A show of towering figures, literally. “John Cage + Nam June Paik+ Sin Cha Hong =251”
took place on July 20th, 2012 at Gwangju Art Museum to commemorate Cage’s 100th birthday and Paik’s 80th birthday as part of the museum’s 20th anniversary celebration. Two hundred fifty one indeed, is the sum of the ages of three avant‐garde icons coming together in body and spirit one hot summer afternoon on the southwestern tip of Korea.
The performance of John Cage’s 4”33’ kicked off the show to a full‐house audience at
2p.m. It is noteworthy that the audience was mostly comprised of the older generation. The
conductor held a baton in one hand and a stopwatch on the other. With each wave of his baton, the pianist would close and open the piano lid. Even 60 years after this piece was first
performed in 1952, 4”33’ still presents as a challenge to both the performers and audience. For the former, how best to navigate the silence in the most natural and unassuming way; for the latter, what are they listening to when the score is blank? For what felt like a century to some, four minutes and thirty three seconds finally passed. That the performers bowed in slight amusement, even embarrassment, at the end robbed the performance of a conviction that is very much required for a successful rendition of so revolutionary a work. John Cage proves, then and again, how the simplest task can very well turn out to be the most difficult to master.
The second part of the show is titled “15”—Sound & Silence, Painting & Non‐painting and
Movement & Non‐movement”, a collaboration work between the reallife couple Sin Cha Hong and Werner Sasse. They were both clad in black gowns, Hong left an oversized flower
perching on her ear and wore large suede boots with tiny grey stones painted on the bottom. Sasse had his hat on and black rubber shoes (Korean traditional shoes known as
gomusin) that looked rather dainty on his tall figure. One could not help but be instantly affected by their freedom and playfulness as they waltzed in from the back of the crowd. The stage, however remained empty. A blank canvas spreads out over a plastic sheet on the floor. In between the stage and the canvas, an old basket sat wearily, suspended between long bamboo sticks. A black and golden urn with three unburnt incense sticks, an unlit candle stuck in an empty Soju bottle and three pottery vases—these were the “toys” lined up against the stage. The display fuelled the imagination of the audience: what were they there for? The couple has clearly managed to extend their famous motto of ‘Love is play’ into their performance (play)ground.
When does a performance begin and when does it end? When the performers enter and
leave the stage? Wherein lie the boundaries of the stage? Now the performers occupied a space outside the stage as they each stand behind a music stand facing each other across the canvas. They flipped the first score open and started talking with each other obligingly, full of nods and smiles, hearing what the other was saying but not really listening. The conversation ended as abruptly as it started. Hong walked to the top of the canvas and poured ink from the first vase into the basket. Meanwhile, Sasse headed to the opposite end of the canvas and did a prostration. The significance of his bow would be unveiled much later into the performance. He then joined Hong to lift and dangle the basket over the canvas. Ink began to drip and sprinkle onto the canvas as Hong maneuvered the bamboo sticks like the male lead in a waltz. Sasse completed the dance on his end by responding attentively to her initiated movements. Once the ink was used up, they returned the basket to its original position and resumed their stance behind the music stands.
They repeated the whole procedure twice, each time with a variation in their dialogue,
a change of roles and ways of improvising the ink drip. Once they lingered over the canvas just to watch the ink seep. The concentration of the ink got thicker with each vase as they oozed with decreasing speed but starker contrast on the canvas. When a dancer paints, watch not only her interaction with the canvas but follow the path of the ink! Watch how it travels from the vase to the basket onto the canvas and down to the ground. Following the third ink drip, the canvas was hung upright on stage. The ink flow started to change from its horizontal spread to a vertical plunge with the pull of gravity. Sasse lit the incense and placed the urn in front of the canvas. The stage was no longer empty as it was then transformed into an altar. All that they were doing prior becomes the mere preparation for the final offering. The dance began only when the stage was once again still, save for the faint sound of ink dripping against the rising wisps of smoke.
Performance art is thus an art form that includes and allows the viewers a rare glimpse
of the intimate process of art making. What they are witnessing is a work‐in‐progress, not so
much in the sense that it is yet to be fully conceived, but rather something that is taking shape, completing and vanishing in its performance before their very eyes. Like 4”33’, 15” can be performed by anyone, as it is less a display of talent than an abandon, perhaps even a mockery, of it. What is being said is not said, what is being painted, not painted, what is being moved, not moved. Making art can be as liberating as closing the keyboard lid at the right second, dribbling ink on the right spot. Freedom at play calls for a surrendering and renunciation of the agency behind the performer. What makes such a performance compelling, if not the simplicity that is ironically far from simple to achieve? If one grapples with the difficulty of understanding the piece, try letting go of that something that yearns to understand. Only when there is release—an opening—can beauty enter.
As much as 15” is a premeditatedly non‐intended performance in its improvisation and
dependency on chance, every movement of the performers, however slight, becomes purposeful in its very execution. Not unlike the first performance of 4”33’, utmost conviction is hence desperately needed to not risk the act into a big joke. Any breath of hesitation, any moment of uncertainty renders the performance weak and incomplete. At some points, Hong and Sasse were taking more steps than necessary, pausing a little too long to let their thinking show. Reducing the walking and the handling of props could make a more direct impact on the audience and the performance, more succinct.
The last performance was interactive whereby audience were given stones to play with. The
sound produced by the knocking of stones was what inspired Hong to name her dance troupe “Laughing Stone” thirty years ago. There was all of a sudden a gush of noise
from the crowd, what a relief after twenty minutes of watching in disbelief and perhaps confusion! Just when they thought they could let loose, Sasse put an end to the commotion with an index finger raised to his hushed lips. The audience was again commanded by
silence and that was how the show ended. Of course, the stillness did not last long, what
ensued was a thunderous applause with extended clapping of the stones, which became pieces of memorabilia that the crowd could take home with them.
If “Bye‐bye Kipling”, the second trilogy of space opera that linked Seoul and New York
was Nam June Paik’s 20th century answer to Kipling’s 19th century claim that the East and West would never be able to understand each other, 251 must be Sin Cha Hong’s 21st century extension of Paik’s reply. Having worked with both Paik and Cage on numerous occasions, she is the living proof of a stimulating exchange of ideas that took place in New York City. Her work exudes wisdom that far transcends the confines of borders. Werner Sasse, on the other hand, is a German expert in Korean studies who lives and breathes as a Korean man. Just as the boundaries of the stage are blurred in the performance, wherein lies the demarcation between the East and West? In the inner realm beyond words, is it not reduced to our shared experience as mere human beings? A monumental tribute to the bygone maestros, 251 unfolds with the exhaustion of sound and movement; an ingenious work that gradually expands with the presence of what is left behind in silence. A day to remember that, after all, silence is not so hard to bear.