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Art, Literature, and the Interstices

Squid Game

Have you seen Squid Game yet? Of course you have. You haven’t? In that case, quit reading this blog and go watch it now. It’s great! Besides, there are spoilers aplenty in this blog.

One of the things I noticed is that the logo used by the squid game looks a lot like the logo of my former employer.

It turns out the the games were literally filmed right here in city of residence, Daejeon.

Also, I have a pink hoodie.

Coincidence?! I think not!

There’s been a lot online about the translations being misinterpreted, and there’s a lot of cultural context that makes the allegorical elements a bit more pointed. Also, I just finished the series last night and could not fall asleep UNTIL 5:30 A.M BECAUSE THESE THOUGHTS WERE ROLLING THROUGH MY HEAD ALL NIGHT LONG. So I thought it best to write them down. Shall we?

I think non-Korean audiences can easily recognize some of the most blatant symbolism and capitalism allegory. Players are dehumanized and reduced to numbers. Later, they are compared to racehorses, an industry that the main character, Gi-hoon, was complacent in supporting through his gambling addiction. There are various symbols of hierarchy throughout the series, and a lot of the sociological commentary could have been inspired by the writings of Marx.

Downward movement means death.

Meanwhile, the corporate class watches, unseen, from above.

There’s a lot of color symbolism as well, with pink/red symbolizing the positions of authority within the game, and green representing the players/working class.

And Gi-hoon’s transition to red hair in the end could symbolize a new power dynamic for a second season. Or maybe he’s just a fan of Run Lola Run.

But there’s a level of depth and nuance that I think a lot of non-Koreans could miss. For one, the game was designed by Oh Il-nam, whose given name literally translates as “One man”. He is player #1, and many of the games resemble the ones he played as a child. Ironically, many of them appear in rooms painted with murals of peaceful fields.

These are a sharp contrast to the scenes showing the highly industrialized outside world of the city of Seoul.

Il-nam grew up in a time of rapid post-war industrialization and big economic gains for South Korea. The time he waxes nostalgia about was seemingly innocent, but South Korea was led by a series of dictators throughout the early years of his lifetime. If you go to Gwangju, you can still see the places where bullets chipped away at buildings when soldiers fired at student protestors. It may seem distant in some ways, but the most recent president before the one currently serving was Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a US-backed dictator. She is currently serving prison time for corruption. So despite the hardship of that time, many Koreans appeared to show tacit support for that kind of authority when they voted her in, and Il-nam, too, seems blind to the injustice of that time.

Despite the infused nostalgia, these games are imbued with violence, a metaphor for the fallout of policies that seem blind to others’ suffering. For example, “red light green light” is actually a game in which the main player (the creepy doll) sings “The hibiscus is blooming” in Korean. When she turns, you must freeze, or you’ll be out. The hibiscus is actually the national flower of Korea, symbolizing fortitude because of its hardiness. So making it the very first game sets the stage for it to become about issues integral to Korean society and question the values that thrusted it into becoming one of the richest countries in the world.

(Also, bonus! Here’s a mural I created of a hibiscus right here in Daejeon. Boo yah!)

And the other games like honeycombs and tug-of-war also have special significance in Korean culture, which non-Koreans may not recognize.

To understand a lot of the context and problems in translation, it helps to understand that Korea is very Confucian. Confucianism was developed in China as a means of creating social harmony and cohesion. Juniors owe respect and piety to their seniors, while seniors must offer benevolence and concern in return. For example, children must respect parents, and parents must care for their children. Also, one should venerate their elders, such as Oh Il-nam, who is actually treated almost as a pariah due to his inability to perform in the games. Also, women were traditionally confined to the home under this system.

But much of the critique also gets lost in translation because of the lack of honorifics in English. For example, the character of Minyeo (whose name translates to “beauty” in Korean), asks Deoksu, the gangster, to be her oppa, a term that literally means “older brother”, but which many Korean girls use to address an older male friend or boyfriend. If you’ve ever seen the video Gangnam Style, you may be familiar with this concept.

In it, Psy basically says that he, the oppa, is Gangnam style, so heeeeeeey, sexy lady, why not kick it with him? But of course the joke is that he is such a baffoon that no girlie is going to want him for her oppa.

