Touching Worlds: 

Performing the Cross-Cultural in and through Nameless forest

by Elizabeth W. Son



Nameless forest, created by Dean Moss and Sungmyung Chun, Iseman Theater,  New Haven, 2011. Photo: David Barreda



I.

Conceived and directed by American choreographer Dean Moss, Nameless forest is a multidisciplinary, cross-cultural 2011 collaboration with Korean sculptor Sungmyung Chun. Structured in three parts, following the cyclical unfolding of a single day from noon through dusk to night, Nameless forest evokes Chun’s sculptural figures and dystopian landscapes through movement, costume, and set design. Along with these visual resonances with Chun’s work, Nameless forest incorporates neon elements by Gandalf Gavan, an original score by Stephen Vitiello, and audio diary recordings and documentary images by photojournalist Michael Kamber into its orbit. Nameless forest “continues Moss’s formal investigations of both the dialogue between self and other, and the role of the audience in the performance experience.”1 Seated onstage, a select number of audience members join the performers in the push-and-pull of looking and being looked at, receiving and giving, knowing and unknowing in the communal creation of art. Their bodies trace parts of the onstage space, forming a kind of somatic circle that makes reference to traditional Korean circular performance space.


Touching, in all its tactile and affective manifestations, abounds. The five other performers eagerly surround dancer Aaron Hodges like animals ready to lick his flesh. Yet there is also something tender and gentle about the way their hands caress his body and guide his falling body into their arms. Someone’s hand keeps Hodges’s head stable, and another performer covers Hodges’s forehead with his hand—a movement reminiscent of a sculptor smoothing the damp surface of clay. Throughout the piece, there are echoes of familiar gestures: an embrace and kiss on the head, two women holding onto each other’s waists while playfully twirling around in circles, and also unfamiliar ones: wild pumping of the knees toward dancers’ chests, and gridlike formations of fallen bodies. The silent psychological unrest and existential angst of Chun’s sculptural figures materialize in the sideways glance of a performer eyeing his surroundings suspiciously, or other performers tensely grasping colleagues’ arms while covering their mouths. These kinesthetic stirrings open up into a meditative probing of the psycho- logical, metaphysical, emotional, and physical contours of existence, and subject and community formation.


Moss has explained that the “inspiration for Nameless forest lies in Sungmyung Chun’s sculptural settings that capture the immediacy of physical and psychological violence.”2 While in Korea working on Kisaeng becomes you, his 2008 collaboration with choreographer Yoon Jin Kim, Moss came across Chun’s work and viewed his installations for the first time at the Gallery sun Contemporary in Seoul. Moss left his con- tact information at the gallery for Chun, and Chun agreed to meet him. Two years of communication and collaboration between the two artists followed.3 Moss recalls: “Upon seeing Chun’s 2007 and 2008 solo exhibitions in Seoul—both titled Swallowing the Shadow—I felt a resonance with his strategies from my own work: multimedia movement environments exploring subjectivity and the nature of perception. I sensed a visceral connection to Chun’s imagery, not only through the layered emotional presentation of male ennui and aggression, but also through his aesthetic play of form and content.”


For Nameless forest, Moss selected and led a creative team of six performers, a costume designer, and the artists mentioned earlier. The creative process behind Name- less forest involved artistic residencies and rehearsals with audiences, in which Moss led post performance discussions and incorporated audience feedback into the continual evolution of the work. Chun directly participated in the creation of the set design with Moss and commented on some of the choreography. He attended select rehearsals in the United States and sent set design maquettes and other feedback from Korea.


II.

Chun’s sculptural exhibitions, both titled Swallowing the Shadow (2007, 2008), shaped the space eventually inhabited by Nameless forest. In the first exhibition, the white walls of the gallery were lined with photographs in beige frames playing off the dark wood grain of the pine floors. One recognizes the subdued gray vertical lines in the washed- out white photographs as trees in what is labeled a “nameless forest.” Closer inspection of one of the photographs reveals a bound man wearing a striped shirt lying in the middle of the forest. The following photograph shows a faint trail of blood behind the wounded figure, who lies face down in a new position in the woods. Where the two gallery walls meet, the same figure stands with a grown man’s face and the diminutive frame of a young boy. The sculptural figure is bald and wearing a shirt with dark colored stripes. With his head tilted to the right and mouth slightly agape, he furrows his brow and stares blankly off into space. Yards of black thread are bound around his calves and ankles; he firmly grasps some of the thread, from which a single line snakes out in front of him. Passing by the figure, one has to carefully step over this single black touching worlds thread. “If the ‘binding’ expresses an intolerable existential burden,” suggests Korean art critic Taeman Choi, “the ‘wounds’ may suggest marks from the painful struggle of justifying his existence.”5


