Mirroring the Modern Art of Asia
Yamaguchi: One of the programs of the inaugural festival was Baling, which was an international co-production with the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (TPAM). As this work was well received among the people who attended the opening, it was invited to many cities and countries around the world, and has been embraced by an entirely different audience in a completely different space. I believe this was a major achievement for the Asian Arts Theatre. In 2016, the Festival Theaterformen in Braunschweig, Germany, included a special Asia feature. This event featured Ho Tzu Nyen's Ten Thousand Tigers, Mark Teh's Baling, and other works by Thai and Korean artists. In this way, German audiences saw clearly that Asia has a rich and diverse contemporary performing art scene that continues to speak to people today. I believe the initiatives and achievements of the Asian Arts Theatre ultimately left a significant mark on the international performing arts scene.
One performance that left me somewhat shocked during the opening was the Revolutionary Opera. I sat in my seat expecting something more modern, but it turned out to be hard-core propaganda opera. What were your reasons for including this?
Seong-Hee: We spent a lot of effort tracking down contemporary artist from China. We went to China several times in search for such individuals, but had trouble finding artists who fit the profile we were after. Frie had once mentioned she saw something in Revolutionary Opera and since then it had long been a subject of discussion between the two of us. For a long time, however, we could not find a context to introduce it outside of China. I reserved a ticket and went to see a performance which turned out to be unabashed propaganda.
After the performance, I was so shocked. I kept having an internal dialogue, wondering how I could justify my ignorance about the topic of modern art in Asia, especially considering my position as the Artistic Director for the Asian Arts Theatre. I was frustrated with myself for looking at this issue from an exotic perspective. I wanted to question that issue itself.
Up to now, each Asian country only looked towards Europe, never each other. I think it was about time to look towards each other. Part of this effort was to share the modern period of Asia.
Without an understanding of the modern period, you cannot discuss the contemporary. There has not been much mutual reflection among nations in Asia on this matter. However, I felt that discussing contemporaneity while omitting an understanding of the modern period would have amounted to being untruthful to myself. For this reason, I included Revolutionary Opera, Butoh, modern Indian dance as an invisible thread throughout the program.
I went back to China for research on several occasions, and met and spoke with art critics and historians, but all of them were worried about censorship and only gave me very cautious accounts on the subject. Then I met a film director by the name of Zhao Liang who suggested an interesting view about this issue. In his view, China went through a major transformation with the Cultural Revolution, and, without any necessary self-reflection, it quickly shifted to capitalism which arrived in the extreme form of commercialism and neoliberalism. He spoke of Revolutionary Opera as a product of the Cultural Revolution from the standpoint of feeling a sense of responsibility as an artist and fear as an individual for how China has been driven to where it is today by larger events without looking back at history. Through this critical view, he created East Wind and West Wind (2015), a mirror that not only reflects the Cultural Revolution but also present day China.
For the presentation, we split the large theater in two, and held the original Revolutionary Opera in one room and exhibited Zhao Liang's installation in the other. I did not want to impose my own standards on this configuration, criticize it, or portray it as either right or wrong. I wanted to see how the artist would present his views on the period of the Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Opera, and let the audience freely connect the Revolutionary Opera with China today.
Research on Southeast Asia
Yamaguchi: At the preparation stage, I believe you traveled to a wide range of areas to conduct research. Could you give us a brief overview of what kind of journeys you embarked upon?
Seong-Hee: Even before taking up the work at the Asian Arts Theatre, I had a lot of exchange with Japan. I visited China on many occasions but perhaps due to my wrong research direction, I could not discover the appropriate contents. However, I believe there is much potential in the country's cultural scene. In the meantime, I found a lot of interesting artists in Southeast Asia. If given the chance, I would not hesitate to work with them again. Every time I visited Southeast Asia, I received a lot of programming inspiration and learned a great deal.
Yamaguchi: I think the problem of modernization that needs to be reflected upon also exists in Southeast Asia.
Seong-Hee: I had the impression that certain histories only apply to us in South Korea and East Asia, but in fact, the same has happened simultaneously across the entire modern history of Asia. It was one of my most important discoveries in Southeast Asia to recognize this commonality in the history of different regions of Asia. Most of us remain isolated from each other's histories and I realized how vital it was to share such information across Asia. By thinking about Asia in such comprehensive terms, I felt my views on the future of Asia would also be strengthened.
The Local Communities' Understanding: Developing an Audience
Yamaguchi: Please tell us which concrete activities enabled you to gain the understanding of the local community in Gwangju.
Seong-Hee: Dealing with the local situation was a great challenge. The conditions surrounding the Asian Arts Theatre were extremely complicated due to a large web of interconnected interests. There were large international expectations for the Theatre because it had "Asia" in its name. However, the local community saw the Theatre as their gift from the politicians, so the people regarded it as their project and felt it should benefit them first and foremost. Meanwhile, the government had its own political agenda. Focusing on any of these interests would result in anger from other parties, and this pattern repeated itself. Even though that was the case, I felt we had to elicit an understanding or agreement from the local community, so we tried various approaches.
The local art scene is distinguished by a strong hierarchy. The power players established in the region probably thought that they were entitled to receive support, but they were not representatives of the local art scene and, in some cases, were the cause for much of the struggle among younger artists. We felt that the local power players already received most of the benefits of regional cultural foundations and other organizations so there was no need for us to support them, so we intentionally provided opportunities to produce new work to lesser-known young artists.
We created various programs to introduce contemporary art to the younger generation such as workshops by our residency artists. In the end, we included a slot in the season program for young local artists to produce and present their own works. This was not to the liking of the more powerful players and caused some uproar, but looking back today, I still believe it was the right direction.
