Conversations With Yi Sang
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
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 cafés 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.