Choi notes that self-examination and hurt incurred by social violence are recur- ring themes in Chun’s installations.6 Swallowing the Shadow merges sculptures, photography, and lighting. It is divided into two exhibitions: Noon and Night. The first part begins at noon, when a man awakens in a nameless forest; the second part takes place at night and continues until the morning, when the man encounters a girl with a lamp. Chun’s narrative-based theatrical installations are unsettling forays into the psychological and physical violence of existence.


Moving through the different rooms in the gallery, one repeatedly encounters this archetypal figure with a man’s face and a child’s stature, reminiscent of the character Oskar in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959).7 A man stands in front of the massive white plaster legs of a giant emerging from the ceiling. He threatens what appears to be his Siamese twin, or his shadow, with a knife. In striped shirts, conjoined twins with separate torsos emerge from the same trunk. One twin has the other by the neck, threatening to cut his throat, while the trapped twin holds onto his twin’s left arm and stares upward. The startled look and open mouth of the twin with the knife, though, make it unclear who the real aggressor is. Perhaps he holds himself hostage.8 In another room, these figures, now in separate bodies, are naked and covered in bruises, bloody wounds, and scars, manifestations of physical and psychological injury accumulated over a long period of time.9 The context of these injuries remains unspecified. Chun’s sculptural world is the haunted ground of this diminutive figure, his face modeled after the sculptor’s own — as well as other figures: a young girl in a flower print dress holding wind chimes, a guide or witness to the unfolding drama; and a seated young boy with a fish’s body for a head who desires to become what he cannot be.


Chun explained to me that he began working on Swallowing the Shadow at an incredibly difficult time in his life. He started to ask himself such questions as, “Why do you live?”10 This is when he began sculpting a face resembling the one he saw in a handheld mirror. “I made my own face with clay,” he told me. “I began to notice little changes in my face each day, so I kept modifying the face.”11 The process of sculpting his face in clay allowed Chun to “explore and find myself” and to see society around him differently.12 As Chun explained to a Korean Daily News writer, the work is the story of wounds and loss: “People hurt each other when they interact. Once this wound is inflicted, it remains with the person. I thought that in order to bring about healing, one should not hide the injury but bring it out into the open.”13


Chun’s sculptural settings provide a space for reflection on these issues. As Chun explained to me, he conceptualizes the gallery as multiple spaces, like pages of a story, so the audience can walk between the spaces and form a narrative: “My role is to just set up the larger framework and to let people build their own story and understand [the son work from] different points of view.”14 He continues, “What I ultimately want through the exhibition is not to give people certain answers . . . but to throw out questions in the space where people can think about it on their own.”15 The multidimensionality of sculptural installations allows the viewer to approach the work from different angles. Chun’s installations, in particular, with the strategic use of lighting, positioning of the sculptures, and even the height of the sculptures, which are forty inches tall, invite viewers to step out of their normal everyday behavior and mode of thinking as they enter into this sculptural world. It is a kind of somatic disruption, in which physically bending down to look more closely at the wounds on the face of a sculpture triggers an emotional response or metaphysical reflection on bearing pain.


Choi describes Chun’s installations as “theatrical in that they adopt a narrative structure and employ the gallery space as a theatrical stage.”16 In the first exhibition Moss viewed, the narrative of the lost man in the “nameless forest” unfolds on multiple floors of the gallery. In looking over reviews of Chun’s work, I was struck by how often reviewers invoked the language of theater. One reviewer describes the installations as a “strange monodrama” with “live performance-like scenes”; she continues, “This exhibition gives off the impression of a meticulously crafted and directed play.”17 Chun’s “narrative-driven sculptures,” Moss pointed out to me during our conversation, lends itself to a theatrical environment.18


III.

