It feels like it’s been an incredibly busy year, and as I come to write this review I realise that, much more so than in previous years, many of the things that have been memorable I haven’t had time to write about – and maybe won’t. I’ve written separately about the films it was possible to see in London this year, and about the books which absorbed us. Here we focus on the exhibitions, concerts and other events in London and elsewhere in the UK.
First, some introductory comments before we get to the list of the best concerts, exhibitions and other performance events of the year. And then we round up with a few miscellaneous events.
Performing arts: decisions, decisions
More than anything else, this has been the year of performance – from live music to dance and performance art, it has been a phenomenal year and it has been difficult to separate the performances at the top of the pile to come up with the outright winners.
Dance, movement, art: where to draw the line?
If it has been difficult to rank the best of the best this year, it’s been even more difficult to distinguish between different categories of the performing arts. With music, maybe it’s easy – that’s a category of its own. But as soon as there is dance or bodily movement involved, the boundaries this year were blurred. Maybe it’s always been the case, but this year the question was particularly difficult to answer: where does visual art stop and dance start? (Not particularly relevant here, but a related question is where to draw the dividing line between video art and short or experimental film.)
Artists creating work before our eyes, with the movements and physical constraints of their bodies being part of the point – whether it be the single fluid brush-strokes of a traditional ink-painter (such as Oh Man-chul at Han Collection) or the frenetic, angular, repetitive strokes of Lee Kun-yong recreating his Snail’s Gallop or Method of Drawing at the KCC – start the blurring of the line between visual art and performance art.
Artists creating theatrical-style works, with movement, music and even spoken word – such as Park Bongsu’s Internal Library project or Hong Young-in’s choreographed Gwangju-related piece 5100: Pentagon – push the boundary much further.
Starting from the other end of the spectrum, pieces which are performed or created by professional dancers or choreographers, such as Ahn Eun-mi’s Let Me Change Your Name or Yoo Sun-hoo’s After 4 – Over the moon don’t seem that far distant from works performed by artists with a strong performance practice such as Jeong Geumhyung. Jeong’s 7Ways is performed in complete silence (other than the occasional noise generated by her theatrical props), but that’s not too far from the minimalist sound design that accompanies a choreographer such as Lee Kyung-eun in her conceptual dance piece Mind Goblin. And where do you position a work such as Hong Young-in’s The Moon’s Trick – in which a performance of movement and music is conjured from a score created from pieces of embroidery which are impressionistic abstractions from photographs of key moments in recent Korean social history?
So in the performing arts space it has been a particularly rewarding and thought-provoking, if slightly bewildering, year. I’m almost glad, if only for the sake of my sanity, that I missed performances of the K-Arts Dance Company at Trinity Laban; Yongsan Project at Jacksons Lane; or Creative Group SUM BI or Modern Table, both at the Greenwich & Docklands Festival though maybe any one of these could have been strong contenders to top the list of performances in the dance category.
Music – loads of both quality and quantity
Within the purely musical sphere it has again been extremely busy and probably the highest quality year I can remember. The KCC has run a full programme of House Concerts featuring young Korean musicians at the start of their western classical music career, and has also organised a series of five concerts at King’s Place featuring top-rank traiditional Korean musicians alongside performances of Western classical music. And the K-music festival this year had an extremely strong line-up.
The performances I missed all sounded, from second-hand reports, like they could be strong contenders for my musical shortlist: AUX at Rich Mix (K-music); Kingston Rudieska at Borderline (K-music); or the Asian Sounds Project in the Thames Tunnel to name a few. I also managed to miss virtually all the rock / indie bands who now come to the UK for the various festivals in May (Brighton, Liverpool and elsewhere), and virtually all the more commercial pop / hip-hop performances (G-Dragon, KARD, Highlight (once known as Beast), ZICO, DEAN and probably many I didn’t get to hear about.
One night will serve as an example of the impossible clutteredness of the K-Culture calendar this year: on 23 May we had to choose between a literary event featuring Min Jin Lee at Asia House and three competing music events: Barberettes and Sultan of Disco at Borderline; Swiimers at Surya and The Monotones + Billy Carter at Nambucca. Impossible.
Best of the year
There are several exhibitions I missed this year, mainly because of inconvenient locations or timing. The one I’m most sorry to have missed is Suh Do-ho’s one-night-only installation at Christ Church Spitalfields. (I’d also like to have got to Yiyun Kang’s installation at the DDP in Seoul).
