Nam Hwayeon (b. 1979) studied at Cornell University, the Korea National University of Arts School of Visual Arts, and Inter-University Centre of Dance Berlin (HZT Berlin). She has held several solo exhibitions including 《Imjingawa》 (Audiovisual Pavilion, 2017) and 《Time Mechanics》 (Arko Art Center, 2015), and participated in group shows such as 《Reenacting History》 (MMCA, 2017), 《Wellknown Unknown》 (Kukje Gallery, 2016), the 2015 Venice Biennale exhibition 《All the World’s Futures》, and 《Nouvelle Vague》 held at the Palais de Tokyo.
You’re in Venice again as part of the exhibition at the Korean Pavilion, four years after being invited to the main exhibition of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. How was the exhibition preparation process different from last time?
I was doing a research on the legendary dancer Choi Seunghee in preparation for my solo exhibition when I received a call from director Kim Hyunjin about the Korean Pavilion exhibition. My works for the solo exhibition were somewhat in line with the concept of the Korean Pavilion exhibition so there was no need to adjust the works to fit the context, but because the scope of my research was very broad, I had to narrow down the time period of Choi Seunghee’s life addressed in 〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉. Director Kim and I have worked together for a long time, and through the 2008 Gwangju Biennale and my solo exhibition 《Time Mechanics》 in 2015, we’ve become comrades, which helped us share more intimate conversations than back when we met for the main exhibition of the Biennale. She was also supportive of 〈Garden in Italy〉, my first work on Choi Seunghee.
〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉 is about Choi Seunghee, a legendary female figure in both the Asian and Western dance scenes of her time. As you said, she was the main subject of 〈Garden in Italy〉, your work featured at the Festival Bo:m in 2012. What brought you back to Choi again?
〈Garden in Italy〉 focused on the mechanics of the relationship between a performance and its archive, in other words, I was questioning whether an archive can sufficiently function as a performance, or whether a performance can function as a temporary or evanescent archive for a moment in time, which is why I tried to eliminate as much of Choi’s personal history and typical imagery as possible. The reason I was more invested in the relationship between performance and its archive was also because “a theater” was the given setting at the time. The piece meant a lot to me, and for a long time since, I’ve had pending questions. In 〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉, I sought to investigate through research the process by which Choi’s artistic format was laid out, reinvented, and developed in tandem with history from 1941 and onward.
In this year’s Korean Pavilion exhibition, you’re showing 〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉 and 〈Garden in Italy〉. What were your main concerns in producing and installing the works?
〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉 is a multi-channel video piece consisting of one main video and four sub-videos, and 〈Garden in Italy〉 comprises a garden to the back of the pavilion, an indoor structure that looks like a landscape, and the song “Garden in Italy” sung by Choi Seunghee in 1936. The main video of 〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉 is installed on the wall across from the window of the pavilion while the sub-videos are embedded in the indoor structure to allow for the audience to sit on the structure while watching. For me, creating a landscape that connects the indoors with the outdoors was important. Showing a video piece, I had to consider indoor lighting but I also had to work with the given circumstances, and since the space is structurally open, I thought I should take full advantage of the situation. The work and the garden was designed to look like they’re connected from the inside out like a flowing landscape, and fortunately, the audience is showing positive response to the organic connection between the inner and outer spaces. I think the subtle clashes created by the interaction of the space-time of the video and the time-space of reality are interesting.
The installation methodology of connecting the indoor and outdoor spaces can be interpreted in a similar way to the geopolitical position of “the Korean Peninsula,” which is both isolated and open, and to the life of Choi Seunghee, a cosmopolitan modern woman who lived under Japanese colonial rule. The line between the cosmopolitan figure and the peninsula triggers various interpretations. What messages are there in 〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉?