In looking at Yale Repertory Theatre’s website for Nameless forest, I could not help but notice the prominence of the words Korea/usa in yellow print. On one level, this signals the international scope of the collaboration between an American video artist and choreographer and a Korean sculptor. However, it also plays into often-static ideas of what constitutes the cross-cultural, in which culture is defined in national terms. Nameless forest defies cultural expectations of Korean-ness, which in many cross-cultural theatrical works have involved invocations of performance practices readily identifiable as Korean such as shamanic ritual traditions.


Nameless forest, on the other hand, embodies the cross-cultural in expansive terms: a confluence of different media (sculpture, dance movement, sound, photography, and lighting) and the various artistic backgrounds and practices of the performers and collaborators. The “cross-cultural,” as Jacqueline Lo and Helen Gilbert point out, invokes the multiple and contradictory meanings of cross—to traverse, to mix, and to contradict—to describe the often messy negotiations of cross-cultural theatrical practices.  Another important layer of cross-cultural collaborations, one which theater and performance studies scholars don’t discuss enough, is this mix and crossing between different cultural backgrounds and social experiences inside and outside the theater. Keeping in mind Lo and Gilbert’s reminder that cross-cultural collaborations are not seamless mergings, what is involved in this delicate push-and-pull in the negotiation of different cultural traditions and practices?


Two aspects of Nameless forest address this question: the transposition of sculptures into choreographed movement and the experimentation with audience participation. To explore the translation of sculpture into movement in Nameless forest, let us recall the conjoined twin sculptures in Chun’s work: Is the first twin muffling the voice of the other, suffocating him or preventing the other from further harming himself by speaking? Like a leitmotif in a musical composition, these gestures replay in Nameless forest but with variations. A male performer wraps his left arm around a female per- former, covering her mouth with his hand; he also covers his own mouth with the other hand. She bends her knees, leaning slightly into his embrace, and covers his hand with her right hand while holding onto his wrist with the other. How was this sculptural pose transformed into movement?


The “first two weeks of rehearsal,” writes Moss on the MAPP International blog, “were spent exploring movement possibilities and struggling with aesthetic questions of transposing Sungmyung Chun’s sculptures into performance forms.”20 Some of the creative process has been documented in a blog on the website of MAPP International Productions, the coproducer of Nameless forest. It includes entries by Moss and the per- formers and audience feedback from rehearsals. In a photograph on the blog, we see Chun participating in recreating the sculptural pose mentioned earlier. I asked Chun about this particular rehearsal and pose. “Dean uses this situation where the mouth of the sculpture is covered to block its ability to express itself, and he instructs the dancers to pose the same way,” Chun said. “That, in some ways, appears to cause a wound or covers the wound so that no expression can be made, rendering a symbolic pose.”21   Chun goes on to explain that they asked the performers to gaze in certain directions, similar to the sculptures. During the rehearsal, Chun even demonstrated how one per- former could hold the other’s face in his hand.


Regarding Chun’s participation in rehearsals at that time, Moss writes: “Chun’s participation seemed cautious and sensible. It reminded me that though the imagery of his sculpture is harsh, it is constantly surrounded by stillness; that tension in his work is based on a quiet unwavering gaze; that a quality of distance, even as the work itself is so immediate, will need to emanate from the performance.”22 There are multiple layers to the translation of this sculptural pose into movement: the physical rendering of the imagery of the sculptures, but also the embodiment of what Moss calls a “quality of distance” about Chun’s sculptures. What’s really exciting about this kind of live “translation” or “transmutation” is that the so-called finished product in performance is always shifting; it is never a direct translation, but a new creation, a living organism with muscle memory of sculptural movements.


In the iteration of Nameless forest at Yale, four male performers invite four male audience members to join them center stage. The performers pass their arms under the audience members’ arms from behind and press down their upper backs while twisting their arms back into half-nelson positions. Imitating Chun’s sculptures, they guide the audience members’ free hands over their mouths, cupping their own mouths as well.


