of the Singaporean colleagues that I have encountered recently at various corners of the world have mumbled anxiously that the controlled state of Singapore is far from being optimistic. Since the inchoate stage of the nation-state, the country has exceeded in economy through the most-efficiently regulated cultural landscape. An apolitical artist in Singapore could claim that there artwork is ‘political’ by unconsciously delivering his or her so-called political message, which is, in effect, only spoon-fed by the government. As Terence Lee succinctly argues by referring to Michel Foucault, Singapore is the ‘disciplinary society par excellence.*’
As an artist and the founder of Grey Projects, one of the few non-profit artist spaces in Singapore, Jason Wee introduces those body-based artworks, which causes a rupture to the well-governed, well-regulated, and well-performed society. Bunny by Daniel Kok and Luke George physically disperses messages of power, violence, discipline, regulation, punishment and various other concepts attached to the absurd power game fervently played in Singapore. The performance is reminiscent of a radical performance of Jean Genet, in which the power game is inverted and subverted without the audience even noticing the oscillation of power.
In a country obsessed with projecting successful images towards the world, Wee argues that the hyperbolic dragging of Becca D’Bus opens up space for those ‘failed’ narratives to reclaim their validities. Whether on gender practice, social norms, or political correctness, through her acerbic criticism clad in graceful yet camp satire, Becca challenges the so-called norms of the audiences in order to disrupt and reconstruct those concepts.
Wee also introduces PinkDot, the largest non-governmental public assembly, which started in 2009 in support of LGBTQ communities in Singapore. Despite the official narrative of PinkDot to acknowledge diversity and inclusiveness, Wee argues that it has become some sort of a ‘participatory theatre installation’, in which the participants gather for a day at the Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park to act out their queerness in a manner polite enough to be accepted by the public. When the suppressed people are acknowledged to perform in the designated venue, and, also endorsed to speak in a way the government has allowed, the political gathering could, arguably, transform into a form of theatre. Fully understanding the controlled situation, the participants are now learning ways to disperse direct voices not through physical assemblies but through digital communities. In 2016, the realm of reality could be subverted through the intervention of virtual reality.
*Terence Lee, The Media, Cultural Control and Government in Singapore, (London: Routledge, 2010).
Japanese society is in tumult. And many would most likely identify the trigger for this shift from stagnation to tumult as the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th, 2011 and subsequent Fukushima disaster. Following this unprecedented event, many in Japan finally came to realize that the nation’s various social systems, which had been superficially maintained for decades since the end of the war, were not sustaining a functioning order but were in fact already faulty to the core.
And even among Japanese people who supposedly view harmony as a virtue, this realization has brought with it the sense of a crisis whereby we are sliding into a state of nebulous chaos. Then it was as if all manner of other issues surged over us in quick succession, from the unsustainable energy situation to the concessions offered to communities that host nuclear power facilities, regional depopulation versus the over-concentration of population in Tokyo, the declining national birth rate and aging population, the collapse of the national pension system, the massive national debt and increasing economic disparity, and the regulations that represent how the nation has prioritized economic activities above all else.
And yet, for the arts world, this state of chaos has actually proved an effective stimulus for new ideas. As the anthropologist Victor Turner said, it is precisely when humanity finds itself in the limbo that is liminality, when we are forcibly transitioned from one point to another, that culture is liberated from its regulatory structures. And this is why the artists and activists living in the post-Fukushima liminal society are aware that they are now presented with an opportunity to interrogate the very core of our fixed social structures, and as such have started to voice myriad opinions while freely traversing between art and society, and art and politics.
Both Natsuko Odate and William Andrews, the curators for Scene/Asia’s showcase of Japanese arts, place “3.11” as a starting point for new visions, introducing examples of socially engaged art projects and artistically engaged social movements that emerged out of the tumultuous period Japan entered after the 2011 disaster.
For her curation, Odate focused on the former. As an art producer and editor splitting her life between Japan and Europe, Odate harnesses her special international perspective to illuminate the post-Fukushima condition whereby the voices of the economically and socially weak are suppressed in the name of the Japanese government’s mantra of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and people are compelled into unjust cooperation based on monolithic values in the pursuit of a national success some years from now. Centering on Jacques Rancière’s theory of “dissensus,” Odate selects work by Kyun-Chome, Koki Tanaka and Hikaru Fujii. Their art deals with the theme of conflictual cooperation, which aims to produce discord as a way of throwing up questions about the state’s imperialistic system of social cohesion.
In turn, Andrews, who has written about postwar Japanese political movements and counterculture, mainly introduces post-Fukushima social movements that are artistically contributing to communities. In the Japan of 2016, when direct intervention in politics seems harder than ever, Andrews suggests that making use of the idea of a diverse and creatively engaged “commons” (in the manner of Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey) is more effective as social practice than the efforts of revolutionary groups, who are driven by unequivocal political ideologies. Two of the case studies he introduces—the Anti-Nuclear Tent Museum and Mannequin Flash Mob Kanagawa—are clearly underpinned by such an awareness of the commons. They are activities put into actual practice in society and sustained by creative sensibilities. In other words, they are applying an artistic grammar as they search for new methodologies of social engagement. By contrast, Akira Takayama’s Referendum Project is an attempt to expand the possibilities of art by drawing instead on the political means of a national referendum on restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants. Through these examples, Andrews is questioning the comparative weighting that forms the legal basis for social welfare and fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech.
