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.
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.