Transcending national boundaries,
the Japan Foundation Asia Center carries out
cultural exchange programs to build up heart-to-heart
relationships between people and enrich the future of Asia.


KIM SEONG-HEE――Launching the Asian Arts Theatre in Gwangju, South Korea

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

The Vision of the Asian Arts Theatre

Makiko Yamaguchi (hereinafter Yamaguchi): I would like to ask you about the process that unfolded from the time you accepted the mission of launching the Asian Arts Theatre and created the program for the subsequent year, to the actual opening. I assume you mulled over the concepts and visions, and strove towards a certain direction. Can you elaborate on this?

Kim Seong-Hee (hereinafter Seong-Hee): The main vision of the Asian Arts Theatre was to become the hub for Asian contemporary performing arts, where perspectives, artists, and artworks could flow freely in and out. It aimed to create an arena where Asia could look at each other.

Since we did not have enough time to proceed in various stages, we concurrently pursued three missions. The first was to establish a conceptual definition of "Asia" and "Asian contemporary performing arts." The second was to create a production and distribution system in Asia. The third was to get the local community to better understand contemporary art.

To start off, we had to decide on a direction in response to questions such as "What is Asia?" and "What is Asian contemporary art?" But these were questions that could not be tackled individually. So we gathered Asian thinkers, critics, artists, historians, and social scientists to share their views on Asia. Kim Nam-Soo, the dramaturg, helped me organize this forum. Through this process, we realized that we cannot define "Asia" geographically nor historically; rather, it is an entity that constantly and organically takes new shape. Also, instead of pertaining to the Western, art historical definition of contemporary art, we tried to construe all the critical voices of artists who are talking, right here and now, about Asian contemporary performing arts. The process of getting to know and learning about these concepts and ideas proved extremely useful when we were meeting artists and creating our program later on.

A photo of Seong-Hee during interview

Seong-Hee: In order to become the hub for Asian contemporary performing arts, I thought the Asian Arts Theatre should support Asian artists, produce works, and disseminate them to the rest of the world. It was first necessary to create a production and circulation system for Asia internally, but I felt we should not limit ourselves to Asia but ultimately expand our scope to include the rest of the world. For that reason, we collaborated with people who already had developed and were leveraging such a production and tour system. I received a tremendous amount of knowledge and support that enabled me to add extra elements to existing systems.

Finally, because the Theatre is not located in the capital of Korea but in Gwangju city, I felt we had to persuade the local community and gain their understanding. Although we only had a short three-year period to deliver these achievements, we still were not able to cut corners. For that reason, we worked to create grassroots programs that maintained a close connection with the citizens of Gwangju.

Yamaguchi: You only had three years until the opening, which meant you had to move everything forward in parallel over those three years?

Seong-Hee: My term of appointment spanned the three years from September 2013 to September 2016, and the Theatre was scheduled to open in September 2015. So yes, we had to fulfill all of our missions within those three years. Generally, a theater, and especially one in Europe, I think it would normally take two to three years to launch a new festival starting from zero. In the case of the Asian Arts Theatre, we had to produce not only the inaugural festival but also a season program, giving us two programs or systems to create.
Even creating a system from scratch is an arduous undertaking, but we also had to cover the programming. And because the launch would be the grand opening, it took on even greater significance. So the organization of the Theatre—the technical aspects of the organization and staff composition—also fell under my responsibility.
I entrusted the season programming to several other curators, but we had to complete the entire programming within a short time. The Asian Arts Theatre actually produces art projects, so the production time is about a double of programs that invite finished works. In reality, it felt like we had much less time to work on it.

Yamaguchi: The situation surrounding the arts is often difficult. How is it in South Korea?

Seong-Hee: I think this difficult situation is common in all parts of Asia, but we have an extreme case of it in South Korea. Projects such as the Asia Culture Center need political backing to come together, and politicians have no interest or involvement in either Asian art and culture or providing support for artists outside of their own political motivations.
The same applies to government officials. They build houses, hold housewarming celebrations, and brag about their achievements, and that is about it. They have no interest in the actual content of the project. Any opening is simply for the sake of "boasting about one's house." Accordingly, the government will provide substantial funding until the opening of a project, but the funding obviously dries up after that.
Prior to getting involved with the Asian Arts Theatre, I directed one section of the opening program for the Nam June Paik Art Center, where the same principle applied. It is common practice in South Korea to provide funding and opportunities only up until the grand opening. Facilities such as the Nam June Paik Art Center and the Asian Arts Theatre are not guaranteed of any long-term financial sustainability.

A photo of during the interview

The Big History: Recapturing History Using a Longer Timeline

Yamaguchi: I would like to ask about the forum. There was one person who was the central figure in the project. I recall you said he was your dramaturg. Is that correct?

Seong-Hee: That would be Kim Nam-Soo. The most important point he raised was the concept of a big history. His opinion was that we needed to completely renew the lens through which we observed history. If you look at the twentieth century (which is our era) under a microscope, you find that it represented an era of colonialism and hardship for Asia, during which terrible damage was inflicted, and this set the stage for post-colonialism. However, this lens does not allow us to escape from a historical viewpoint centered on colonialism, leading to a vicious circle. Nam-Soo asserted that we needed a historical view that could serve as an alternative.
The essence of his point of view was to look at history using a significantly longer timeline; for example, the time when whales were still one of the dominant species in the world, or when the Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan expanded his reign. Or even the time of the British Empire. We can escape from the dilemma surrounding the history of Asia I just referred to, and move toward a proper historical view, toward one that embraces the future.