Theatrical space and audience participation are other fascinating areas in which to see the materialization of the cross-cultural. Nameless forest continues Moss’s examination of the “role and experience of the audience”; in particular, he investigates the “community’s role (and risk) in the individual nature of art making.”23 A select number of spectators sit on two sides of the stage across from one other. By actively participating in the performance, they bring to life a circular performance space—which echoes both Chun’s sculptural settings and traditional Korean performance practices.


During the initial creative work in 2010, Moss began thinking about the role of the audience onstage. He always thought of “doing it in the round,” but the idea of the circular performance space was also influenced by Chun’s sculptures. Moss explained to me that one is able to walk around Chun’s sculptures; he wanted to recreate that sense of three-dimensional space visually and experientially in Nameless forest. Moss writes on the blog: “Sungmyung Chun had thought of the idea in relation to Korean traditional circular theatrical space and I thought it was interesting because my last two works had also dealt with the audience and though I wasn’t sure about the how of that integration in this work, I was sure it was something I wanted to explore, something that I was already exploring.”24


Korean traditional circular theatrical space originated with masked dance dramas performed in villages in open fields or at the foot of a hill. Moss was familiar with the Korean concept of a round performance space, having watched Korean performances during his work on Kisaeng becomes you in Seoul. In conversations with Moss, Chun specifically referred to madang-nori (translated as “open yard play”) or madang- guk (translated as “open yard theater”), a form of community-based socially and politi- cally engaged theater held in an open, round space that emerged in the 1970s.25 In madang-guk, the openness of space and time is important, so the performance extends into audience space and out into the world beyond.26 The audience and performers are in constant conversation with each other in a call-and-response structure. The center of attention shifts with the movements of the performers, creating an open space that allows for multiple perspectives depending on where you are sitting and who is looking at or addressing you.27 Nameless forest holds striking resonances with madang-guk, as well as significant differences.


Inspired by Chun’s sculptural environment, Korean performance traditions, and even Moss’s memories of temple dances in Indonesia, Moss and his performers take audience participation to another level. The onstage audience members are an active and integral part of the community. Moss notes that the “replication” of the “visual com- position alone as the performance narrative would, to me, result in something limited, and it would not take advantage of the true translation from one medium to another.”28  He goes on to explain that this is “solved by thinking about the larger environment,” of the “circular space” with the “performers and the onstage audience together as a single community.”29  He writes: “From this question came the idea that the performers are ‘hosting’ the onstage audience and the interactions on stage create a spectacle for the offstage viewer that frames not only a translation of Chun’s work but also the community for which and from which it emerges.”30


During one rehearsal, I had the opportunity to participate as an audience mem- ber and found the experience more intimate than I had expected. Kacie Chang, one of the performers, led me to my seat. She sat next to me and leaned her thigh and elbow into my body. The warmth of her touch initiated me into the community of performers onstage, allowing me to build a sense of trust that I relied on when I was invited to join the performers center stage. I was led to a pile of collapsed bodies and gently placed over the tangle of limbs. I felt bodies roll away from me until I was left alone. Then I heard the heavy breathing of bodies crawling on the floor toward me. Multiple body parts pushed against my shoulder and back like a gentle wave. I felt vulnerable and nervous, yet the tactility of the bodies and the memory of Kacie’s warmth allowed me to relax and become willingly complicit in their actions and community making.

In these moments of physical contact, touching creates material, intimate proximity—an extension of the collaboration between Nameless forest’s creators. Performance studies scholar Dwight Conquergood writes of discovering a way of knowing, an embodied knowledge that is “grounded in active, intimate, hands-on participation and personal connection.”31 He turns to Frederick Douglass, particularly Douglass’s description of singing by slaves, in sketching a strategy for approaching and studying embodied knowledge. Douglass, he writes, “recommended a riskier hermeneutics of touching worlds experience, relocation, copresence, humility, and vulnerability: listening to and being touched by the protest performances of enslaved people.”32 “Proximity, not objectivity,” writes Conquergood, “becomes an epistemological point of departure and return.”33 The labor of cross-cultural collaboration also calls for proximity and a level of “copresence, humility, and vulnerability.”


In a post rehearsal conversation between Chun and Moss, which I was translating, I had a glimpse into the challenges of cross-cultural collaborations. The two artists were working with cultural and media differences and a language barrier. Without wanting to idealize cross-cultural collaborations, I was struck by the gentle respect they showed each other in providing critique and explanations, and the humility and vulnerability they brought to the work. These are important ways in which we as audience members are also implicated in the cross-cultural production and called to enter into the space ready to listen and be touched.



