In what way is the history of Korean theatre symptomatic of the cultural colonialism that still exists throughout the country’s society?
Until very recently, the word “theatre” in Korea referred exclusively to American and European practices. When I decided to study theatre in my early 20s, the university curriculum was quite limited. Everything revolved around the Western canon. I left Korea in 2012 to pursue my creative work in Europe. When I returned home in 2019, I noticed that the perspective had changed somewhat. There’s a desire to rediscover the history of Korean theatre and tackle our own artistic challenges. What I found extremely troubling, however, was that no one was questioning the vision of theatre that has prevailed for over a century. There’s no recognition of the falsified discourse of the past, which is still largely present, so we cannot move forward. Once again, we prefer to erase certain episodes from history rather than confronting them.
With your Hamartia trilogy, you adopt the form of the performative lecture to explore certain aspects of Korean society today. Can you tell us a little about your formal experimentation?
Form is very important to me. I’m a theatre creator, but I’m also a musical composer and a videographer. How to handle different artistic languages within my creative work is a question I’m always exploring. The tension inherent in my journey, whether between disciplines or between nations and cultures, has pushed me to explore formal considerations in my work. I want to invent a new, unique form that will allow me to encompass every facet of my identity.
Since 2014, I’ve set myself the goal of finding a theatrical form that goes beyond a lecture or documentary. Since I address issues in South Korean society which most spectators that I encounter internationally know very little about, I have to include many historical and political elements in my shows. I try to enable an exchange with the audience around this information, a space where knowledge is not transmitted via a learning process but through an artistic experience instead.
Are your shows therefore aimed at an international audience that’s more or less unfamiliar with South Korean society?
When I presented Cuckoo in Korea, it was actually a very different experience from what I had experienced in Europe or in America, since the audience already knew about the problems I was depicting. With The History of Korean Western Theatre, I wanted to elicit an engagement from Korean spectators that was just as strong as the engagement I felt from audiences in other parts of the world. The majority of South Koreans don’t know the mythological creatures from our history or the more ritualistic forms that used to be performed on our stages, because they have been erased from our culture. I wanted to dig up this hidden part of our stories and traditions to incorporate it into contemporary Korean creation.
In your show, you view contemporary Korean creation in relation to questions of transmission and generational legacies. How is this important to you?
I try to articulate a metaphor revolving around sterile modes of transmission and look at how we can make them fertile in the future. Bringing practices and figures from the past back to life in order to manifest them in the present is a way of enriching our vision of the future.
For example, I invoke Bibisea, a creature that feeds on other beings and on memories. In Korea, Bibisea is always represented as a masculine being, but in fact, this is a feminine figure. Some 500 years ago, each mountain on the Korean peninsula had its own mythical creature, most of whom were female. The rise of Confucianism in Korea led over time to the destruction of all these goddesses. When I discovered this, it was a huge cultural shock for me, even though it was the history of my own country. Korean society remains extremely patriarchal to this day, and raising issues relating to feminism is still considered taboo. In my view, however, women’s voices are essential to envisioning the future of Korea.
We must work to reappropriate the full truth of our heritage and make sure our ancestors do not become sacrifices to history. I want to make the voice of my grandmother resonate with my son, whose job it will be to help shape the world to come.