Last night, invited by a young (and I mean young – 21 now) friend of ours, Dahci Ma, a filmmaker, we went to see a dance piece being presented in the context of a larger theater festival here in Seoul. She had worked with the music composer, who did the score for a short film of hers, Mysteries of Nature (which won first prize in last years New York City Dance Film festival).
Mysteries of Nature, Dahci Ma
So I pulled my head out of computer-editing, missing my self-appointed deadline for getting new film off to Rotterdam, and Marcella and I went to see the piece, Symphoca Princess Bari, (Note: the video clips in the link scarcely hint at the real vitality of the piece) at the Arko Theater located in the heart of Seoul’s theater district. In a shift from my local neighborhood – working class and funky – those in attendance were clearly the arts crowd, dressed spiffy and including a fair smattering of us foreigners.
Symphoca Princess Bari, Eunme Ahn
Opening with a totally sexualized sequence in which the “dancing” was more a pelvis-forward face-up crawl, first by males, and then by legs-spread women, it broke then into a series of energetic, beautifully danced passages rooted in traditional Korean legends, as well as theater aesthetics, accompanied with music similarly based but breaking far from the traditions, and then leap-frogging to contemporary pop – Michael Jackson type moves. Shifting back and forth from seemingly (though certainly not really) traditional sequences, to campy and kitschy ones, including a motor-scooter rolling on stage, the whole was a rollicking work, exquisitely danced (often verging on or actually acrobatic) from a troupe that was clearly top-notch, capable of seemingly everything. Speaking from a modest exposure to some of the best in dance, this group was first rate and very physical, as was the dancing asked of them. Likewise the choreography, staging, lighting, music and costumes and everything were first-rate. All in all, very impressive, though of course I had a few quibbles about some sequences and thought its descent into a kind of anarchic ending went on a bit too much, though isn’t that what anarchy is about, and when meant to reflect our contemporary world, maybe correct. In my mind I saw an appropriate exit point about 15 minutes before it ended. However it was really good and left me exhilarated on leaving. I told Marcella as we walked to a place for a beer or wine, that it made me want to retire from making, and take up spectatoring. Except I added that as spectator one had to be ready for 10 or 100 disillusioning experiences for each high.
While at this performance we ran into my fellow Yonsei colleague Seo Hyun Suk, who manages to get to a lot of such things. He told me the choreographer, Eun-me Ahn was the most well-known and best avant-garde choreographer in Korea, and from what I saw I’d say her troupe would be very hard to beat. And I told him about a gallery exhibition which David Hall, another Yonsei colleague (from Liverpool originally and teaching design in computerese) had told me about, an exhibition by Olafur Eliasson. Having seen the Eliasson installation at the Tate Modern some years back, I suggested to Hyun Suk that it might be worth a look, and in fact I was off the next day to see it. I’d report back.
Olafur Eliasson, Tate Modern’s Turbine Gallery
Unfortunately what was on display at the PK Trinity gallery in posh Gangnam did not remotely measure up to the Tate installation, which perhaps owed most of its grandeur to pure scale, and not to Eliasson’s artistry, or perhaps his lack of thereof. On display were 3 “paintings” which were color spectrum wheels, with spokes of poorly painted color radiation from an empty circle, one was just the color, one had little white spaces between the colors, and one black spaces. The painting was sloppy for a geometric-style item, lending nothing to it (unlike say Frank Stella), lacking the precision of a Bridget Riley or other such painters. Beside these three dull exercises was something similar done with lights running the spectrum and making shadows cast by a semi-circle shape mounted perpendicularly to the wall. Less than interesting. In an adjacent room a large mirrored sheet of metal rotated, casting reflections and shadows to no interesting effect.
In another room a sculpture in sharp angular shapes done in mirrored glass sat, inviting inspection which showed rather careless workmanship in something demanding perfection. Not. Three less than scintillating photographs of landscapes hung on one wall, and a circular ring hung from the ceiling, penetrated by a little color arrow-like rod. Snore.
Downstairs were two more pieces, to which the staff gave directions – sit here and…
a prism was mounted before a shallow pool of water and light bounced off a mirrored strip on the floor, through the prism and at a shallow angle into the pool. You sat before a screen, told to touch a pedal, and make waves, causing the colored spectrum of the prism to wobble a bit. The attendant burbled, “Make your own rainbow.”
In a final room was a light installation of a vertical row of neon lights on each opposing wall, one red, one green, and between a heavily fogged space. Entering induced coughing and the assurance of gallery personnel that it wasn’t toxic. From either end of the room, the far wall faded into a haze of light, which when approached cleared and revealed the stripes of neon lights. In the center both ends showed their lighting, and a mixture occurred (vaguely visible) but of little consequence. The ceiling tiling was visible, and an “exit” sign was readable at one end through the haze.
So Olafur works in light, but unlike James Turrell, his work seems mechanical and dead instead of having some spiritual reverberations. He seems more like a guy with a fat budget and a kit full of nice toys – to say there’s no sense of depth beyond the immediate gimmick. And further, his apparent interest in crafting these things – most of which are clinical matters – is indifferent and sloppy in instances for which exactitude is being begged. Here’s some further examples:
More Falling Water
As my friend David commented, this isn’t really art, but rather design – and there is a difference, however difficult it can be at times to find the dividing line. Working in a similar realm to Turrell, or for another example, Anish Kapoor, Eliasson seems a poor relative in almost all respects. Where Turrell and Kapoor both edge to the sublime in many works Eliasson seems only to clump along in a workman-like fashion, cranking out toys for the arts industry. And where their sense of craft echoes their artistic seriousness, Olafur’s indifference betrays his absence of it. It is probably this very no-threat quality which makes him a darling of the curatorship, like Jeff Koons.
In hindsight I sense I was tricked by the Turbine Hall piece, letting the pure scale of it delude me into thinking the actual piece itself was grand. The exhibition at the PK gallery convinces me this was an accident, and that Eliasson’s basic idea there was as tepid as the work here, and was given its grandeur sheerly by the size of the Tate’s hall. I will give it to him that he is one of the few who given the hall as their playground managed to successfully occupy it so that the work was not dwarfed by the space. [The other person to do so to my experience was Kapoor, with his massive red form filling the entire space.]
As spectatoring goes though, it was a good week – one really wonderful work, and one disillusionment. At that rate I’d venture out a lot more than my rule-of-thumb minimum 10 turkeys for each wonder.
Shepard tones spectrum logorithm