Notes

1. Dean Moss, “Projects: Nameless forest (2011),” Gametophyte, Inc., www.gametophyte .org (accessed October 21, 2011). 2. Nameless forest press kit, “Sungmyung Chun,” mapp International Productions, http:// mappinternational.org/artists/view/49 (accessed October 21, 2011).

3. Nameless forest press kit, “Introduction,” mapp International Productions, http://mappinternational.org/artists/view/49 (accessed October 21, 2011). 4. Nameless forest press kit, “Sungmyung Chun,” mapp International Productions, http:// mappinternational.org/artists/view/49 (accessed October 21, 2011). 5. Taeman Choi, “Review: My Shadow and the Me I Have Swallowed,” in Chun, Sungmyung: Swallowing the Shadow (Paju: Touchart, 2008), 10. 6. Ibid., 12. 7. Ibid. 8. “Cast of Characters,” in Chun, Sungmyung: Swallowing the Shadow. 9. Choi makes similar points. See Choi, “Review,” 14; and “Cast of Characters,” in Chun, Sungmyung: Swallowing the Shadow. 10. Chun, Sungmyung, interview with the author, New York, NY, August 27, 2010, 4. 11. Ibid., 5. 12. Ibid., 7. 13. Meehwan Oh, “Chun Sungmyung ‘Guhlimjalul Samkida’ Chogak” [“Sungmyung Chun’s Swallowing the Shadow Sculptures”], Hankook Ilbo [Korean Daily News], February 25, 2007. 14. Chun, Sungmyung, interview with the author, 3. 15. Ibid. 16. Choi, “Review,” 12. 17. Oh, “Chun Sungmyung ‘Guhlimjalul Samkida’ Chogak.” 18. Dean Moss, conversation with the author, New York, NY, August 27, 2010. 19. Jacqueline Lo and Helen Gilbert use cross-cultural theater as a general term to encompass multicultural, postcolonial, and intercultural theatrical practices. See Lo and Gilbert, “Toward a Topography of Cross-Cultural Theatre Praxis,” Drama Review 46, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 31 – 32. 20. Moss, “Nameless forest: Aesthetic Questions,” mapp International Productions blog, November 17, 2009, http://blog.mappinternational.org/?m=200911&paged=2. 21. Chun, Sungmyung, interview with the author, 12. 22. Moss, “Nameless forest: S[u]ngmyung Chun,” mapp International Productions blog, November 23, 2009, http://blog.mappinternational.org/?tag=nameless-forest&paged=3 (accessed March 25, 2011).  23. Moss writes, “Another central element of my practice is to examine the role and experience of the audience. In figures on a field, this was manifested through a docent lead [sic] group tour of the work during the performance, which allowed it to shift subtly between its personal, political and aesthetic meanings; in Kisaeng becomes you, audience members were invited to embody and speak the poems of the Kisaeng—artist/ courtesans of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty — making visceral the experience of the ‘other,’ and in the current work, Nameless forest, the community’s role (and risk) in the individual nature of art making will be investigated.” See Moss, “Dean Moss,” Gametophyte, Inc., www.gametophyte.org (accessed October 21, 2011).  24. Moss, “From Dean Moss: Inviting Guests, and Questions,” mapp International Productions blog, February 22, 2010, http://blog.mappinternational.org/?tag=nameless -forest&paged=2 (accessed March 26, 2011). 25. Young Mee Lee, “Korean Traditional Theatre and Madangguk Theatre,” Korea Journal (Autumn 1997): 40–62; and Kwang-Ok Kim, “The Role of Madangguk in Contemporary Korea’s Popular Culture Movement,” Korea Journal (Autumn 1997): 5 – 21. 26. Lee, “Korean Traditional Theatre and Madangguk Theatre,” 50. 27. Ibid. 28. Moss, “From Dean Moss.” 29. Ibid. 30. Ibid. 31. Dwight Conquergood, “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research,” Drama Review 46, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 146. 32. Ibid., 149. 33. Ibid.