People / Interview

Stimulation: A Talk with Kim Nam-su, a Dance Critic

posted 03 Jan 2013

TheArtro's relay interview series began with artist Chung Young-quk, followed by independent curator Lee Dae-bum, art critic Hyun See-won, and independent curator Joo Jae-hwan. Joo Jae-hwan now sits on the other side of the interviewer of dance critic Kim Namsoo, who writes about not only dance but also other forms of art.

Cosmin Costinas
Kim Namsoo/ Dance Criticism Kim Nam Soo began his career as dance critic by receiving the dance criticism award at the 9th Dance Arts Award in 2001. In 2003, he became editor in chief of the monthly magazine [Momm (“Body”)] and in 2006 created performing arts magazine [Pan], where he is still the editor in chief. He was visiting scholar for three years at the Nam June Paik Art Center in 2008 and served as standing research member for one year at the National Theater Company of Korea in 2011. He compiled the books 『Paik Nam June: From Horse to Christo』 and 『The Homecoming of Park Nam June』 and published other works. He also created the magazine [Quarterly Drama].

Joo Jae-hwan (hereafter Joo): Not too long ago, you gave a special lecture titled ‘Toynbee, Paik Nam June’, and Deleuze, and it is said that you had so much to say you went two hours over. I want to know what first triggered your interest in dance. It might have had something to do with your encounter with Kim Maeja, the artistic director and founder of the Changmu Art Center. Perhaps there were opportunities and trials that you took on. How long did you do that?

Kim Namsoo (hereafter Kim) : In the Changmu Art Center there was a spirit that tried to create innovation in modern dance based on the classics. I was with the troupe and center for about six years, until 2004. I was involved in the works of the magazine [Momm], which is published by the Center. However, I should first discuss how I came into the world of dance. Until my second year in university, I was just plain and ordinary. After I finished military service, I went back to school and found that all my friends were very much into Zen Buddhism. As the proverb goes, I followed my buddies to Gangnam. But meditation was very painful; sitting in one position especially hurt my legs. So I turned to Indian philosophy and yoga and became so mesmerized by them that I hardly went to school. I was totally engrossed. But after two years or so, I felt that state to be too static and quiet. So I turned my attention to something different and began watching classic movies. At the time there was a cultural center theater in Sadang-dong called Seoul at the Culture School. I used to go there every day to watch old movies. It was an eccentric lifestyle, but I think there is an ‘otaku’(Japanese term to describe someone with obsessive interest) hidden inside of me somewhere.

The French Movie Club screened: Nouvelle Vague movies including, “The Green Ray”, “The Woman Next Door”, “Pierrot Goes Wild”

Joo: Where did you see all those movies?

Kim : I rented videos, went to film festivals. But like I said, I went to that Seoul Culture Center Theater, where they played classic movies. It was a small and really feeble place set up by young aspiring moviemakers who were into French cinema. The inadequacy of the facility did not really matter. I enjoyed the classic movies so much that I soon put together a club for French movie lovers. I did some side jobs, part-time work, and watched movies. After watching thousands of movies, I got the idea that I should be earning a living in the field. I must have looked so pathetic that the then-editor in chief of the magazine [Momm], who I knew, grabbed my hand and took me to see my first dance performance. I appreciated what Editor Park Sung-hae did for me.

Joo: What was that first dance performance? And what is this “sharp kiss” that you referred to that inspired you to write your first dance critique?

Kim : When people enter the dance world, ordinarily they start with a classical dance like ballet, because of its beauty. For me, it was different. The first dance performance I saw was part of a series put together by Ahn Eun-mi Ahn Eun-mi titled [The Five Graves], which was her welcome-home stage after graduating from New York University in 1998. I saw [The Tomato Grave], which was such a shock to me. It was held at the Jayu Theater of the Seoul Art Center, and the floor of the entire stage was filled with red tomatoes. There was no space or spot for the performer to dance on because the tomatoes were spread all over the stage. “What’s the intention?” I asked. Then, all of a sudden, Ms. Ahn appeared from the back of the stage, and as soon as she stepped in, she fell. And people reacted by saying, “Oh no!” But she tried to get up immediately and fell again. And she fell again and again. And she continued to do so, trying to get up and then falling again. And after a while the tomatoes on the stage are crushed and squished. The entire stage is filled with crushed and squished tomatoes. That performance gave me an ontological shock. I had never seen anything like it before. Then something hit me: this is actually how human beings live. It was like seeing the body respond to a question without depiction or storytelling. That’s the kind of feeling that I got. And that triggered my interest in the art of dance.