The subtitles translate oppa as “babe”, but this doesn’t quite convey the relationship that Mi-nyeo is proposing. She is suggesting in return for treating Deoksu as her “elder”–a deal which in this case includes sexual favors–Deoksu should look out for her. (My friend suggested “daddy” as a on-point translation, which seemed more accurate to me.) Of course, Deoksu abandons her the first chance he gets. She vows revenge, and, in an ironic twist, they die in each other’s arms.

Also, in the original translation, the character Ali is polite to a fault. At first, he addresses Sang-woo as sanjugnim, a title that literally translates as “lord” in Google translate. His overly polite conduct makes Sang-woo uncomfortable, and he says to just call him hyeong, another term for “older brother”. The translations say instead “Just call me “Sang-woo”, which doesn’t quite convey Song-Woo’s shirking of social responsibility or betrayal quite as well when Ali’s last words are him calling out for his hyeong.

Ali is my kkanbu.

So there’s a societal critique made about how the competitive behavior breaks down harmony, social norms, and relationships. One might even ask the question of whether Confucianism is incongruous with this kind of winner-take-all capitalism. It’s got a slightly feminist edge to the critique, as women are overlooked because they are seen as weak for a potential tug-of-war contest, but the underdog team manages to succeed nonetheless against a team entirely of men, and a woman manages to become one of the three finalists, dressed spectacularly in a tux at the finalists’ banquet.

So yes, it’s in some ways culturally specific to Korea. But the heart of it is universal to many rich, capitalist countries that are experiencing high levels of inequality right now.

I have to say, though, I found the ending a bit disappointing. In the beginning, it seemed to be a collective story, with stories told from various points of view. I felt the allegory broke up a bit for a more traditional thriller and focused more on the drama between the characters. The collective story fell more or less to the wayside, and it became solely Gi-hoon’s story. I was hoping for the characters’ collective agency to cause some sort of an upset and that Gi-hoon would accept Sang-wook’s mother as a surrogate for his own and Saebyeok’s (whose name means “dawn”) brother as his own after his own daughter was taken away. But he more or less just throws money at them and runs away. He doesn’t really seem to have changed noticeably.

But who knows? Maybe it’s setting up the show so that we can dig a bit deeper next season. It’s still a great series, and I’ll be watching season 2. Just not on weeknights, so I can get some sleep. Also, I’ll need a mouthguard. My teeth literally chattered in fear during a few of episodes, and I read the director lost 6 teeth during production.

So good luck to Gi-hoon! May he get a lot of mileage from his Ronald McDonald hair.

Also, I made this. Even though I no longer work there, I’ll carry it with me everywhere. Just in case.

And who knew The Blue Danube could be so fucking scary? Now, I practically shit my pants every time I hear that fucking waltz.

SsingSsing

In my art, I’m really interested at looking at older visual forms and cultural practices and transforming them using media, technology, and modern sensibilities. Living in Korea has put me in direct contact with a fascinating and engaging culture to learn about. Being a “waygook-in” (literally translated as “outside person” or “foreigner”) gives me an outside perspective on Korean culture. I find that a lot of Korean viewers are often fascinated by a fresh perspective on Korean culture and are really interested in cultural remixing and seeing new representations of old traditions.

So I was really excited to find this new band called SsingSsing. They combine Korean folk songs with glam rock to create new songs. They also cross-dress to represent shamans’ way of channeling both male and female spirits.

It’s a radical form of neo-traditionalism that embodies a lot of what I try to do in my own creative practice. I can’t stop listening.

Art Installation and One of the Oldest Poems in Korea

I was recently invited to do an art installation in a small cafe gallery in Daejeon.

In a closet-sized space, I installed some small croquis drawings interspersed with lines from what is considered one of the oldest–if not THE oldest– surviving poems in Korea. Written in Chinese characters, the poem roughly translates as follows:

Divine strategies exhaust the heavens,

Exquisite calculations probe the earth.

Battle won your honor is already high,

Be content now and desist.

One of the challenges and risks of working with text and images is considering the relationship between the two. Should one echo the other? Contradict it? Give additional information? Or be something else entirely?