Korean ‘Democracy’ Suppresed Against the Backdrop of Autocratic Development
After the Second World War, our nearest neighbor has taken a path that is both similar and dissimilar to Japan. The analogous point is that by prioritizing economic growth, it inevitably incurred a cultural regression. For example, along the same time the American sociologist Ezra F. Vogel published a provocative book called Japan as Number One in 1979, Korea was also entering a rapid economic surge, which was later called the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ (Han river runs through central Seoul). Conversely, the dissimilar point is the rather direct, even brazen, approach adopted in Korean politics. Whereas the Japanese politicians attempt to lead the state through crafty, circuitous and nebulous tactics, the Koreans, by contrast, seem to pronounce the point of conflict – at least more than the Japanese.
In 1979 in Korea, the public fury towards the South Korean president Park Chung-hee, who oppressed democracy for the sake of economic growth, has reached its peak, and, thus, the president was assassinated by one of his own security service personnel. From immediately afterwards, the demand for democracy temporarily accelerated among the public, and it rapidly materialized in a movement called ‘Seoul Spring.’ However, a year afterwards in 1980, the army general Chun Doo-hwan started arresting numerous democratic activists, as well as introducing censorship in various sectors of the media, and, thus, the Korean politics drastically shifted from the season of democratic spring to the winter of discontent.
Kim Haeju, our first curator of the season makes a persuasive argument through her selection that, the juxtaposition of dichotomous concepts such as; the economical growth and the cultural attenuation; and, the upsurge of radical rightists and the adulteration of democracy, are still pervasive in Korean society. Kim deplores that, in a megalopolis called Seoul, the hailed politics of development hinders even the basic protection of human rights. According to Kim, a symbol that epitomizes the untoward situation is the countless apartments that mushroom everywhere around the city.
The artist group Okin Collective was mainly established by those artists, who were forced to leave their apartments in Okin-don, Jongno-gu, Seoul, due to the redevelopment of the district. They first initiated an independent radio program, through which they introduced and diffused the voices of people who were forcedly deported from their apartments with tiny amount of compensation.
A similar situation occurred to Dooriban, a noodle restaurant next to Hongik University in western Seoul. The shopkeeper was offered only three million won (US $2,700) in compensation. When the shopkeeper and his wife suddenly lost their home, the local independent musicians spontaneously gathered around the former noodle shop, to protest against the ruthless act and to protect their artistic base in the district. They started an action that tried to go beyond the dichotomy of economy and art, which is still deeply rooted in Korean society. The site specific performance by Lim Minouk also sheds lights on those sceneries, communities and memories, which are being rapidly eradicated through urban developments.
Through three productions that she has selected, Kim echoes with French geographer Valérie Gelézeau and asserts that Seoul represents the ultimate form of the ‘Republic of Apartments.’ And, she argues through the curation that, democracy per se in Korea should start from ‘posing questions to familiar, and, thus, seemingly usual spaces.’
Being an art practitioner himself, our second curator, Seo Hyun-suk interprets our annual theme — 'Reconstituting Democracy' — from the creator’s standpoint, rather than the critic’s. And, in pursuit of a metapolitical solution, he asserts that perhaps theatre as a place for gathering could be the optimum apparatus for questioning the state of democracy in Korea. To begin with, Seo basis his argument on The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (2004) by Jaque Rancière. By referring to Rancière’s theory, Seo argues that art, which could directly effect the senses of people that precedes all action, could function as a political device. Concretely speaking, Seo asserts that the form of theatre should be reconsidered. He argues that different from modern western theatres generally performed in proscenium theatres, those post-dramatic theatres that were introduced to Korea around 2000, not only reinvented styles and forms of theatres, but also 'reworked the very apparatuses of audience, spectatorship and their senses.'
Artists that Seo has selected here all considers 'politics' in a metapolotical level: they try to initiate political thoughts by introducing various dissensus through their works within the everyday environment. Park Minhee has been trained in the traditional vocal music gagok, which is designated as the intangible cultural heritage in Korea. The audience participates in the performance by putting on a headset, and listening to the gagok singing individually. Through the privitized performance, Minhee questions how gagok, a resistance song collective sung by workers in the past, could affect the individual bodies listening to the reenactment of the song in the present.
Kim Boyon invites the audience to the front yard of the National Museum of Art in Gwancheon, from which Mount Chunggye can be seen in distance. The entire performance will observed from afar, as the audience watch two barely perceptible lights, located at different parts of the mountain, gradually approach each other (practically speaking, two undindentified hikers carry the lights). Through the attempt to detect the barely visible lights located afar, Seo argues that novel system of senses will be developed even towards everyday scenaries.
Kim Yoon-Jin's dance performance begins by inviting the audience members to a small shack in Guryong, an underdeveloped area that remains in the midst of the wealthy Gangnam district. The audience members are, then, segregated to four groups, in which different stories are delivered. When the reunited aundience share their stories afterwards, they become confused as the narrative each group has been told does not fit together. The performance proffers history as the process of mythologization, through which the audience could experience how those myth are collectively generated.
Through the three selected works, we could understand the crux of Seo's argument, which is to interpret democratic movements as an action that derives from the reconfiguration of individual senses.