Yamaguchi: That is wonderful. Even though you knew that a compromise would have made your life easier, you persevered in your conviction without giving in. I believe that must have been really challenging. I heard you also visited several art universities in Gwangju to introduce contemporary art.
Seong-Hee: We had to raise awareness of contemporary art for not only the artists in Gwangju, but also the audience. Gwangju is a city known for its rich traditional arts, and contemporary art was met with an incredibly strong aversion. There was a dislike of contemporary art even though people did not know much about the subject. From the start, we felt that it would be impossible to change the minds of those who were averse to the project in three years. So, if we were to build something from scratch, we had better go to places with more potential, targeting the younger generation.
We approached not only art communities but also students of art schools, social sciences, and Asian studies across the region and introduced contemporary art and the programs of the Theatre. We hired a staff who was originally from Gwangju to oversee the development of Gwangju audience, and drew up a strategy to expand the local audience and a three-year plan for a phased implementation. Once people became more familiar with the idea, we started making group visits to the Theatre, which was a big help.
Raising a New Born Together and the Producers' Role in Asia
Yamaguchi: Is there a new Artistic Director currently working at the Theatre?
Seong-Hee: The position of Artistic Director has been changed to General Manager, which is what is used in government-administration organizations. I have heard that the previous government understood that giving all authority to an art professional would yield favorable results, and that having government officials with the power to monitor, censor, and exercise control would lead to failure. For that reason, they apparently appointed an Artistic Director with wide-ranging authority to ensure the opening at least was realized successfully. As a result, preparations went well for two years. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the foundations for all the ultimate achievements were established during those two years. Thereafter, the position of Artistic Director was discontinued as part of a restructuring into a public servant organization.
Yamaguchi: I recall you saying previously at TPAM2016 that "we have now given birth to a baby and are faced with the challenge of figuring out how to raise it together." What are your current thoughts on this?
Seong-Hee: As everyone knows, this is Asia. That means that even if you build a house, government support will disappear as soon as the house is opened. Given this situation, achieving a certain vision inevitably ends up being impossible. We need to think collectively about how we can support artists across Asia with an open mind.
While it is important to persuade politicians and change their minds, this will not be realized in the short term, so we need to come up with an alternative proposal. It would not have been a bad thing for the Asia Culture Center to only realize its vision in a long term, but we have already reached the finish line. Japan is currently also receiving a lot of opportunities in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, but I believe that will not last long.
Seong-Hee: If we can say that the Asian Arts Theatre has produced results, one of them would be that we proposed specific ideas that may be implemented, and planted seeds accordingly. I believe the role of the Asian Arts Theatre was to build a place where we could look at each other, and share with relevant parties in Asia the fact that we are able to create works and share them with the world. I believe these seeds have sprouted and grown into flowers across Asia. My hope is to witness the further growth of what we started at the Asian Arts Theatre in the hands of different venues in Asia, like Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. So the journey does not end here, but instead successfully matures into a rich soil for contemporary art in Asia.
In TPAM 2017 and TPAM 2016, in particular, the curators commissioned by the Asian Arts Theatre were invited to several programs after building up their careers as producers; they got involved in other projects and also we had many younger artists from China come and go. I am grateful to be able to witness an atmosphere that is distinctly different from before.
Yamaguchi: I have heard you will operate as a freelance producer from now. Can you tell us something about your future plans?
Seong-Hee: During my days as the Director of Festival Bo:m, I could never have imagined a vision for the Asian Arts Theatre. It seemed like an absurd, politically-motivated project, but we established a grand vision, and I believe I was fortunate in that we got to develop such a dream through working on the project, and that I got to be involved in it.
However, as you know, the drawback of such a large-scale project is that it typically does not last long. At present, I question whether it is impossible to realize a vision without the colossal, whale-like system. Is it impossible to achieve a vision that is more grounded in reality? It is not an issue of the size of the project or its budget, but a problem of finding realistic mechanisms that can sustain the vision. I would like to invent such a system.
I have thus far been able to talk much about international co-productions and newly commissioned projects. However, while working for three years on the Asian Arts Theatre project, I learned about the limitations, possibilities, and impossibilities that linger in Asia, and I learned that large, whale-like organizations are short-lived. Weighing the pros and cons, I have decided to scale down, but I feel we must create mechanisms that can sustain a long-term vision and mechanisms that can be implemented at the individual level.
Yamaguchi: Thank you very much.
On February 19, 2017 at the Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall
More on Individuals/Groups Mentioned
Mark Teh, Baling (TPAM 2016 Official Webpage)
"European art scene leader Frie Leysen tallks about the role and activities of arts festivals" Performing Arts Network Japan Presenter Interview (May 11, 2009).
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Fever Room (TPAM 2017 Official Webpage)
Festival Theaterformen (2016 Edition Webpage)
Interviewer: Makiko Yamaguchi
After working on cultural exchange between Japan and Germany through music, theater, dance, and photography in the Cultural Department at the Goethe-Institut Tokyo, she managed performing arts exchanges, the promotion of Japanese culture, and information exchanges at the Japanese Culture Institute in Cologne (The Japan Foundation). From spring 2011, as Director at the Tokyo Culture Creation Project Office of the Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, she was in charge of the networking program. Since 2015 she is working at the Japan Foundation Asia Center for exchange and collaboration in the field of contemporary performing arts between Southeast Asia and Japan.
Interpreter (Korean-Japanese): Jooyoung Koh
Photo: Jouji Suzuki