In this case, I tried to make the relationship enigmatic. But in the text as well as the images, I wanted to address issues of strength and vulnerability.

The original poem was written from one general to another, seemingly pleading with the general to give up chasing him. Ulchimundok pleads with Yu Zhongwen to accept what he has won thus far, to “be content and desist” the war going on between them.

In reality, Ulchimundok was luring Yu Zhongwen into a trap. When Yu Zhongwen persisted, he was defeated.

So far me, the work is about reconsidering what power and strength really are with a particular focus on the politics of gender and empathy.

What is real power? How do we engage with it, and how do we let it go?

My Mural

A few months ago, a few other artists and I were invited to participate in a government project with the city of Daejeon. Near the train station is what once was a thriving city center during the Japanese occupation. However, the area has fallen out of heavy use, and many of the senior residents there live in poverty.

The challenge that the city is trying to address is how to enliven the area without gentrifying it and forcing the residents out. To that end, they’ve invited artists and designers to bring life to the local community visually through projects such as murals and various other forms of repurposing objects.

They chose the theme of the rose of Sharon, or 무궁화, Korea’s national flower.

For my mural, I chose to create an opportunity for the community to interact by adding a chalkboard element. In the speech balloons, I wrote typical greetings: “Hello!” “How is your health?” and “How are you feeling?” Viewers can pick up the chalk and write their responses in the empty speech balloons. The box on the left holds the chalk, and it’s about 8 feet tall.

Many other artists were involved, including fellow members of the Daejeon Arts Collective.

Sacred geometry by Johan Eduard Francis

Phoenix by Chris Brunjes

By Wendy Morison and Sune Horn

One of the buildings is also being converted into a space where visitors and read and learn more about the history of the area as a way of preserving the neighborhood.

In October, my art collective, DJAC, is doing a show in the Mugunghwa Gallery. It’s a bit small compared to the galleries that we usually show in, but it’s exciting to be a part of this interesting project.

Lovely Poem

Review and Video of Theatrical Performance of “Twelfth Night”

Musical composer and performer Wil Pertz edited the video of the performance of Twelfth Night, which opened for Men Are From Marzipan at the Daejeon Jung-gu Cultural Center on December 23rd.

Also, special thanks to Bryan Stubbles for his review. It takes so many people to make theatre possible, and I thank my performers, composer, director (Kevin), video editor, audience members, and everyone else who has supported the production. I couldn’t do it without you!

“Twelfth Night” opens for “Men Are from Marzipan”

Twelfth Night will open for Men Are from Marzipan tonight at the Jung-gu Cultural Arts Center.

The clip above is from our first performance. Tonight’s performance will feature Rosie Kim in the role of the sister–she was unable to do the first performance because of an injury.

Please check out our Facebook invitation for more information.

Twelfth Night Performance

A piece I wrote was recently performed as part of Daejeon Arts Collective’s Twelfth Night exhibition.

I was really interested in exploring the themes of the original Twelfth Night festival, celebrated 12 days after Christmas. According to Sparknotes, “In Shakespeare’s day, this holiday was celebrated as a festival in which everything was turned upside down—much like the upside-down, chaotic world of Illyria in the play.” Also, according to religionfacts.com, “During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed, masters waited on their servants, men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels.”

To that end, I used erasure poetry. Erasure poetry is a method of writing by cutting/erasing another source and using it as content for a new work. It was a technique used by David Bowie and William Burroughs and Tom Philips. I used as it becomes a way of taking down an authority–in this case, Shakespeare. Kevin Nickolai became my Lord of Misrule, and Nicole Overbeck filled in for Rosie Kim as his female counterpart and sister. The composition and electric bass performance are by musical genius Wil Pertz, and Raphael Marsonet rocks the joint on his saxophones. Also, many thanks to Dr. Pertz for editing the work together for the video.

My piece was mentioned in this blurb in the Korean Herald.

We hope to do the piece again on the 23rd of December with the exuberant Rosie Kim, who got a concussion and couldn’t perform at the opening. We will be opening for Kevin Nickolai’s full-length play, Men Are from Marzipan.

Last day tomorrow!

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At Daejeon Creative Center at Exit D-3 of Jugangno Station.

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