“The dancer from the peninsula” was actually a phrase used to refer to Choi Seunghee in Japan. The film on Choi made by Japanese filmmaker Hidemi Kon around 1935 was also entitled 〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉. I looked it up, but the film was lost and only one or two stills were remaining of it. If the Japanese film highlights Choi’s cosmopolitan life as a prominent dancer from Joseon, my work focuses on her life afterwards. Given that the histories of artist Choi Seunghee and the Korean peninsula are inseparable, we can begin to contemplate the ways in which “the peninsula” intersects with “the dancer.” Through this work, I hoped to broaden the definition of “the peninsula” beyond its geopolitical meaning, and to highlight Choi as more than “a dancer.”
What was “her life afterwards” like? Could you explain?
The timeframe my work delves into is from 1941 to 1946, which was when Choi defected to North Korea. When she came back to Korea after touring around the world at the time, she would tell people that she was importing "Oriental dance.” She was acutely aware of the Western perception of the East and had an idea as to how she should reestablish her artistic identity. In 1941, Korea was consumed by the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and Japan was entering the Pacific War. Choi distinctly says that she wants to perform “Oriental dance.” Any performance program for the Japanese military camp in China had to include Japanese-influenced dances such as Noh (能) or Bugaku because there was pressure, but her idea was to incorporate motifs from the Beijing Opera to establish and perfect an “Oriental dance.” I thought, this was her way out or a break from the reality of having to perform for the Japanese, and also an entrance into a new artistic territory. After liberation, Choi leaves China to return to Korea and eventually crosses over to North Korea to make dance dramas like 〈The Story of Sadoseong〉. I am not her, so I could never know, but perhaps the North Korean style dance drama was the perfectly appropriated version of “Oriental dance” that Choi was after.
With that said, however, there wasn’t enough material among her archives for me to reenact her “Oriental dance,” and my interest has never really been in the reenactment of her dance. But ironically, as I looked into the figure and examined all the remaining evidence of her, the missing gaps in her history became an opportunity for me to really come in contact with the artist and her works. For example, in the process of studying the remaining evidence of Choi, I researched the elements of the Beijing Opera at the time, such as the lanhuazhi (hand gestures of Beijing Opera) and the Hua Dan (花旦, a lively, vivacious young female stock character), and Japanese Noh, and I would intervene and combine the dances together to choreograph an “Oriental dance” of my own, which would then be incorporated into my final work. The initial choreography was born from research, but while editing and rearranging the researched data into the film, another form of form of choreography was created.
Choreographic aspects stand out in this work especially because Choi Seunghee is a dancer, but your other works like 〈Operational Play〉(2007), 〈Delusion Beach〉(2008), 〈Operational Play〉(2009), and 〈Dimensions Variable〉(2013), that followed your early drawing works were performances, using movement and choreography as major elements. Where does this passion for dance derive?
I’m not sure (laughs). As an undergraduate student, I majored in sculpture, which involves the concept of time and body in many ways. I feel that editing videos is particularly similar to rotating the modeling plate around.
There must be a language or a system in dance and choreography, and having no professional training in the area, how do you get your works to speak a language of motion?
I’ve never tried to learn a systematic way of doing what I do. On the contrary, I’ve worked without one. But when I entered HZT Berlin, I did wonder what kind of language I needed to employ to communicate better with the performers. 〈Operational Play〉 presented at the 2007 Hermès Foundation Missulsang was a big turning point in my work. The performers in the piece weren’t professional dancers but regular people. I was fascinated by the unpredictable involvement of the bodies that dictated the work, and that led me deeper into the world of movement. However, I don’t think of movement as limited to a physical body. In 〈Imjingawa〉 (2017), there occurs a geographical shift as the original song gets passed down through history, and I thought that lining out the geographical trail of the song about the Imjingang river—how it came to be called “Imjingawa” instead of “Imjingang” as the South Koreans would call it, or “Limjingang” as the North Koreans would call it, or “Imujingawa” as the Japanese would call it—could be choreographic in its own way. 〈The Adoration of the Magi〉 (2015), which traces the image of Halley’s Comet, and 〈Coréen 109〉 (2014), which researches how Jikji simche yojeol (Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings) makes its way into France after initially being rejected by the National Library of France, also reveals that kind of movement. 〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉 captures my journey through the materials related to Choi Seunghee, and rather than implementing a certain action, I think that showing the navigation process itself is more choreographic.
