Land of the morning calm, or the morning cool...as Korea is known as. Across from China, situated between the Yellow Sea and the East Sea, Korea is an archipelago composed of countless islands. Its mountain landscapes, home to dolmens, ancient temples and buddhas sculpted into the rock, plunging sharply towards the East Sea, alpine flora in the North, luxuriant vegetation in the South, and deep, narrow valleys to the West have, for the most part, been spared by its meteoric industrialization.
Through the work of four artists, four women, from different generations - Kim Kum-hwa is 84 years old, Ahn Sook-sun is 66 years old, Unsuk Chin is 53 years old, and Eun-me Ahn is 51 years old (*) –, the Festival d’Automne takes us on a journey into traditional and contemporary Korea. All four artists have lived through the political, economic and cultural changes that have swept through the country, taking it from acute poverty to a level of economic strength which, thanks to its exports, is now ahead of France, and from traditional culture to K-pop - all in the space of a few decades. Each of them bears the torments of this remarkable history.
From 1905 to 1945, Japanese occupation - consisting of a protectorate, followed by annexation, characterized by pillaging and widespread atrocities - provoked uprisings and stout resistance. Following independence, the disarming of Japanese army, at the hands of the Soviet Union in the North and the USA in the South, resulted in the partition of the country along the 39th parallel. In 1945, the USA gave the go-ahead for the setting up of military rule in Seoul. Elections, held in the South, and which were ratified by the UN in 1947, but voted against by the USSR, led to the election of Syngman Rhee as president of the Republic, later proclaimed in 1948. Repression of the guerilla was harsh, leading to a death-toll running into the tens of thousands.
The Korean War (1950-1953), resulting in the deaths of two million people, was brought to an end via a return to the status quo ante bellum. The reconstruction of South Korea, one of the Asia’s poorest nations, benefitted from American aid of a selective nature, leading to endemic corruption. Meanwhile, Syngman Rhee reformed the constitution on two occasions in order to secure his re-election. But in 1960, the level of electoral bribery resulted in demonstrations, and the resignation of the president (who sought refuge in Hawaï). The brief democratic interlude then came to a halt the following year following a coup d’état by the military, bringing general Park Chung-hee to power. A period of dictatorship ensued, ending with his assassination in 1979. The period did, however, see the laying down of the foundations of economic development, the pace of which figured amongst the most dynamic of modern times. Post-war reparations, significant Japanese investment and constant support from the USA, which Korea backed during the Vietnam war, were important factors in this growth.
In the three pieces that she will be presenting at the Festival d’Automne, Eun-me Ahn retraces this history not with words, but rather through the moving bodies of those that have lived through it. In preparation for Dancing Grandmothers, in 2010, Eun-Me Ahn travelled through the provinces of Chungcheong, Jeolla, Gyeongsang, and Gangwon. During the various encounters she made on the way, she asked a series of women, aged between 60 and 90 years old, to dance for her - rural folk in the main, but also pharmacists, butchers or the homeless. Without ever having learnt to do so, these women were able to recount, through simple gestures and movements of their bodies, the history of their country - the end of Japanese colonization, civil war, misery - in a far more tangible way than the words of any historical account or document could do. “Each of their movements reflected the harsh way of life. It was like watching an extract from a documentary which spoke of the past and the native land at the same time. The wrinkled bodies of these grandmothers were like a book in which lives lived out for more than a century had been stored away. […] As we went from one encounter to the next, what we were seeing was the incarnation of Korean history in the bodies of these women, as though they were books on the history of our country.”
Dancing Middle-Aged Men also tells the history of Korea, that of the male population born between 1960 and 1970. They are the ajeossi, a term which designates the generation of fathers or mature men. Born in the smoldering aftermath of the war, they benefitted from education, participated in the economic development, and saw a substantial rise in their social standing - but have also been subjected to the pressures of the fear of relegation, and unbridled consumerism. Their generation has never had to face smallpox or cholera, and has an average lifespan thirty years longer than the previous generation.
With Dancing Teen Teen, Eun-me Ahn brings to the stage the energy-filled bodies of the younger generations. Their form of dance is a more specific one than that of their Elders. Heavily influenced by the different media and the powerful bodies found in the pages of comic books, this is the dance of their idols. Their moving bodies convey the grueling nature of present day learning, with children learning to write almost as soon as they learn to speak, and beginning their study of the biographies of famous individuals, now risen to model status, from the moment they learn to read.
If modern-day Korea, with its urbanism and ever more potent signs of its new technology-based partnership with the West, has not forgotten its illustrious figures of the past, it has not, by the same token, eradicated certain ancestral traditions, shamanism being one of them. Here, shamans are often women (mudang), and in times gone by their presence was tolerated by dominant society, as long as their practices did not interfere with the structures of power in any way. For many centuries, the mudang, often called upon to resolve family conflicts, were able to safeguard many local and regional cultures, including those of the Court. Their proliferation, during the 1980’s, illustrates the passage of a society from an erudite to a money-orientated one, and put into perspective the dishonour that their profession was previously the object of. Although the introduction of Buddhism marginalized Korean shamanism, and North Korea banned all related ceremonies, declaring them to be “bourgeois”, its practice has been kept alive in South Korea. The mudang themselves stem from all sections of society and all the different established religions. The shamanistic rituals they carry out, even today, include a narrative partition retracing the exploits of the invoked spirit. In terms of its origins, the pansori genre might well have been an extrapolation of this partition. The pansori harks back to the shamanistic expressions of the Jeolla province, its birthplace, in the South-West of the peninsula. This story, relying on a mixture of song and spoken word, is performed by a soloist (gwangdae). A percussionist (gosu) accompanies the soloist on a drum and instigates the rhythms and their cycles. The gosu always remains visibly attentive to the inspiration and breathing of the gwangdae. The presence of the soloist, precision of movement, and art of storytelling, combined with the perfection, power, range and control of the voice, all play a role in the beauty of this enchanting art.
Today, the Festival d’Automne à Paris brings us the combination of these two traditional arts.
Accompanied by Nam Sang-il, Ahn Sook-sun will be recounting, at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Sugungga, one of the five classical pansoris still practiced today. Concurrently, Kim Kum-hwa, a living national treasure, along with her assistants and musicians, will be invoking the spirits at the Théâtre de la Ville in the Mansudaetak-gut ritual. Shamanism is also no stranger to musical creation. The composer Unsuk Chin also experienced it herself, in relation to her father’s Christianity: “When I was growing up, shamanistic tradition was still very present. We used to live close to the former airport, not far from my father’s church. Just next-door lived a shaman, and she always used to complain about seeing the cross every time she opened the window. The arguments went on and on”. The urge to leave the country, still under the yoke of Park Chung-hee at the end of the 1970’s, intensified, and eventually lead to her leaving the country in order to study in Germany, under György Ligeti, from 1985 onwards. Thus, the sounds of Korean tradition were to stage their return in Europe, with Akrostichon (1991), a concerto using the sheng (or saenghwang), the Sino-Korean mouth organ, and in projects inspired by Korean street theatre (Gougalon).
The Festival d’Automne invites us to discover these two different very different, yet mutually enriching, sides of South Korea, traditional and contemporary.
* In line with Korean usage, the surnames of the first two individuals precede their first names. The opposite is true in the case of the two youngest individuals, reflecting the order of westernized writing.