Joo: I suppose Ahn Eun-mi Ahn Eun-mi Ahn Eun-mi broke away from the conventional thinking that we have in our heads of the image of dance. You work with Changmu for a long time, what role did you play there? Were your ideas well received by the artistic director?

Kim : As you know, she is one of the three legends of dance artists from Ewha Women’s University. She is really grand. She is large scale and has a courage unmatched by others. She made a very big decision in 2003: she turned the magazine [Momm] into an independent self-supporting entity and put me and others who were interested in developing it in charge. And I am proud to say that for the two years I was there we created a new wave in Korean dance discourse. We wanted to present reviews with challenging points of view, reviews with multidisciplinary foundations, and above all, we wanted to present criticisms on reviews, metacriticisms.


Ms. Kim Maeja in an interviews with global dancer Emio Greco in 2004. Next is then Artistic Director of Modafe, Kim Seung-hee.
Ms. Kim Maeja in an interviews with global dancer Emio Greco in 2004. Next is then Artistic Director of Modafe, Kim Seung-hee.


Joo: As you entered the dance world, you did a lot of research and met many people. And with new information on your hands you were able to discover innovative dance artists like Ahn Eun-mi Ahn Eun-mi , don’t you think? And such efforts led to the creation of the magazine [Pan], right? When was [Pan] first created?

Kim : In 2006. There were five volumes that came out on an irregular basis beginning in 2006. The magazine [Momm] was maintaining its position as an independent editorial and also as a self-sufficient publication, and it reached a certain level of readership and status. When that happened, Director Kim Maeja wanted to take it back. She wanted to transfer it back under her umbrella since it was doing well. My team and I said that we could not do that and we respectfully handed in our resignation. At the time, I had been discussing with Park Sung-hae, Hu Myung-jin, and drama critic Roh Yi-jung the possibility of putting together a publication that could cover all performing arts. We wanted to create a magazine that was independent in character, one that could cover visual arts, drama, or dance without really focusing on any one particular art form. We wanted to create something that could stand against society; we wanted to test whether we could penetrate the institutional walls with this lance or hit hard rock with whatever we were going to create. And the result was [Pan].


[Pan] Magazine covers all forms of performing arts, going beyond all stances in the field.
[Pan] Magazine covers all forms of performing arts, going beyond all stances in the field.


Joo: You have edited many articles, in what direction did you want to lead [Pan]?

Kim : If I may borrow what Mr. Yun Jung-seop said, by 2006 in Korean art, drama could no longer be called drama, and dance could not be called dance; somehow, the nuances sounded different. Approaching art with the flow of the genre somehow created too much fluidity. It had become liquefied. If something looked like dance, it also resembled a drama using the body; if something sounded like drama, it also contained or had been transformed into an unnamed art form that could not be really defined. Like Prometheus, the genres transformed or transmutated and created a strange experience that could not be captured for the entire duration of its performance, whether be it an hour or more. But until then, we had been framed into consciously recognizing different genre forms. But when we reached a certain level, the distinction between dance, drama, art, and media became vague and undistinguishable. Art had boiled down into one thick rice porridge.

Joo: Liquefied? By exchanging and bargaining with each other?

Kim : Yes. That is why when we created [Pan], we said that we should go with that plural and integrated flow. So if you look at the content of [Pan], you will see that social scientists, movie critics, and art critics wrote for it, creating an overall montage writing. Many readers said that it was too much; it was too chaotic. But it was the first time that such a montage- or collage-like writing was created in the dance sector. In literature this was already attempted by Joyce and Borrows at the beginning of the 20th century. And in art, of course, it was a very natural and common form used.

Joo: And what kind of readership and what kind of reaction did you get for [Pan]?

Kim : When the first edition came out, some people said that it was a fresh new idea. Many said that the design was good, and we received positive reactions. The design work by Seulgui and Min gave [Pan] a high level of recognition; it was nominated for the Korea Design Awards in the magazine sector. It’s funny that it was recognized for its design despite its low readership. At any rate, it was understood why Seulgui and Min were working with our magazine. To put it bluntly, it was a magazine that was appealing because of its experimental stance and design but not for its readability.