Finding materials must have been difficult not only due to the historical circumstances but also because Choi defected to North Korea. How did you manage to gather necessary archives?
There are enough studies done on Choi Seunghee, but no empirical evidence or detailed records of her performance. I found impressionistic critiques by Japanese critics and texts from program booklets, and I’ve referred to studies by Korean dance scholar Chung Byung-ho, who’s been conducting an extensive research on her. I also did some research in Japan and in China, which was possible thanks to the help of many people. I received help from the Hongcheon-gun, where a memorial project for Choi once took place, and I also visited Japan and met master Ha Jeong-woong in person to ask for copyright clearance. Many art collectors and institutes including the owner of the 〈Portrait of Choi Seunghee〉 by artist Byun Wol-ryong, and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, allowed me to use their images. I looked into the copyrights as much as I could, but because Choi defected to North Korea, nobody was officially entitled to the copyrights of her remains, and most of the materials were copies of originals. I would have to know who the original photographer is to contact him or her, but it was impossible. There was no way of telling which materials were original and which ones were copies, and I believe there are reproduced materials among the archives in the auction market as well. The whole situation was quite fascinating in itself.
You’ve used archival materials such as photographs and records as the basis or the precondition of your works. What is their significance?
I see archival materials as embodying the unforeseeable temporality of the future. I’m interested in the collision between that temporality and myself in the present time, and how that manifests or operates as an incident. Rather than explaining or empirically reviewing something through the archives, I like to make detours or create deviations with the archives as a basis to reveal multiple aspects of the subject of the act of archiving itself. In 〈Garden in Italy〉, produced in 2012, the archival materials also intervene, not to reenact Choi Seunghee’s dance, but to reveal the impossibility of reenacting it. If you see a lot of movements like detours and deviations in my work, that’s probably because it’s a methodology I use repeatedly throughout my works. I think using archives is one of many ways to create such factual movement.
The text in 〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉 also functions primarily as an objective archive. You wrote the scripts for the 〈Operational Play〉(2007, 2009) yourself, and most of the text in your works mingles with the video or performance to create a multilayered structure, which shows that language is an imperative element in your work.
I like using existing texts in my work, and I always think about how to arrange and deploy them. Aside from the few I wrote myself, most of the text in 〈The Dancer from the Peninsula〉 is quotes from magazine and newspaper articles written by Choi. These types of text guarantee a neutral attitude. I may understand Choi a little more than I used to, but I’m not her, and this piece is partly about the encounter of two artists: Choi and myself. What’s important is how I encounter the artistic figure from the past and what kind of art I create through the encounter, so pulling direct quotes from the archives is a form of respect for the artist who no longer exists in this world, and also a way of keeping myself adequately distant from her. Some of the audiences asked me if Choi’s quotes are made up, and to me, this kind of entanglement is key.
Choi Seunghee is an iconic figure embodying aspects of femininity, exoticness, tradition, and modernity, but on the other hand, accentuating the figure can also conjure discussions on Orientalism, if unintentionally. This is an issue not only for your work on Choi but other works dealing with Asian women in the context of the postcolonial narrative. How did you decide to manage this aspect in this exhibition at the Venice Biennale?
I think Choi herself was aware of how she was being perceived in the West, which was why she would say that she’s importing "Oriental dance” from the West—it’s an interesting expression. But before being a female artist, I think that Choi was an artist representative of her time who laid the foundation for modern dance. And Choi’s Oriental dance sprouted from her inner conflict and division caused by the sudden changes of circumstances and the historical events at the time. I think her dance took a turn from the idea of Orientalism she had internalized. I think that her struggle to overcome her inner division—between the artist and as the individual, and between art and the outside world—resulted in the artistic invention of her idiosyncratic Oriental dance, and the process of this invention is what I’m concerned with as an artist. So then, from a situation where the invention process can only be imagined because there is not enough empirical evidence, what forms of new inventions can I come up with? This was the overriding question in my mind throughout the production process.
Editor, Art Magazine [Misulsegye]