The longlist for exhibition of the year includes
- The Korean Artists Association’s i, kid at the KCC
- Contemporary ceramics at the V+A, KCC and Sladmore Contemporary;
- Kang Soon-yul’s Between Heart & Mind at Han Collection;
- Kwon Soon-hak’s everynothing, at Union Gallery;
- North Korean Paintings — Beyond Borders, Beauty, at Coningsby Gallery;
- Park Seo-bo: ZIGZAG: Ecriture 1983-1992, at White Cube;
- Hong Young-in: The Moon’s Trick, at the KCC.
But the exhibitions that will remain most with me are as follows:
3= Rehearsals from the Korean Avant-Garde Performance Archive (KCC) and Kim Yong-ik: I believe my works are still valid (Spike Island, Bristol)
Both exhibitions foregrounded artists who were not part of the art-historical mainstream but who nevertheless are an important part of recent art history.
2 Suh Do-ho: Passages (Victoria Miro)
For pure wow factor, the long passageway constructed out of colourful polyester gauze took some beating.
A lovely collection of colonial-era prints by Japanese and western print-makers including the well-known Elizabeth Keith. For me, the works by Lilian May Miller – the daughter of an American consular official in Japan – were the highlight.
The K-Music festival this year presented an extremely strong line-up, with the special theme being collaboration between Korean and British musicians. An early highlight was Northumbrian small-piper Kathryn Tickell with fusion band Black String – though it was a shame they really only had one brief set together. Jeon Jeduk with Park Juwon gave us a flawless gig from start to finish at Pizza Express Soho, and Park Jiha gave us a meditative finale at King’s Place.
Honourable mention in the music category goes to Joo Yeon Sir. I think I only managed to get to one of her concerts this year, but I’ve been enjoying listening to her debut CD:
And so to the list of concerts that absorbed us most during the year:
4. Love X Stereo at the Windmill, Brixton: intimate and euphoric at the same time, showcasing their hugely ambitious recording schedule this year involving 37 new tracks and music videos.
3. Nah Youn Sun at Ronnie Scotts: the quality of Youn’s diction, her musicality and consequently her consummate communication and story-telling ability puts many native English-speaking vocalists to shame. This was a very special gig, showcasing her new line-up and new album, She Moves On.
2. Kim Hyelim with Alice Zawadzki at the Vortex: creative, imaginative and collaborative music-making at its best.
1. The amazing Lee Heemoon with Prelude in the Elgar Room. Minyo and laid back jazz mixed with camp humour and extreme glam. Probably the best entertainment I had all year.
Performance art / Dance
This was the most difficult category to judge this year, but after the lengthy introduction above I’ll go straight to my events of the year:
4. Bongsu Park’s Internal Library project. Harnessing the general public as input into your work is a risky business, and this project came together in a moving and even inspirational way.
3. Ahn Eun Me: Let Me Change Your Name, at The Place. Colourful, propulsive, flirtatious. Do not ever miss the chance to see her work.
1=. From the exuberant to the macabre: Jeong Geunhyung’s 7ways was a riveting 70 minutes of precision-controlled movement, puppetry, sexual exploration. How can anyone, in manipulating an inanimate object, make it appear that in fact it is she that is being manipulated (and ravaged)? A remarkable performance.
1=. After 4 – Over the Moon: Choreographer / dancer Yoo Sun-hoo with fusion band E-DO at the Edinburgh Fringe. Unforgettable and incredibly moving.
We’ve had author appearances (Min Jin Lee, Suki Kim, Han Kang, Han Yujoo, Hwang Sok-yong); walks in Richmond Park with North Korean exiles; a commemoration in Hyde Park for SHINee’s Jonghyun; numerous dance workshops and late-night parties; Chuseok celebrations in Kingston and a cultural festival in Olympia; regular events commemorating the Sewol victims and victims of sexual slavery; literature discussions at the KCC; free seminars at SOAS; jewellers and lacquer craftsmen at the V&A and more besides. Here are the miscellaneous events that stick in the memory:
4 Translation pitch: an evening during which six young translators (including Sophie Bowman and Jason Woodruff) presented the texts for which they would like to have funding to translate. Texts from Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan were showcased, and the audience left wanting full translations of all the works.
3. Mike Breen interviewed by Chris Hollands for the British Korean Society at the UK launch of The New Koreans.
2. An evening with North Korean exiles in New Malden highlighting the need to help them, among other things, with their English language skills.
1. Presence Through Sound: Place and contemporary music in and from East Asia – a free two-day conference at SOAS covering a huge range of fascinating topics. Well worth taking two days holiday for.
Thanks as always to all the event organisers and sponsors.