Joo: Did you have any disputes or arguments over the magazine?

Kim : At the time I was writing dance reviews for the ‘Hankyoreh’. I’m sure you know that writing a review for a daily newspaper versus for a specialized magazine has very different impacts. Once I decided to write a sharp review about a performance called [Disciple] by dancer Kuk Su-ho. What I wanted to point out was that creative dance in Korea was the re-creation of classical dance, but classical dance was not free from existing fixed practices. And if such outdated methods continued it would merely be a repetition of old and worn out molds. I made a catastrophic diagnosis of this point. At the time I was part of the dance world, but I also belonged outside of it. In reaction to my writing, dance critic Kim Tae-won wrote an afterword-like piece in defense of Kuk at the end of the magazine [Performance and Review]. But the problem was that that after word was not just a defense of the performance? it was a personal attack on me. I wrote my counter-defense in our magazine, [Pan]. It was an attempt at metacriticism. But there was no reaction afterward. Frankly, [Pan] was in an odd position. It had a way of tickling the reader, of putting them in a very strange position. If there is no reaction, then it passes. At any rate, the magazine was in the very awkward of making art a multidisciplinary bridge. And I think that it is why it was difficult to show a reaction and why there weren’t too many interesting episodes that can be recalled. At least with regard to the magazine.

Joo: In the performing arts sector, the magazine may have looked like something of a cult, perhaps isolated. I get the impression that at the time, it was standard to follow existing trends rather than creating a new flow. And then you joined the Nam June Paik Art Center?

Kim : I joined in the spring of 2008. I needed to make a living. I was taking home less than one-hundred thousand won a month. I was at the brink when Director Lee Young-cheol called me in January of 2008. At the time I was writing a few pieces for the Gyeonggi Province Cultural Center, taking part in their criticism monitoring system. I took part in this project, which tried to measure and check whether artists based in the province were able to maintain self-sufficiency, for three years.

Joo: There is something that those studying art history or art discourse must assume more responsibility for. For example, when they talk about Korean art history, they stop at the end of the Joseon Dynasty, and those studying modern art don’t even bother to look at the art of the past. It is not normal to slice what has happened in the spectrum of history as if slicing a piece of radish.

Kim : There is confusion in the senses. This confusion ultimately comes from the deprivation of history. There is no way to access the many works and writings that were left by our ancestors. The civilization based on the Hanja characters or Chinese based characters in East Asia is actually the repository of new thoughts. But we have no way of accessing them. Likewise, the folk art of our past and our white porcelain are uniquely and exclusively Korean, not Sinicisms. But no new light is being shed on these, nor has there been any reappraisal of outside perspectives.

Joo: But this problem can be attributed to education, don’t you think? Isn’t this type of method in education and the means of encouraging it?shedding new light on traditional culture and using it creatively?too weak? Despite the fact that our culture is really a very rich spiritual resource going forward...

Kim : What I am interested in right now is the concept of ‘memes’. ‘Memes’ survive in the very long process of cultural re-creation and are then conveyed to us. But we do not know the origin and development of that ‘meme’. For example, there was a poem by Kim Sowol titled “Sanyuhwa” (Flowers in the Mountains). Apparently, this poem comes from a song that used to be sung by the people of Baekje when the kingdom was coming to an end, for although the nation was perishing, spring flowers continued to bloom. So the song was sang a lot and it ended up spreading towards the Seonsan area in North Gyeongsang Province. There, it transforms into a song titled “The Song of the Flowers in the Mountains,” which depicts the story of a young woman called Hyang-rang who dies trying to guard her chastity. Trying to guard and defend one’s chastity can be actually applied to a nation as well as a woman. Not too long ago, I searched for the word ’sanyuhwa‘ on YouTube, and a song by popular singer Nam In-su popped up. It had the same title, but I had never heard the lyrics before. It was his version of “Flowers in the Mountains.” Then we move to the Liberation time period. On November 12, 1948, classical singer Park Eun-young held a coming-home recital. At the concert, the best composer of all of Joseon, Kim Sun-nam, introduced two titles for the first time: one was “Azaleas” and the other was “Flowers in the Mountains,” or “Sanyuhwa”. They were modern pieces that used the rhythm of shaman rituals and funeral processions. This series of processes has urged a genealogy of “Sanyuhwa”?this is what ‘memes’, the genealogy of ‘memes’, are all about.

