Conversations With Yi Sang

Yi Sang, born Kim Hae-Gyong in Seoul in 1910, is today recognized as one of the most important and influential modern Korean writers. His literary career was short as was his life too, but within that narrow span of time, he took in hands a rather subversive and experimental approach to writing that created a place of exception inside the Korean letters of those days.

Having been brought up under Japanese colonial rule, he lived a time that saw the forced adoption of Japanese habits, changing of Korean to Japanese names, the prohibition of Korean newspapers and magazines as part of a strategy to limit and control the use of language, as well as severe limitations in basic civil rights. However, and ironically enough, it was the same colonial rule who first introduced the European literary movements of the time
such as Dadaism, Futurism and Surrealism to Korea, thus creating the conditions for Yi Sang’s access to publications that would play a key role in his literary formation, and which led him to the development of a work that can be understood as a form of resistance to that same political context.
In tune with the spirit of these movements he forged a literature that twisted conventions and norms, through an imaginative exploration of the possibilities of Korean language, in a way that had so much of witty provocation as of challenging and at times humorous experimentation, enriching it with a range of influences from diverse areas, such as his background as a trained architect.  

Living in financial precariousness for most of his life, Yi Sang owned at least one dabang in Seoul
named zebi dabang during his lifetime and was associated with the interior decoration of yet another.
Dabangs were becoming increasingly popular at the time, following the rise of a hedonistic modern way of living, which went hand in hand with the rise of modern capitalism in Asia. Dabangs, in their most popular version, were places where one could have coffee or tea
and at times also some alcoholic drinks such as whiskey, though this was not so openly assumed and linger around among an heterogeneous crowd of frequenters, occasionally becoming, like everywhere else in the world, privileged meeting places for artists such as writers and painters, who would find there a place of exception, in an ambient prone for loose dialogue and exchange of ideas around a beverage or two.

The particular atmosphere and attributes that gave character to these spaces
in a way, similar to European caf├ęs which can be said to have been at the root of European artistic and literary avant-gardes appealed to us as providing the ideal conditions and suitability for the undertaking of a project with the characteristics we had devised.
In this sense, and taking at its base the activation of the space of a former residence of Yi Sang, the project’s initial step consisted in its transformation into a functional dabang, in an attempt at enacting an informal and open space that, instead of fostering a ‘conventional’ exhibition model, was more prone to constitute itself as a dynamic space for dialogue and exchange that would privilege more ephemeral forms of interventions, demanding a more active and directly lived experience from its frequenters and audience.

In an attempt at avoiding the easy traps of an uncritical encomium, the project opted for the laying and presentation of some leads and hints that could be conducing to a wider critical debate on a diversity of aspects revolving around Yi Sang, through the programming of a series of events.
The program and all of its developments were meant to be approached with the same spirit that guided Yi Sang: a questioning of aesthetic conventions, a questioning of social and political context
his and nowadays and an attitude of experimentation and provocation that went in line with Yi Sang’s thoughts and attitudes towards both art and life, in an attempted balance between historical contextualisation and finding possible expressions of the above mentioned topics in the present.

Lines in time and space were thus laid in a way that generated multiple intersections, from geographical lines that spread through America, Europe, and Northeast Asia, to lines that traversed a political period ranging from Japanese colonialism to nowadays.
The intent was thus to find, along these temporal and geographic lines, possible manifestations that could lead to a critical debate on a diversity of subjects such as: modernity and the modernisation process in Korea; relations between language and power; monumentality and memory; spaces of social and political enclosure; or the refuge in the self as a critique of a given surrounding reality and as a form of resistance to it, among others...

The program was structured around anchors that gave support to its narrative lines, introducing the topics that the project intended to deal with, and that functioned in a cumulative way by adding, through time, complexity and new readings to the subjects previously introduced.
The program was regarded as a continuous work in progress, since it was intended from the start to be understood as a dynamic and dialectical open process. This way, ideas that were generated during the functioning time of the project, and as a result of it, could still find a space and time to be incorporated into the main program, thus opening and putting into practice possibilities of new developments, as well as of dialogue with the audience and other participants that could enable an enriching of its own scope through a wider plurality of contributions.