The second point of Nam-Soo's thinking that I found interesting was how Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa existed, conceptually, as a single continent before the twentieth century. With the advent of modernism and maritime colonialism, borders were created and continents were divided. In a sense, this resembles the mindset of Vladimir Putin, but it has nothing to do with politics; it is about the cultural sphere.
We should try to restore some of this history, try to imagine a time when cultures freely transgressed boundaries. At the inaugural festival, I selected Tsai Ming-Liang's The Monk from Tang Dynasty as the opening piece, a theater piece about a monk walking from China to the west (India) in search of Buddhist scriptures, because I felt this work symbolically showed the direction of the Theatre.

There was another major source of inspiration for our programming. We had always put the twentieth century at the center of our thinking, and the twentieth century, which is synonymous with modernity and the modern era, was an era governed by science, reason, and rationality, but it was also an era of rule by the West. It was an era in which tacit knowledge (i.e., knowledge that was not scientific, reasonable, or rational) was banished.
Our conclusion was that since we have now moved into the twenty-first century, we should adopt a way of thinking that is pertinent to this century. Nam-Soo and I reflected on how we could imagine the future based on myths, which in this case refers to knowledge that was banished in the twentieth century such as mythology, animism, shamanism, and so on.

Asia ought to be a treasure house for such banished knowledge, and we considered how to present this knowledge and connect it to the future. I believe the works of Thai artist and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul can be described as this case. Some examples of this include a dream appearing in another person's dream, human beings transforming into animals or animals turning into human beings, or a stage that seems to be receiving signals from a UFO. Such elements seamlessly transform into political reality or even science fiction worlds.

The last point Nam-Soo and I realized was that the history of Asia has been written by others up until now. We felt it was important to provide Asian artists the place to rewrite Asian history through their own voices. Ten Thousand Tigers, a theater piece by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen, How He Died Is Controversial, a performance piece by Filipino artist Raya Martin, and Baling by Malaysian artist Mark Teh, all challenged to rewrite history from their own perspectives.

A photo of Seong-Hee during interview

Asia in an International Context

Yamaguchi: Turning to the operational framework, I understand that, even though the Theatre is called "Asian Arts Theatre," the idea was not to narrow down the scope of the programs. In other words, to not program performances that consisted of art by only people from Asia. In this regard, I believe the decision to invite professionals from outside Asia was important to explore the international context. But the systems surrounding performing arts are different for each country. How did this play out in reality?

Seong-Hee: I believed from the beginning that just because we were called the "Asian Arts Theatre," we did not have to limit ourselves to an understanding of only Asia or involve only people from Asia. To understand what the position of Asia was today and also where it should be within the international context, I felt we had to consider all internal and external perspectives and systems.
I am Asian and therefore know how systems in Asia work. In addition to that, I received tremendous help on how to position Asia within the international context and how to operate the Theatre from that perspective from people who worked alongside me such as Frie Leysen (festival director), Max-Philip Aschenbrenner (dramaturg), and Roger Christmann (responsible for general affairs).

One blessing was that the four of us (Frie, Max, Roger, and myself) were commissioned to create a master plan for the operation of the Asian Arts Theatre precisely one year prior to my appointment. The vision of the theater and the methodology to accomplish it was formulated in this master plan. It incorporated a lot of detailed elements, and allowed us to immediately start working on our missions. Frie played an important role at the time of the master planning and vision setting.

When I came to the office, I met Frie and Roger three to four times a year, requesting their opinions, discussing issues with them, receiving their influence, interpreting their input, and allocating work to our staff accordingly.

Of the three, only Max worked with me in the office in Gwangju. We joined up in 2014. He was a major help for international works. Also, the Theatre did not have producers with extensive international experience, so the producers relied on Max and learned a lot from him.

Since Max had previously only worked in a free atmosphere in Europe, I believe he experienced a far greater culture shock than me when he arrived in Gwangju where he was confronted with Korean and Asian systems, political situations, hierarchies, authoritarian traits of government officials, inefficient administrative processes distinguished by a lot of wasteful effort, and the abnormal systems of the Asia Culture Center that opened without the necessary preparation in place. I think he must have had a tough time as he came to South Korea, a country he was not familiar with, and lived and worked there alone. I am truly grateful to him for his many contributions.

Yamaguchi: I also am still surprised by some of the systems set up in my own country; although they are probably nothing compared to what you have experienced. To achieve anything, you need to devote so much energy to things other than the actual content, and it can be irritating at times. Under such circumstances, you invested a tremendous amount of energy and maintained a strong resolve for the opening program and stunned presenters from Europe and the rest of the world. I really admire you for that.

Seong-Hee: The job itself was beautiful and a lot of fun, but there were many elements I could not understand on the governmental, administrative side, and it ended up being so much hard work that I doubt I could replicate again.

A photo of during the interview