Joo: I know that you are very interested in the history of the Three Kingdoms and shamanism. How do you think that we can apply mythological imagination to our current time period?

Kim : The National Theater Company is currently staging a drama series under what it’s called the [Three Kingdom Heritage Project]. I am involved to a certain extent as a part of the research and publication team. There have already been discussions about how mythological imagination can be applied or brought into the arts. Particularly, the quarterly magazine [Drama] has focused on this issue since its creation. Directors Oh Tae-seok, Sohn Jin-chaek, and others are using 『History of Three Kingdoms』 as manual, a philosophical basis, for the dramas. They are also reinterpreting the works using ‘gut(shaman rituals)’ as the format. I have no objections to that. The only thing is, however, when reading 『History of Three Kingdoms』, one should not be merely trying to look for material or motifs for a play. Rather, one should be looking at what feelings or senses the mythological worlds of the Three Kingdoms can create. That’s the answer that should be sought. Stories of fantastically strong deities and their transformations are good for fantasy stories. But how do we find beauty in them? In Western culture there is Ovid’s story of transformation, 『Metamorphoses』, and in China there are 『Classic of the Mountains and Seas 』and 『Natural History』. 『History of Three Kingdoms』 is filled with transformation and metamorphosis stories that resemble mythological fantasy books. Transformation from human to animal, or vice versa, was possible. When the skin of a tiger was worn, it was transformed into a tiger! By eating mugwort and garlic alone, a bear was transformed into a beautiful woman. Transformation is the master key that simultaneously establishes tragic and happy links between humans and nature. And this is the motif that is widely used in the performing arts in the western world. I believe that this motif must be rediscovered in us through the heritage and history of the Three Kingdoms. The clue to reading 『History of Three Kingdoms』 is being able to read the ‘hanja’, the Chinese characters. For example, in the myth of Dangun, the story of the foundation of our nation, there is an expression ‘un-deuk yo-shin’(웅득여신 or 熊得女身), which means receiving the body of a woman from being bear. It is derived from the expression ‘deuk-shin’(득신 or 得身), which means being able to receive a body. There is also the expression ‘hyun-shin’ (현신 or 現身). Kim Yushin, the general that united the Three Kingdoms, makes an offering to three goddesses after being saved by them; the three goddess then appear before him, which was called ‘hyun-shin’. There is also the expression ‘jak-shin’(작신 作身), which is about two Buddhist monks who transformed into a golden Maitreya bodhisattva upon passing the test of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Making is realizing. And this transformation code is all over 『History of Three Kingdoms』. The word ‘byun-shin’(변신 or 變身) or transformation also appear in the History. The Hanja character is a language that has pictures and the pictures can be traced all the way back to the inscriptions in bones and shells used in prehistoric times.

Joo: In the next stage of your life, you moved to the Nam June Paik Art Center. How long were you there?

Kim : About two years. When director Kim Young-cheol called me, it was so unexpected and surprising. The first six months were hell because it was difficult for me to find something to do in a visual arts museum. I began reading some translated texts by the artists at Nam June Paik, and that’s when it all began. I became involved in the center’s programs for knowledge production. Paik Nam June’s way of thinking is actually symmetrical. When he expressed himself through musical performances, too, it was interesting to see the corresponding arrangements. The first observation was on Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and Yi Sang’s “Ogamdo” (“The Five Senses”). What do you suppose is the least common denominator between Yi Sang’s poem “Ogamdo” and giving all twelve notes equal importance?playing all eight musical notes, do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, and do, and the four black semitones of the keys. The poem goes something like, “The first child says he’s afraid / The second child says he’s afraid / The third child says he’s afraid... “ and this continues to overlap all the way to the thirteenth child. It is the meeting between East and West; it is a simultaneous meeting.

Joo: There seems to be several books on Paik Nam June by a few art critics. When will your book on Paik come out?

