Choreographer and dancer Ahn Eun-me is a person of eccentricity. She shaves her head, wears colorful clothes and is constantly moving her body. The unforgettable dancer decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her career not at a traditional theater, but in an art museum.
《Known Future》, which opened at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) on June 26, suggests a new kind of art exhibition where visitors dance under mirror ball lights, instead of solemnly looking around at paintings and sculptures.
Though the exhibit's English title is 《Known Future》, the Korean title literally translates to "Ahn is the future" or "This is Ahn Eun-me," ― a dual meaning in Korean.
"Most dancers would commemorate an anniversary with a few days of performances from their repertoire, but I wanted to do something different. Moreover, I can hold an exhibition for three months, but cannot perform for that long," Ahn said of her new exhibit at a press preview June 26.
Baek Ji-sook, director of SeMA, said Ahn's exhibition is an example of busting the boundaries of genre in contemporary art.
"Ahn is a modern dancer whose body is her asset. She is involved in her own exhibition, bending the sense of space and time and creating new energy during the process. Participants will experience changes in their body and language. This might be the future we know, or don't know," Baek said.
Ahn made her debut with 〈Paper Steps〉 and founded Eun Me Ahn Company in 1988. Since then she has created dance pieces incorporating professional dancers as well as unlikely performers such as elderly women in 〈Dancing Grandmothers〉 and people suffering from dwarfism in 〈Daeshim Dance〉.
Last year, she once again received attention for reinterpreting North Korean dance, which has been invisible in the international dance scene for decades.
"I am introduced as an artist here. But I am a choreographer and I will also make a film, debuting as a director. I have been running, only looking ahead, and it has been 30 years. I thought of ways to commemorate and document my history and ended up at an art museum," Ahn said. "Reporting for work at a museum for three months is another challenge for me, but documenting three decades of my career in visual language will be my new growth ring."
Known for her neon-colored costumes and unique hairstyle, Ahn has sported the bald-headed look since 1992. "Women are forced to wear their hair long and I plucked up the courage to stand against it. This style suits me, doesn't it?" she said.
The exhibit features painting, installation, media art, performance and archival materials created in collaboration with musician Jang Young-gyu, lighting designer Jang Jin-young and costume designer Yun-kwan Modern Dance Costumes.
"I am a choreographer who dances, designs costumes and sets and does manual labor. It is my survival technique in the capitalistic society," she said. "I am a dancer and I convey happiness which cannot be bought with money. That is my responsibility as well as joy. Collaboration is my way of balancing with other creators from different genres."
The exhibition begins with 〈Please Catch Me〉, an LED installation that provides information on the exhibition while suggesting to come in and explore new paths.
Upon entering, visitors will brush by Ahn's colorful costumes hanging from above and encounter a glittering gold statue of the dancer.
Ahn's life journey is portrayed in a 16-meter-long painting created by painter Rhaomi and graphic designer Cho Kyung-kyu. It chronicles the life, dance and art of Ahn.
Then they plow through hundreds of transparent beach balls with Ahn's picture in it to the highlight of 《Known Future》 ― a stage within the gallery. Named 〈This World/World Beyond〉, a series of performances and lectures will take place at the stage to "elicit motion within the audience." On the other side of the wall, videos of the repertoire of Eun Me Ahn Company.
"Most exhibition-related programs are lectures, but we wanted to take a step further and make the audiences participation as part of contemporary art," SeMA curator Jeon So-rok said. "Body Dance, Eye Dance and Mouth Dance will provide an enlightening experience."
Body Dance program features dance lessons, including private lesson with Ahn herself. The one-on-one lesson focuses on emptying one's body, while other lessons are facilitated by dancers of Eun Me Ahn Company and Ambiguous Dance Company.
Ahn's company and Ambiguous Dance Company will rehearse their new performance for Eye Dance program, while pansori singer Lee Hee-moon will present "japga" (Korean folk song).
"This is the first time for me to unveil how to choreograph and make a new performance by opening up rehearsals to the public. If you come to SeMA every day, you will find out how we work through this," Ahn said.
〈Mouth Dance〉 is a series of lectures on current issues and contemporary art.
"Everyone has to dance, or at least shake their body, upon entering the gallery. I will display living bodies for this exhibit. The audience will see the performers, and vice versa, the performers will also see the audience," Ahn said.
"The concept of contemporary art has evolved and this exhibition is going to be an experiment of how live bodies and movement influence the museum space. I already blurred the boundaries between stage and seats by inviting audiences to dance in 〈Dancing Grandmothers〉. I want visitors to physically experience their thoughts."
Ahn's iconic look also comes from her colorful costumes, designed by the choreographer herself. Her sketches of costume design with matching fabric pieces will give a glimpse to Ahn's artistic nature. Visitors can have a close look, while listening to music by Ahn's long-time collaborator Jang Young-gyu and sitting on a fluffy cushion made from the same fabric as Ahn's costumes.
"Dance is a social language. People can communicate through these abstract movements and can discover the long-lost purity within themselves," Ahn said. "This exhibition is an unprecedented event and I don't know what will happen during the three-month exhibit and how things will go after this exhibition. But I will continue to return dance to the society."
《Known Future》 runs through Sept. 29.