I recently returned from a brief visit to Gwangju, South Korea, for the Asian Arts Theatre’s Opening Festival, which runs from September 4th to September 21st. The AAT is part of the ambitious Asia Culture Center, a quite enormous institution of five main facilities, including exhibition spaces, an exchange centre, an archive and research institute, a children’s centre, and more.
The short opening festival brought together theatre artists, companies, filmmakers, musicians and others from all over the world, though with an understandable emphasis on Asia (especially Korea, Japan, India, Malaysia, Taiwan and China).
The Japanese entries include Toshiki Okada and God Bless Baseball, a Japanese-Korean co-production exploring how the eponymous American sport was commonly imported in both nations. It will also be presented at Festival/Tokyo 2015 this autumn.
Other Japanese participants in the festival are Masao Adachi, Zan Yamashita and Kyōhei Sakaguchi, as well as the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center’s production of Maurice Maeterlink and Claude Régy’s Intérieur.
Takao Kawaguchi performed a newly commissioned work, an at times eccentric and camp recreation of famous Kazuo Ohno pieces. There is also a Tatsumi Hijikata project scheduled for May next year as part of the “Our Masters” programme in the theatre’s 2015-15 season. Coming just after the recent Psi conference in August in Aomori, north Japan, which had a focus on Tōhoku culture and its relationship with Tatsumi Hijikata and Butoh, there has been a mini Butoh bonanza of late.
The main theatre in the complex is very impressive, with the capacity for over 1,000 seats, plus two gargantuan moving walls that can be opened to expose the performance space to the outside plaza. Performances took advantage of this, at times seating the audience outside, looking in on the hall.
There is another 512-seat proscenium arch theatre, as well as studios and other flexible spaces that can double as performance venues. The opening festival also utilises several satellite venues around Gwangju.
I was ostensibly at the festival to take part in an event presenting Scene/Asia, a forthcoming discourse platform for socially engaged Asian contemporary arts.
There are a number of issues with the launch of this theatre and festival, not least the name: what is the “Asian” they mean, and what gives them the right to claim it? Moreover, this opening festival (actually happening ahead of the opening of the rest of the complex, since building work is still incomplete) unashamedly includes European, South African and South American entries, and European theatre professionals like Max-Philip Aschenbrenner and Frie Leysen have been heavily involved behind the scenes (the artistic director of AAT, though, is Korean — Seonghee Kim, the former director of Festival Bo:m).
AAT is aware of all this and assumes it as part of its agenda:
What is Asian art?
What is contemporary art?
What does it mean to embrace these questions?
Why do we need this questions?
The Asian Arts Theatre seeks to perform these questions. It will do so by inviting artists with unique visions and reshape the most urgent aesthetic and social concerns of our time. The Asian Arts Theatre puts the artists right at the core of its engine, by providing them full professional support-financial, residential and artistic-with which they can work through their own visions free from any political pressure or aesthetic bias. The most important role that the Asian Arts Theatre assumes is to create time and space for the artists to enrich themselves.
There is the question of accessibility — from a geographical but also communications point of view. While a new KTX express line connects central Seoul with Gwangju in under two hours, it is still feels rather far from “civilisation”, and the city itself is also spread out and hard to gauge from just visiting the theatre. The festival’s website is almost unfathomable, which is not as minor a gripe as it sounds, since it will be the first port of call for any visitor. In general, the opening festival was a little disorganised and chaotic at times, though surely things will fall into place better after the entire complex opens. (There is also still some confusion with naming, with different materials and webpages using different — “Asian Culture Complex” versus “Asia Culture Center”, “Asian Arts Theatre” versus “Asia Culture Center Theater” and so on. As a professional editor, these things bug me.)
The choice of Gwangju to be this “Asian cultural hub” may seem like an arbitrary, even unjustified one. After all, it is a regional city some two hours even by express train south from Seoul and is perhaps known overseas only for the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, where large numbers of student demonstrators were murdered by the army (the Asia Culture Center includes the May 18 Democracy Square and May 18 Memorial Hall, and uses the site of the old Jeollanam-do provincial government building). But at least one visiting producer remarked to me that the selection of Gwangju is not as random as it seems, since its long-running biennale has already helped established the city as an arts centre and build an audience both internationally and domestically.
The official website for the ACC makes quite a song and dance about “values” and “goals”, and how they are integrated with the “Gwangju spirit of democracy”, emblazoned in a series of PR-speak diagrams. The whole enterprise has been long in the offing. Initial construction work actually began back in 2008, though the promise to make Gwangju a cultural capital was made years earlier by then presidential candidate Moo-Hyun Roh.
The scale of the complex is vast and there is an unmistakeable Bond villain lair-esque atmosphere at times. The big question, though, is what happens to these halls when or if the funding is cut in Korea’s increasingly neoliberal political climate (ACC is a national project, rather than provincial or municipal). There have apparently already been many problems with the administration side of things, leading to staff departures. If the institution truly wants to be the “window for Asian cultures towards the world” (sic), then it needs to have guaranteed longterm support and full artistic freedom. Both are a rare thing in Asia.