Crossing the Line

Choreographer Nahoon Park. (All photos: Travis Jeppesen)

IT IS NO EXAGGERATION to say that throughout the past month, the eyes of the entire wide-awake world have been on the Korean peninsula, with history being made on a near-daily basis. Even the German capital—home to an increasingly sizable Korean expat community and a host to both North and South Korea’s embassies, positioned within walking distance of each other—has not been immune to these moves. Whispers regarding the ambassadors of said embassies suggest that pleasantries were exchanged during a chance social gathering that took place around the time of the first summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in––an innocuous meeting that nonetheless would have been unthinkable only a year ago.

Little surprise, then, that curator Joanne Kim would select “borders” as the theme of the Korean Interdisciplinary Arts Festival, sponsored by the South Korean embassy and hosted in the environs of the Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. Over the course of ten days, the festival brought together six Korean and Korean diasporic artists for an exhibition and lively program of performances, talks, and readings. As Kim told me, “All the artists are in their late thirties and early forties. So they all have a very personal relationship with the outcome of the Korean War, and a concrete idea of what a border means.”

After a welcome speech by ambassador Bumgoo Jong, three of the artists—Soyoung Chung, Biho Ryu, and Hwang Kim—gave back-to-back performances that served, in varying ways, as extensions of their exhibited work. Chung’s work involves itself heavily in the poetics of the geological. Against a video projection of tectonic plates, Chung delivered a poetic discourse on the notion of earth memories as things “that neither you nor I remember.” Borders that transcend geopolitical conventions, invisible to the naked eye.

Artists Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo, Jinny Yu, and Kate-Hers Rhee.

Ryu’s performance included a reading of his poem (in English translation) “A Prophet’s Words,” accompanied by an improvised response by a solo dancer. The poem directly elicits the “black ash” and “dark blood” of battle, hinting at one of perhaps millions of tragic narratives that assumed commonplace status during the three years that the Korean War wrenched apart the peninsula:

seventy years ago in a war,
a father said good-bye
a son remembers and laments
and prays for the father that did not return

With no peace treaty ever signed—though its potential now, after all this time, could be on the horizon—the speaker of the poem reminds us that the two Koreas are still technically in the midst of a civil war, one that has continued to play out over decades in the form of propaganda battles and verbal skirmishes that have occasionally erupted in acts of violence. “Living in the present,” the poem implores:

how can we comfort ourselves?
how can we find the warmth?
how to overcome the past?

In 2010, Hwang Kim staged an elaborate project in which he filmed a somewhat tongue-in-cheek video of South Korean actors playing young North Koreans explaining to their compatriots how to make pizza. He then arranged to have DVDs of the film, Pizzas for the People, smuggled into the North. In return, several North Korean viewers wrote letters assessing the films on the merits and minuses of the actors’ performances. One of these letters, which was read in a live performance by a North Korean refugee who goes by the name of Jun (as he still has family in the North who he wants to protect), included a sweetly gushing expression of fandom for one of the main actors. Appropriately enough, pizza was served at the end of the evening’s final performance.

Dealer Jinhee Choi, artist Helena Parada Kim, and curator Joanne Kim.

In the central room of the exhibition space, the paintings of Helena Parada Kim combine traditional Korean motifs with Western stylistic tropes hijacked from the High Renaissance. This unlikely fusion has its roots in the artist’s mixed heritage, which she discussed in a live conversation on Saturday, May 13: Kim’s mother is Korean, her father Spanish, and she was raised in Germany, where she still lives. She was paired in the conversation with her gallerist, Jinhee Choi, of Choi & Lager—which has branches in both Seoul and Cologne—and the talk eventually morphed into the challenges and promises of circulating such work in the Korean art economy of the twenty-first century. “Korea is a very closed country,” Choi noted, “and Korean artists have a tough time promoting themselves outside the borders.” Interestingly, Kim’s paintings of traditional Korean motifs, such as the hanbok dress, sell well in the German market. But after her first exhibition in Seoul this past winter, it was paintings that omitted such direct local references that generated the most critical and commercial interest.

The notion of borders that elicits a more personal, existential malaise was explored in the festival’s final performance on May 18. Choreographer Nahoon Park presides over a company that is known in South Korea for its interdisciplinary approach, combining installation and audience participation while stylistically infusing traditional Korean dance with the contemporary avant-garde. Vocalizing a pathological condition of never knowing exactly where one is at any given moment in time—certainly an experience I’ve felt in my lifelong journey of self-displacement, a condition intimately familiar to every emigrant—Park’s jerkily exorcistic display was a fitting attempt at an end, in lieu of an erased border.