Hwayeon Nam

Hwayeon Nam on alternative archives and the modern dance of Seunghee Choi

Hwayeon Nam, Dancer from the Peninsula, 2019, multichannel video installation, color, sound, dimensions variable. Photo: GIM IKHYUN. Courtesy of Hongcheon-gun.

Over the past eight years, the Korean artist Hwayeon Nam has explored social and historical choreography and temporal reroutings of archives through the figure of Seunghee Choi (1911–1969). A pioneer of modern Korean dance and a national icon whose life and career were marked by colonial occupations, clashing ideologies, and peninsular war, Choi was born the year after Japan annexed Korea. She studied dance in Tokyo at age fourteen and later toured internationally, counting among her audience and admirers figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau, Yukio Mishima, and Pablo Picasso. Choi’s legacy is controversial in contemporary Korea. She has been framed variously as a cosmopolitan New Woman, a Japanese collaborator, and a Communist who married a Marxist scholar and, in 1946, defected to the North. There, she helped establish dance schools and held positions in the government administration until she was disappeared in the 1960s. Here, Nam—who represented South Korea in the Fifty-Eighth Venice Biennale—talks through her exhibition “Mind Stream,” at Art Sonje Center, Seoul, which runs from March 24 through May 10, 2020.

THE FIRST TIME I FELT COMPELLED to incorporate Seunghee Choi into my practice was when I encountered a 1936 recording of her singing an adaptation of Billy Cotton’s 1933 ballad “A Garden in Italy.” Throughout her life and especially in the 1930s, she was more or less active on all cultural fronts, including starring in the film Dancer from the Peninsula (1936), directed by the Japanese literary critic Kon Hidemi and based on Choi’s autobiographical stories of building her career in Japan. The intimacy of hearing her voice seemed to diminish the gap between me and this distant historical figure, and I became curious about her artistic pursuits, especially when the adjectives often attached to her—legendary, tragic, beautiful, political, apolitical, et cetera—were stripped away. Entangled as it was with the political tumult of her time—the Japanese occupation of Korea, World Wars I and II, the Korean War—Choi’s life often overpowers her modernism.

The performance A Garden in Italy, 2012, was the first theatrical work I made devoted to Choi. I deliberately chose not to address any biographical details, focusing instead on the relationship between her dances and their documentation, as well as on how a performance might function as an archive for a contemporary moment. For the multichannel video installation Dancer from the Peninsula, 2019, exhibited at the Venice Biennale’s Korean Pavilion last year, I took a different approach. I looked at the period following Choi’s return to Japan after her 1937–40 world tour, when she declared her intention to establish the art of East Asian dance by incorporating traditional Korean, Japanese, and Chinese dance and theater. Interestingly, in 1941, she wrote in the Korean magazine Samcheolli that she was “importing” Asian dance from the West, reflecting on how notions of the East were constructed from the outside. Over the course of my making Dancer from the Peninsula, Choi’s presence appeared to me slowly. She felt both familiar and distanced at the same time. Near the end of the working process, I observed that she had become split into both the subject and object of research.

View of “Hwayeon Nam: Mind Stream,” 2020.

Each work in “Mind Stream” is titled after one of Choi’s pieces. My performance Ehera Noara, 2020, for example, takes its name from the first Korean dance Choi performed in Japan, in 1933, and begins with literary quotations about the dance from the Japanese novelist Kawabata Yasunari and the Japanese modern dancer and composer Ishii Baku. I wasn’t aiming to represent the original, but rather to create layers in the archive and to meditate on the role of artistic subjectivity in the act of archiving, as well as the unreliability of performance documentation, dance’s vulnerability as a medium, and the mixing of temporalities.

An entire floor of Art Sonje Center is dedicated to documentation of Choi’s work and life, which is necessarily fragmentary, dispersed, and disorganized. There is no public archive of Choi’s oeuvre, and it’s very difficult to access existing materials. In South Korea, it was only in 1989 that the state permitted the publishing of records and works of artists who had defected to the North. I’ve heard that North Korea might have relatively organized archives on Choi. Most of the documentation I’ve been able to find has been reproductions of reproductions, and in Japan and China I found piles of newspaper records on her that I’d never seen in Korea. Every element of the exhibition is organically intertwined, referring to other elements to create a spatiotemporal circuit or cycle and an alternative archive of Choi—one where the matter of women’s bodies, dance, history and the present can be reorganized and choreographed in different ways. These encounters and collisions enabled me to surface the gaps, erasures, and contradictions in Choi’s life and work. These are what interest me the most.