Kim : In the process of opening the center, I not only studied Paik Nam June a lot but I also experienced the curating of Lee Young-cheol, the head and director of the Art Center. Along with doing research, he folded and unfolded the flow of space to create visualization. These processes were extraordinary and new for someone who did not have a background in the visual arts. We put together a resource book titled 『The Coming Home of Paik Nam June』, and the compilation and editing of this book was no different than curating the Art Center. In other words, the exhibitions created this sense of turning over each page of a book, while the book used the logical flow of an exhibition pamphlet or catalogue. I spent ten months of ups and downs with Director Lee before this book was published. I am very happy that we were later able to publish Paik’s writings, which I edited under the title of 『Paik Nam June: From Horse to Christo』. I was expecting to see a boom of attention and research on Paik after the publication of that book. Director Lee said that he did not expect that; he was right.


Resource Book: 『The Homecoming of Paik Nam June』, 2009
Resource Book: 『The Homecoming of Paik Nam June』, 2009


Joo: The culture and arts field is also dominated by this rule of winner-take-all. From time to time, we see in reality shows the works of ordinary people making art or sculpting. It would be great to see some of these works of nameless artist exhibited in galleries and museums. Do you agree with that, and would it be possible for something like that to happen?

Kim : In the West, it’s been a long time since a museum or gallery has become a setting for education. At the Nam June Paik Art Center role in education and as a space that open for the public has slowly moved to the forefront. I think that position still stands today. I would really like to discuss the idea that you just presented. For example, museum docents are like fingertips, if we were to compare it to the human body. The fingertips are like the antenna that touches different object, feeling and sensing what they are. In museums, unfortunately, the fingertips are ignored. The researchers and so-called experts in the field sit in big offices on the top floor of the museum, and they have limited contact with the public. The docents are the ones that have direct contact with the public, the ones who provide the stimulation.

Joo: I hear that you were recently involved with the Asia Cultural Development Center. I would like to know about your future plans.

Kim : It looks like there is a flow happening in Gwangju, a movement to reclaim Asia that says Asia is part of one’s own body, not someone else’s. Japan has a history of pursuing illusory “civilization” and Westernization, like with the “Datsu-A Ron,” which declared that the “wind of Westernization” was blowing through the East. We actually have something like that too. Geographically we are part of Asia, but at heart we do not really feel Asian. You know what I mean? So this effort to build an Asian Cultural Center is like trying to get rid of that division. It is as if Asia were the actualization of art, a production of knowledge, and a contest of hegemony. These are things that are actually happening. It is Asia in comparison to Europe. Asia is a continent but it is also a civilization and a community of the conscious and the subconscious. It is a position that stands against the West. If that is so, knowledge must also be sorted out accordingly. Somehow we don’t seem to quite know what we have to say.

Joo: After Liberation, the Korean peninsula was divided and we underwent an atrocious war. Even today, relations between South and North Korea are hostile and confrontational rather than cooperative. Look at the bombing of Yeonpyeong Island and the explosion of the ROK ship Chonan. I would like to know the approach, or rather, attitude, that artists have on inter-Korean relations.

Kim : On that issue, my interest and position are one. We need a renewed approach to minjung art, the people’s art. We need to do study artists like Paik Su-nam and Oh Yoon from an anthropological perspective. The works of Paik Su-nam are especially interesting in that they are very bold and dynamic. We can see his courageous inner thoughts as well as his subconscious. There is an expression for such generous or benevolent boldness. We need to have this boldness expressed by artists in the 1980’s, who had a scale and boldness that incorporated both the clean and the dirty. The complex order that we currently live in cannot be solved solely through reviews from social science point of view. We need a big heart that can boldly embrace taking in the virtues of both sides. A Korean peninsula where the tiger and the bear dance together, where all the Korean people dance together?that dance will be the one to link both the sky and the earth. We need researchers and experts that will be able to spread such sensations.

Joo: In our discussion today I was able to hear your position?that we must try to encourage our arts and culture in a direction that will awaken us from false illusions. It was very valuable time spent being able to talk to you. You have such great interests, ranging from classic languages to the arts. It is too bad I was not able to hear more of your thoughts due to page limitations.

Joo Jae-hwan

Leaving Hongik University after one year in 1960, he entered the art world in 1980 with. He has been very active in the minjung art, the people's art. He held four solo exhibitions as well as many joint exhibitions. 

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